February 20, 2019 Letter from District Superintendent Barry Robison

Colleagues,

The question in the subject line was one that was asked of a cluster leader and posed at our recent District Leadership Team meeting.  I'm sure it has

been asked of many others here in the Harrisburg District and probably around the Annual Conference.  Those who were around the table shared

that the response I made that day was helpful to them.  They encouraged me to share that response with every other pastor in the District, and so

this email.

The short answer to the question is Yes, but let me unpack that.  Impact! Harrisburg is comprised of a vision and strategy that have been developed in response to a specific need and situation in and around the city of Harrisburg.  The overarching vision and guiding purpose of Impact! Harrisburg  is to reach more people for Jesus Christ than we have been and are currently doing.  In that sense, the vision of  Impact! Harrisburg would be appropriate to happen anywhere within the Susquehanna Conference.  However, the strategic plan to fulfill that vision will be different, specific and unique to each local circumstance and situation.

Harrisburg was chosen as the first place to try something new and drastically different than what we have ever attempted before because our overall presence and witness in and around Harrisburg may have been the least effective in all of the Conference.  None of the six remaining churches within the city or the four just beyond the city limits were served by full time clergy any longer.  The combined average worship attendance of the ten churches totaled only 359, meaning that significantly less than 1% of the population in Harrisburg, Penbrook and Susquehanna Township were worshiping in our churches.  And, the self-assessments done by the churches revealed that the vast majority of those who were attending worship were not from the local neighborhoods, but were driving in from other communities, underscoring that our overall impact on and engagement with those around our churches was even lower.  Many identified that their aging congregations and dwindling resources have contributed to few vital or effective ministries still in existence.

And so, using paragraph 213 from The Book of Discipline as our guide, each church did a self-assessment of their vitality.  Members from a Resource Team comprised of laity and clergy assisted the pastor and 1-3 lay persons from each congregation through the self-assessment.  The individual assessments were collected and reviewed by the full Impact! Resource Team.  From that review a strategy was developed that was discerned to have the most potential to achieve the vision of reaching more, new and diverse people in and around Harrisburg for Christ.

The basic strategy discerned for Impact! Harrisburg is a vital merger of all ten churches into one unified congregation that would operate in multiple sites in and around Harrisburg.  Hoping to capitalize on what vitality is still present, the strategy also looks to the fruitful and effective DNA still remaining in those congregations to be transplanted into the new congregation giving them a wonderful jump start to successful ministry.  

The strategy does call for closing the church facilities, although the perception is that the strategy is to close congregations.  The facilities are being closed because in most of the cases they are far too big for the existing congregations and the maintenance, repair and upkeep of them are prohibitive in some cases and drawing far too many resources away from mission and ministry efforts in nearly all.  Divesting ourselves of these properties before they lose even more value will also provide the maximum potential for resourcing the new congregation financially and be another way the current congregations can invest in ministry in and around Harrisburg.

In accordance with The Book of Discipline, each church must vote to merge.  That vote will take place on March 17.  The last service for the churches who vote yes will be Easter.  For those who vote no, the plan calls for resolutions to be brought to the Annual Conference  to close those churches, also in accordance with The Book of Discipline.

Please note that the above strategy was discerned specifically for the vision for Harrisburg and surrounding areas.  In each place where a similar vision may be cast, the strategies will be different and specific to that situation.  So in that sense, no, Impact! Harrisburg will probably not happen elsewhere.  However, the underlying premise driving the Impact! Harrisburg initiative that "Staying as we are is not being the Church nor is it being faithful to Jesus' Great Commission," may be appropriate in many other situations and may call for other new, drastic and/or out-of-the box responses.

I hope you find this helpful personally but also as you field questions in your own settings.  Thanks for all you and your churches are doing to make an impact for Christ in your communities.


 
March 6, 2019 Letter from District Superintendent Barry Robison

Colleagues,

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ!

It was not with forethought on my part that this email would be sent on Ash Wednesday, but it seems appropriate.  Since General Conference ended last week I have been struggling and wrestling with whether or not to send a statement to you and if so, what to say.  We all received the statement from Bishop Park and other, general statements, that debriefed what transpired in St. Louis and acknowledged the human emotions and responses.  I don't know that I would have anything new to add to those communications.

And so, I will simply share what has been weighing on my heart this past week.  Rightfully so, we have been reminded of the statement from our Social Principles that reads:  

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, and created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.  The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christ teaching.  We affirm that God's grace is available to all.  We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.  We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.  

As I have read and re-read that statement, I have been drawn to the word "all".  Clergy and laity have been vilified on both sides of the issues and by folks from both sides of the issue.  Blame (of all things!) has been assigned to some for creating the situation that necessitated the called special session and to others for the decisions that were made.  These words and actions have caused many across the theological spectrum, both inside and outside the Church, to feel that they are not considered to be persons of sacred worth by others within our fold.

And so, from my heart I simply remind each of us that our belief, our position, and our practice is to treat all persons as created in the image of God and, therefore, to be of sacred worth.  So, if you supported the actions that were taken at General Conference, I want you to know that you are of sacred worth.  And if you opposed the decisions made at General Conference, I want you to know that you are equally a person of sacred worth.

As we consider our responses, words, actions and attitudes as we move forward, I entreat each of us to remember these other words from the above statement: 

All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.  As colleagues my hope and prayer is that we will be a fellowship of spiritual and emotional care for each other that enables reconciling relationships with each other.

We affirm that God's grace is available to all.  We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.   Although I believe these words were intended to encourage us to include LGBTQ+ persons in our congregations and ministries, I perceive them now as a call to us as clergy, too.  My hope and prayer is that we, as pastoral leaders, will honestly and sincerely seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving and loving one another.

Where Faith Meets Life

CHARLTON CHURCH

A United Methodist Community

5920 Jonestown Road

Harrisburg, PA 17112

717-545-2000

March 1, 2019 Letter from Bishop Jeremiah Park

“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ,

and each one of you is a part of it.”    (1 Corinthians 12:26-27)

My Dear Sisters and Brothers of the Susquehanna Conference,

Grace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, Healer of our Brokenness, and Hope of the World!

The General Conference is the highest legislative body in The United Methodist Church and the only body that can legislate church law and speak

officially for the church. The special session of General Conference 2019 held in St. Louis has ended. I am writing to share with you my heart and my understanding of where our church is at this time.

Here is what we know of the decisions of General Conference 2019.

• The Traditional Plan passed by 54 votes. The vote was 438 (53%) in favor, 384 (47%) against.

• The Traditional Plan keeps the current language around homosexuality and increases accountability by streamlining the processes to enforce penalties for violations of The Book of Discipline related to marriage and ordination of homosexual persons. Some parts of the Traditional Plan were ruled unconstitutional and the entire plan was referred to the Judicial Council for review to determine what parts are constitutional and what parts are not.

• A minority report was passed that would provide for an exit for churches that choose not to stay in The United Methodist Church. That was also sent to the Judicial Council.

• The Judicial Council, the highest court of the church, will meet April 23-26, 2019 to consider all these referrals. Thus, it will take some time to clarify which parts will become part of our church law and which parts will not.

What happens between now and the decisions of the Judicial Council?

• The current 2016 Book of Discipline is in effect.

• Once the Judicial Council rules, only those parts determined as constitutional will become effective January, 1, 2020.

This General Conference displayed that The United Methodist Church is a deeply wounded and broken Church. In the midst of manifestation of hurt and division, I give thanks for the witness of the Susquehanna Conference delegation that you elected. All of them felt the enormity of making decisions on behalf of our church. Filled with compassion and care for each other, they were dedicated to the work you sent them to do. They served with diligence, integrity and faith, led by the Spirit of Christ.

This is indeed a tumultuous time. While acknowledging that all are of sacred worth deserving of and in need of the ministry of the church, The United Methodist Church is in the midst of immense pain. No matter where you stand on the question of inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of our church, pain is so deep and real as both sides claim that their position was made out of love for Jesus and the church. Pain will prolong. Knowing that this question will not be resolved by legislation, it will continue and increase.

Knowing also that the intensity of pain is not equivalent among all, I want to say to our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers and their families and friends that your love for Jesus and the church is no less than anybody else. My heart goes out to you and aches for the hurts and harms you have to live through. You are of sacred worth to God. You are God’s beloved. I will do my best to offer space of welcome and hospitality for you to worship, fellowship, and serve as partners in the ministry and witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My prayers will continue to be with you for the grace of assurance, strength, perseverance, healing and wholeness.

The Council of Bishops and the Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops had a time together respectively the day after the close of General Conference. As you can imagine, the mood was heavier than any other time in my tenure as a bishop. As we shared our pains and hurts over the brokenness of our church at the college meeting, a bishop reminded us of Isaiah 43. When God’s people were in the midst of drowning waters and fiery trials in exile, God’s words of assurance came to them that they were God’s people known by name, that God was their Savior, and that God loved them. And God called them to give attention to a promise that God was doing a new thing by reminding them that God was making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.

God is able.

As your Bishop, what I know and what I believe is:

• Those who have been hurt – God can heal.

• When the way feels the darkest – God will light the path and lead us to God’s preferred future.

• While we cannot see beyond our hurt and division – God holds the future in God’s hands as God loves and holds all God’s children in God’s loving arms.

At the Council meeting, Bishop Ken Carter, President of the Council shared with us that, at least once a year, pastor should preach a, “I have a dream” message. Our “Susquehanna Conference will embody the beloved community as disciple making congregations.” God’s people, please keep this vision of our conference alive as best as you can. Clergy and laity alike, please create as many opportunities to share with one another your dream of the church in a most inviting, winsome, honorable, humble, peaceful and loving way that would reflect the Beloved Community of Christ for such a time as this.

My sisters and brothers, Ash Wednesday and Lent is but a few short days away. As you know this season began as a time of fasting and preparation for baptism for converts. It has evolved into a significant time of prayer and penance for all Christians. This Lenten Season, all in the church have much to repent. Now more than ever we need to be together as a faith community to reflect on division and the hurts in the body of Christ by things we have done and things undone. As we fall on knees with convicted humility, God will hear us and bring new life to our spirits and to our beloved Church. Until the time of Easter and Pentecost which follows, may we find our healing and hope in the possibility of God’s future as we love each other more deeply and fully to embody the Beloved Community of Christ.



March 8, 2019 Letter from Bishop Jeremiah Park

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble ... “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord Almighty is with us… (Psalm 46:1; 10-11)

Dear Sisters and Brothers on the Journey Together,

Grace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, Healer of our Brokenness and Hope of the World!

In anticipation of the pending decisions by the Judicial Council on the legislations adopted at the Special Session of the General Conference 2019 that will be announced at the end of April, the district meetings that were scheduled in March and April are being moved to hold a conference wide event on Sunday, May 5, 2019 from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. It will be live streamed to many locations throughout the conference. The event is open to all clergy and laity of the Susquehanna Conference. Please reserve the date. More detailed information will be forthcoming. The purpose of the gathering will be to understand and clarify:

  • The legislations of the Special Session of the General Conference 2019 in light of the decisions made by -the Judicial Council
  • How we navigate through the denominational challenge
  • How we build up the conference vision of embodying the Beloved Community of disciple-making congregations


We have heard numerous reactions to and reflections on the 2019 Special Session of General Conference that has maintained the current language of the Book of Discipline about homosexuality, same gender marriage, and the ordination of practicing homosexuals with added accountability of imposing penalties for violation. As emotions are raw and high with deep wounds and pain, people in different communities and circles are assessing where our church is and where it is to go from here. Many are looking beyond the Judicial Council decisions at the end of April, beyond January 1, 2020, the effective date of the new laws, and beyond the 2020 General Conference in May. Speculations on the denominational future are rampant and diverse with a sense of urgency and inevitability. Nobody knows for sure what The United Methodist Church will be like beyond the 2020 General Conference. Our church will not be the same.

Under the circumstances, I am hearing that numerous people, particularly LGBTQ persons and their loved ones, families and friends are expressing their hurt and despair by saying, “We no longer have a place in The United Methodist Church. We are leaving now.” It breaks my heart. Jesus weeps.I would like to plead with all God’s people of the Susquehanna Conference to stay on. The mission of bringing people to Jesus and transforming the world is alive! The ministry of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and caring for the impoverished, underprivileged and marginalized is ongoing. The witness of justice and peace and reconciliation is an unfinished agenda. Even at this moment, countless lives are being served and impacted in our communities and around the world with God’s love and in the name of Jesus Christ through The United Methodist Church each day. Many people in hurting and broken places of oppression and abuse find hope through the ministry of our connectional church. The United Methodist Church is not a perfect church. Far from it in many aspects. However, in spite of its limitations, God is using our church as God’s instrument for God’s redeeming work in the world.

At the Bishop’s Retreat held in January, our guest speaker, Rev. Fred Day, General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History, shared with us some historical perspectives on the journey of The United Methodist Church. For him, the most significant word in the journey of God’s people was not faith or hope or love; it was “through”.  He talked about “the power of through”.  God was with God’s people and enabled them to go “through” the wilderness to reach the promised land. Jesus the Christ went “through” the cross to the resurrection. The United Methodist Church represents the former denominations which demonstrated the “power of through” during the most challenging wilderness time in the past. It is in the DNA of our church. Why not this time? I hope and pray that the spirit of “through” prevails for such a time as this.

While our church as a denomination has been in a long and fierce struggle over the question of human sexuality, you have been faithful all along in fulfilling the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. By God’s grace, you manifested and demonstrated the spirit and power of through in such remarkable ways.

I remember my first Susquehanna Annual Conference about six and a half years ago met under the theme: “Alive in Christ Together…On a Journey of Faith.” God’s people, keep the faith. Please stay on. The journey continues. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” throughout the journey of God’s people. God will never ever leave us alone. God has a plan and a future for our church.

Before us, not behind us, is the most critical task in our life time as a denomination. This is the time for our church to stand still to know who our God is. I know that The United Methodist Church is in a labor pain. With a sense of dawn breaking, I plead with you to stay on. Our God is up to something new.