Highlights from the Episcopal Address
At this year’s conference, Bishop Janice Huie urged delegates and congregations to support the “next generation” clergy.
Hashtag #txac. In the grocery store line, or in a tweet, perhaps, how would you explain why you are a Methodist? In her Episcopal address, Bishop Janice Huie challenged delegates and attendees to consider what they believe and why and be able to vocalize that in a succinct statement. She asked the crowd, “What is important to you personally about being a follower of Jesus in the Wesleyan tradition?” Some attendees tweeted their heartfelt response, others shared with their neighbors, and others replied via video. Bishop Huie shared her inspiration saying, “I’m a Methodist because Wesley taught his followers to look for and love the image of God in every human being—including the ones I don’t particularly like.”
Celebrating the Positives
Bishop Huie praised the marvelous community of the people called Methodist assembled in the conference main ballroom, bringing encouragement with these truths:
- Texas Annual Conference Methodists are making disciples of Jesus in 58 counties in Texas with an impact that encircles the globe.
- Methodist forbears in America planted thousands of congregations so people called Methodist could be shaped as disciples of Jesus Christ.
- Methodists started schools, colleges and universities so that every child could be educated and have the prospect of a better future.
- Methodists started hospitals to care for the sick, and retirement homes to care for the aged.
- Methodists started community centers so that immigrants and the poor could learn the skills to create better lives for themselves and their children.
- Methodists advocated for the right of women to vote and to preach and Methodists invested in the larger community and in a better future for all God’s children.
Present Day Challenges
The Pew Research Center study published recently finds that the percentage of Americans who define themselves as “Christian” has dropped seven percentage points or about five million people over the last seven years, with more dramatic numbers in the younger ages. Finding one-third of young adults saying they are unaffiliated has surprised even the experts. “They came, they saw, they tasted and they left,” shares Bishop Huie, “and over the last 10 years, the superintendents and I have seen this reality right here in the TAC. When people leave, they leave, as is particularly pronounced among young adults.”
Shares Bishop Huie, “What might we glean from our own Methodist DNA that allows us to swim in these rough waters with realistic hope of a better future? Where would we begin?”
Dr. Greg Jones, professor and former dean at Duke Divinity School points to four qualities of Methodism that are both historic and contemporary. “Their descriptions form a contemporary Methodist lexicon that offers deep wisdom for living into our new reality,” she adds. “Exploring this four-word lexicon links our best past with our yearning for a better future.”
Example: One of the most exciting experiments in opposable thinking currently going on in the TAC is Project CURATE. Most of the small groups in churches are composed of people who are similar—but what if we could include new, different voices including people who aren’t usually found in any church? Dr. Matt Russell at St. Paul’s has developed a diverse cohort of 60 people that “look like Houston.” They come from six diverse communities. One Saturday each month, the group participates in theological discussions and community development. This pilot might help us learn to listen more deeply to people very different from ourselves and to create new ways to serve God together.
Example: A new networking arrangement is emerging in this conference. Cokesbury UMC has an ample facility located in the midst of an increasingly multi-ethnic neighborhood in South Houston. Christway UMC is a mostly Hispanic congregation seeking permanent facilities in a multi-ethnic area. This spring each began conversations with their district superintendent and each other. Now, Cokesbury and Christway are partnered together. Each congregation surrendered their former name. Together, they have resources that neither could have alone: two bi-lingual pastors, a deep new connection with the neighborhood, a kingdom vision, and a new name—Houston Crossroads UMC.
Adds Bishop Huie, “In another wonderful story, FUMC Houston and Covenant Glen UMC, two of our largest congregations, have entered into a different kind of networking arrangement with each congregation retains its own identity while sharing space together. Friends, these new arrangements are God-work. They are increasing our capacity to make a difference for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”
Bishop Huie consistently celebrates congregations who are creating new ways to re-connect with the public schools to support children. She adds, “Friends, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this work with at-risk children. If I were starting over again as a young pastor, I would focus my primary energies exactly where the early Methodists did: on the children of the poor. By the grace of God, those early Methodists changed a whole culture.”
One of the Rio Texas congregations officially uniting with the Texas Annual Conference is going beyond even this to offer their facility to a charter school targeting at-risk youth. The congregation at El Mesias just voted to open their doors to this partnership.
For decades, Methodists invested heavily in “next generation” ministry, however, in the last 40-50 years that investment in “next generation” ministry has weakened considerably. Bishop Huie continued illustrating the present day opportunity to turn that trend around. “One of the places where the Texas Annual Conference has sought to invest in next generation leadership has been with calling, supporting and equipping next generation clergy through the Emerging Leaders Initiative,” she shares. “There is a high school component, a college-age internship, financial help with seminary indebtedness, and post-ordination leadership development. The good news is that today, one in 10 pastors in the Texas Annual Conference is under the age of 35, the highest in the U.S. More importantly, they are making a positive difference in strengthening congregations by connecting with next generation laity, the very place where the Pew Research Study indicates that Christianity is most vulnerable.”
This January, Lewis Research Center surveyed the TAC’s 78 pastors who were under the age of 35 at their commissioning. Survey respondents reported a much lower median age for their congregations than our own annual conference average and a significantly lower median age than the denominational average. The percentage of churches that are growing numerically in worship attendance for young lead pastors is 6% higher than the conference average and 10% higher than the denominational average. Some 80% of the associate pastors who lead a worship service report those congregations are stable or growing.
Turning Challenge into OpportunityBishop Huie issued a strong challenge to conference delegates and attendees. “Now here is where I need your help. Seventy percent of our young pastors incurred debt in seminary, cumulatively over $1,257,582. If this conference wants to continue to welcome young clergy, we must invest in them—short-term and long-term.”
Bishop Huie speaks often about the conference creating an Emerging Leaders Endowment to help underwrite all of the areas of the Emerging Leaders Initiative: high school, college, seminary debt, and post ordination leadership development. She explains, “To fully fund these ministries without using any apportionment dollars, the Texas Annual Conference seeks an endowment of at least $10 million. This next year—my last year—as your bishop, I will be coming to you over and over again to do what Methodist people have done for 200 years—invest in the next generation. No matter how big or how small your church, you can invest in its future through the endowment.”
Through the evening offering, attendees raised $22,551 to be given to the Ambassador’s Grants Fund to award grants in the class who will be commissioned at this annual conference. Young pastors who have been beneficiaries of the funds in recent years kicked off this campaign by raising about $66,000 to “pay it forward” for the class of 2015.
Her challenge: “Does the Wesleyan way of life have a future here in the U.S.? Of course it does. God isn’t finished with us yet! I believe God is calling us to lead from our historic Wesleyan strengths. I pray that you will go home and invite your congregation to continue this generosity through the Ambassador’s Grants and the Emerging Leaders Endowment Fund.”
Adds Bishop Huie, “Every day God looks down on our generation called Methodists and this next generation of children and young adults who might yet be called Methodist. God says, I have blessed you with so many gifts. I need leaders who will join me in creating heaven on earth. Say yes and let God send you.”