At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
There is an ancient Jewish proverb that advises, “When faced with two options, choose the third.” There is profound wisdom in this challenge to simplistic, either/or thinking. We are products of a binary culture, where we often limit ourselves to this or that, right or wrong, inclusive or exclusive thinking. Our entire denomination is currently engaged in multiple levels of either/or thinking – traditional or progressive, unity or schism, stay or go debates across the global church. The Jewish proverb invites us to ask, are there other options to consider?
Conservative and traditionalist United Methodists are exploring an option for separating from the established denomination, while liberal-progressive United Methodists are discussing their own faith communion. In many cases, these two groups are tired of talking to, at, and about each other. They seek a solution that will allow them to be in ministry with those who are like-minded, theologically aligned, and who share a similar belief system. But there is still a place for rich theological diversity, sound Biblical interpretation, and a broad perspective on what it means to live a faithful life. This is heart and soul of the movement John and Charles Wesley launched and that we know as United Methodism today. Beyond the traditional option, beyond the progressive option, I believe there is a Wisconsin option.
Wisconsinites are known for individualism, freedom of opinion, and a strong attitude that no one can tell them what to think or do. There is also a stream of cultural belief that aligns well with John Wesley’s General Rules – no do harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God (or at least the Green Bay Packers). I would like to envision a Wisconsin Option grounded in Wesley’s Rules.
Doing no harm is not truly an option or a choice for Christians. Doing harm to any child of God is fraught with danger. What could happen if we were all to covenant to do no harm? What if judgement, condemnation, insult, injury, and attack were taken off the table? I can assure you that our Wisconsin cabinet strives to live by this rule. We try to match good leadership with congregational need. We commit never to act punitively to any pastor based on their theological position or beliefs. We seek in every way to hold leaders accountable to the highest standards of quality leadership, but we see this as a way to improve, not punish. We do not support church trials, but seek just resolution instead. We are committed to living in the “grace margin,” a space defined by forgiveness, inclusion, and respect – for God, for the scriptures, for creation, and for all God’s gifted people.
Creating a grace margin where everyone can be together even when they disagree and dispute each other’s opinions and beliefs is our vision. We view every person as a good person, justified by God’s grace and gifted to lead in God’s church. As I think about our Wisconsin Conference, I am struck by our camp and retreat ministries. Nick Coenen and Collin Grooms and our camp staffs don’t discriminate based on age, gender, race, sexual orientation, beliefs, or cultural values. All are welcome at camp, and everyone receives the same warm reception and service. Our camps are realized grace margins – space where everyone belongs, where no one is turned away. Many of our mission ministries model the same inclusion. We serve those in need. We set aside differences to unite in Christian service. We form community that is richly diverse in order to bring the love and grace of Christ to those in need. This is the Wisconsin option – to adopt a mutual acceptance of the good God calls us to despite our differences.
The Wisconsin option cannot happen by accident. We must work together to design a sustainable future for United Methodism in Wisconsin. Some will want to leave, regardless of the harm it will do. But most will want to stay, work together, and rally around the potential of being a bright and shining light in the darkness. The Wisconsin option is to proclaim to the world that there is a place at the table for everyone, and together we are stronger than we will ever be split apart.
Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).