By Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger
The North Central Jurisdiction gathering in Akron Ohio was, on the surface, a rather functional gathering. Delegates gathered to shuffle our Bishops, appoint people to General Boards and Agencies and worship together. In the midst of the “official” sessions, much networking and community was done. The local MFSA chapter organized a space for progressive (self identified) delegates to gather, discuss 2016 Bishop elections, 2016 General Conference delegate elections, and get to know one another. Each meal time, via Twitter, and in the evening, people gathered with old and new friends to share stories, debate issues (marriage equality was my favorite topic), and be the church.
North Central delegates proposed a study and dialogue of the purpose of Jurisdictional conference, and the distinction between Jurisdictional and Central Conference. NCJ was inspired by the Northeast and Western Jurisdictions bold stances on inclusion of all persons in the full life of the church, and the desire to study a possible U.S. Central Conference. Perhaps at the end of this new study the Jurisdiction will be ready to move from dialogue to action. Until that time, there is a need to continue to work toward electing delegates who value inclusion and diversity, and will take bold actions toward that end.
Our church has much to think about as it begins to look toward the future. During this Jurisdictional Conference, the last active female-identified African American bishop retired. Bishop Linda Lee in her retirement would not let the delegates forget the diversity the UMC is losing with her retirement, the voices that are silenced and who are marginalized in our church. For me, she raised the questions, how do we make space for more people at the places of leadership in our denomination? How do we as RMN make space for people in our local, regional, and national leadership as well? Who might we be forgetting?
These questions of inclusion and diversity were a topic of discussion in worship and in our presentations. The Black Methodists for Church Renewal offered an evening program allowing leaders from the denomination to speak about challenges facing our denomination around diversity and church growth. Rev. Dr. Tracy Malone presented us with an adaptive challenge that our global church does not have one definition of diversity, and we must expand our understanding of diversity to remain relevant.
As I left the North Central Jurisdictional gathering I was grateful for the chance to build relationships at this conference, but I was disappointed that we missed the opportunity for a bolder witness for inclusion and diversity. We are committed to keeping the dialogue going, but not ready to act.