Bishop Palmer moved to the stage to give his first Episcopal Address to the conference. He said that he doesn’t always give a yearly address, but felt moved to share one this year since it has been almost two years in service to the West Ohio Conference and wished to share a “report card” and some highlights of the good things the conference has experienced in this time.
Bishop Palmer focused on the hope for change, community and transformation in a phrase from I John chapter 3, which says, “It does not yet appear what we shall be.”
Bishop Palmer began his address speaking to the accomplishments which showed the strength of West Ohio to move forward with momentum, traction and courage to follow the Lord faithfully and give exceptionally. He reminded the conference that just a couple years ago, West Ohio was just winding up a major seven figure Wings of the Morning campaign which resulted in a new ministry that is currently changing lives in that part of the world where the ministry is centered.
Also in 2013, for the first time in a long time, the West Ohio Conference stepped up to the plate and did what it was asking local churches to do, and paid 100% of its General Church apportionments. “How could we ask our local churches to do what we as a conference weren’t doing?” he asked.
In addition to these major initiatives, Bishop Palmer also challenged the West Ohio Conference to cover $3.5 million of the $75 million Imagine No Malaria denominational campaign. “That was a big challenge,” he admitted, especially on the heels of the successful Wings of the Morning campaign. He was excited and proud to share with attendees that, to date, West Ohio has contributed 72% of this goal, and challenged givers to complete the goal by World Malaria Day on April 25 of next year.
The Bishop also pointed out a few of the challenges, or “learning engagements” he was blessed to experience in his new role that have brought changes and “bring us to a kind of perfection.” For example, several years ago the West Ohio Conference embarked on a major shift to streamline administration and management, which included downsizing the number of districts and redefining the role of district superintendents. “We are still adjusting for that process but the streamlining has helped tremendously,” he said.
A second learning engagement was to look at the conference center facility and name a task force to look at the options for that center. The report on the conference center and the recommendation for its purchase would be presented later in the day.
A third learning engagement was to look at the FACT (Financial and Administrative Consulting Team) task force report. As a result of that comprehensive study and report, a strategic planning conference team will be formed later this year to develop a 5-7 year plan to become more efficient and fruitful. One of the issues we must address as a conference, he said, is lack of trust, which is a problem in other annual conferences, as well.
Bishop Palmer also confronted the conference with the difficult statistics of the “nones”: churches in the conference without baptisms or professions of faith in the last year.
At the end of 2013, the WOC had 1,038 local churches, which is down from historical levels. Of that number, 44%, or 454 of the churches baptized no one in 2013, and 51%, or 528 of these had zero professions of faith. “We have a great deal of work to do, don’t we?” the Bishop asked.
“I believe we’ve got a promising future,” he declared, “so I accept the zeroes as a fact, but I do not accept them as our future. Ours is an open-ended story…I’m not as worried about reports as I am about lives that need Jesus Christ.” He then challenged the local churches to step up, seek the necessary help, and eliminate the zeroes and bring those in need to the saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Joining Together in Growth and Community
Bishop Palmer also challenged local churches to reach out in their communities in a few different ways.
First, by reaching the children in the community and connecting with schools. Part of this challenge includes doubling the number of Unite Methodist sponsored Freedom Schools in West Ohio. He also looks for every WOC church to become connected relationally and missionally to a school, focusing on academic achievement, food insecurity and reduction of violence.
The second main challenge was to become involved in ministry with the incarcerated. Some ways to do this include becoming an “Outside Brother” with Horizon Prison Ministry, becoming a home to a Wesleyan Small Group that includes returning citizens, and becoming a “Healing Community” by supporting the Urban Encourager Initiative.
The Bishop also addressed recent concerns and fears of a schism within the denomination, saying, “I’m here this afternoon to tell you that nothing is inevitable; I hear the talk, I read the conversations, but you and I have to decide how we are going to live in community with each other.” He invited the conference to join him in his third challenge to intentionally participate in 100 or more Circles of Grace with the intention of avoiding division by engaging in conversation based on trust, understanding and our common identities in Christ. This plan is still being developed, but should be ready by the fall.
He encouraged the conference proclaiming, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ has taken the inevitability out of history. Nothing is inevitable.” He pointed out that we often hesitate to speak truth because we’re not sure that those we are in community with will not abandon us, asking, “Will you still love me if I speak the truth I know and have? Can I, will I still love you when you speak your truth?” The idea supporting the Circles of Grace is to provide space and time for thoughtful and considered conversation where, “we already know we have things between us, but we choose to stay around the light of Christ until we discover one another, and see the face of Christ in the neighbor.”