North Central Jurisdictional Conference Highlights

Wednesday’s Wrap-Up: Bishops’ elections and the work of the Mission Council

By Rev. Cindy Gregorson

This is the sound of dry bones rattling. Open the grave, I’m coming out. I’m gonna live, gonna live again!

The delegates of the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference were on their feet, proclaiming in song that these dry bones will live as they opened their session in worship. Bishop Bruce R. Ough continued this theme in his opening sermon, naming the question we all might be asking: how do we press on when we are overwhelmed by disaffiliation, souls are parched and we are so very, very tired? He went on to proclaim, “I think God has us right where God wants us. God has given us a word. It is never too late for dry bones to live!” 

Bishop Elections

The sounds of the bones rattling showed up in multiple ways on this first day of the conference. Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai was elected bishop on the first ballot, a historic first for the North Central Jurisdictional Conference. Rev. Bigham-Tsai picked up echoes of Bishop Ough’s words in her addressing the conference upon her election. 

“We have seen what is possible for the United Methodist Church. It is time to reclaim the narrative of the possible,” Bigham-Tsai said. “Thank you for seeing what is possible in me, but even more for what is possible in our church.” 

Her unprecedented election came after all 10 of the episcopal candidates addressed the body in a shared statement of prayer and unity. 

“As your episcopal candidates, we are united in our commitment to the now and future United Methodist Church,” they said in their shared statement. “As your episcopal candidates, we will have the courage and courtesy to hold fast to the integrity of this process. Even in the moments when it convicts us, even when the outcome is not what we’d hoped…we are already committed to celebrating with and for those elected rejoicing for the church in the company of our next three bishops.”

Before the evening was done, a second bishop was elected: Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck from Iowa. 

“All I want to do, truly do, to the deepest part of who I am, is to glorify God in my service. I want to love the people, all the people, all the time,” she said about her leadership as a bishop. “I love you. And I love our God. And I love the United Methodist Church. I wasn’t born in it, but I was called into it. And I believe to the very depth of who I am and that our very best years are ahead of us and they are right here, right now.” 

NCJ Episcopacy Going Forward

The North Central Jurisdictional delegates approved a recommendation from the Committee on Episcopacy to elect three bishops at this session. The retirement of Bishop Laurie Haller was approved effective Dec. 31, 2022, which, along with the previous retirements of Bishops Bruce Ough and Sally Dyck in 2020, created three vacancies. Rev. Sara Isbell, chair of the Committee on Episcopacy, noted that this was counter to the previous recommendation for two elections. She recognized the unique demands of this time on bishops, and she reminded attendees of the fact that we will have two retirees in 2024 who will reach the age of mandatory retirement. 

The expectation is that the North Central Jurisdiction will need to imagine more shared episcopal areas in our future. All conferences were asked to engage in exploratory conversation about sharing episcopal leadership. The conferences of Wisconsin and Northern Illinois and the conferences of East and West Ohio were specifically called to investigate becoming episcopal areas. A task force was also formed to look at the function and role of bishops in our jurisdiction, given what will be increasing demands for episcopal oversight. 

Work of the Mission Council

Rev. Ryan Russell and Laura Witkowski, current chair and vice-chair of the Mission Council of the North Central Jurisdiction shared that the focus of the Mission Council was spiritual leadership, outreach, and serving as the finance committee, rules committee, and grants committee on behalf of the jurisdiction. The Mission Council, in consultation with the College of Bishops, saw the need to gather the delegates of the jurisdiction ahead of the 2019 General Conference to create space for spiritual growth and fellowship. Two of those gatherings were held in 2018 and 2019. The Council also shifted in the way they make grants, moving to an annual grant application process for jurisdictional programming. Curtis Brown reported on the actions taken in response to the Covenant to Build Beloved Community passed at the 2021 Jurisdictional Conference. The leaders in the conferences working in the area of equity, inclusion, and racial justice gathered in October and created a plan to conduct a jurisdiction-wide racial audit in 2023. They will bring a report back to the Jurisdictional Conference in 2024. $10,000 has been set aside to fund an outside contractor to assist with the data gathering.

Lonnie Chafin presented the proposed 2022 Jurisdictional Budget, which would hold the apportionment level for each annual conference. In doing so, he noted that the North Central Jurisdiction has the smallest apportionments among the jurisdictions in the United States. This budget covers two years. A four year proposal will come in 2024. He thanked the annual conferences for 100 percent of their apportionment payment. Chafin offered an extra word of thanks for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area for the stewardship of the funds granted to them as the host committee of the postponed 2020 General Conference, keeping the expected planned use of reserves of the 2016 approved budget to $82,000 instead of $251,000. The 2022 budget will be voted on Friday.

Thursday Wrap-Up: Identity in Christ and Odd Space

By Rev. Cindy Gregorson and Karla Hovde

The sound of drumming called the North Central Jurisdictional Conference to worship on the second day of their gathering. It was a day of recognizing our diversity and unity, and one of centering ourselves in our identity in Christ. “On Christ the solid rock, all other ground is sinking sand” was the refrain Bishop Tracy Smith Malone echoed as she began her sermon. She went on to say, “Every day, we have a choice to make. Yes, we do every day…We have to remember, and we have to decide how we will reflect Christ.” She added, “There is a freedom and healing that comes from surrendering our lives to Christ.” She went on to invite us to live into the promise of 2 Corinthians 4: 7-18. “God’s glory is all around us. Yes, we are in the middle of a crisis, but we are also in the middle of an opportunity. God is about to birth something new. We have to look for God and see where the Spirit of God is at work!”

“Odd space” is how Bishop David Bard, president of the College of Bishops, described the times we live in as church and culture in his episcopal address. So how do we live in such a space? We are called to a larger heart, a capacious heart. A heart with a capacity to be spacious and gracious, and curious and creative. In this odd space, Bard posited, whatever is emerging in the future United Methodist Church, it needs to be genuinely rooted in our historic faith. 

“Rooted in our historic Christian faith we know we have good news to share in Jesus Christ, good news that redemption is possible, forgiveness is possible, new life is possible, transformation is possible, beloved community is possible, justice is possible.” The bishop concluded that yes, this is odd space, but it is as odd as “a member of a minority group in the backwater reaches of a vast empire, executed for defying that empire, becomes the crucified and risen Lord. Toward this odd space, we press on.”

Election of Third Bishop

Rev. Dan Schwerin, Wisconsin, who was elected as the third and final election on the sixth ballot also spoke to our Christian identity. He gave thanks for his baptism, as it is there that we discover our reliance in Jesus Christ and how we discover each other and the newness before us. He said this moment depends on all of us. “As we step forward in our baptism call, all of us discover each other and a newness. Because as long as we have a relationship with Jesus Christ, we have a relationship with each other and deepen our relationship with God.”

The Challenge of Christian Nationalism

Identity in Christ was considered through the lens of Christian nationalism, racism, and white supremacy in a conversation led by Bishop David Bard of Michigan and Minnesota and Bishop Julius Trimble of Indiana. Bishop Trimble asked the body to consider, “where is our identity in relation to who Jesus was and who Jesus is” particularly as Christian nationalism is a dangerous conflation of theology and political ideology. After offering a framework on the intersection of racism, white supremacy, and Christian nationalism, all in the room were invited to gather in small groups to discuss how to help congregations have conversations about white supremacy and Christian nationalism. Bishop Bard shared a document of definitions, which may be helpful when having similar conversations in the local church.

Rev. Paul Perez from the Michigan Conference and Rev. Annettra Jones from the Indiana Conference shared examples from all 10 NCJ conferences about what anti-racism work is being done, which they called glory sightings. 

Jones left the body with the message to fund the work. She reminded us that our budgets are theological documents that reveal what we truly support. Consultants, staff, and training need the funds to be effective. 

Perez reminded the body that anti-racism work is gospel work. The work will take generations to complete, but it is our task to find what we can do and to pass the work on to the next generation.

Celebration of the Ministry of Bishops Sally Dyck, Laurie Haller, and Bruce Ough

The day ended with the celebration of the retirement of three bishops. Bishop Sally Dyck and Bishop Bruce Ough had officially retired at the end of 2020, and Bishop Laurie Haller, Iowa, who is retiring at the end of 2022, each offered reflections and were given gifts and thanks from the Committee on Episcopacy. The spouse of each bishop read a scripture chosen by the retiring bishop: Ephesians 3:14-21 for Bishop Ough, Philippians 4:4-9 for Bishop Haller, and Romans 12: 1-2, 9-21 for Bishop Dyck. On behalf of the College and Council of Bishops, Bishop David Bard thanked them for their deep commitment to Jesus Christ and to the church. 

Friday Wrap Up: Stand Up for the Good News

By Rev. Cindy Gregorson

“We can press on—or be a footnote in the annals of history, so I stopped by to tell you that Jesus is real!” Bishop Julius Trimble called the North Central Jurisdictional Conference to labor side by side on this Friday morning. He said “you may consider yourself left-leaning or right-leaning but we all better be leaning on the everlasting arms!” He exhorted the body that it is time to stand up with the good news, because Jesus is real! And how long should we stand to pray and proclaim the gospel: Until justice rolls down as water, and righteousness like a mighty stream?

And with those words, the North Central Jurisdictional Conference got down to business. Having completed the election of bishops, they focused on how we are called to live as the church and stand up with the good news in terms of gun violence and homophobia.

Rev. Angelo Monte shared of losing a cousin to gun violence in 2016. That prompted him to move to Fort Wayne and start a ministry directed toward peacemaking. “Our gun violence crisis has reached a state of national emergency,” Mante said. “It’s ravaging communities all across our country. It’s a racial and economic justice crisis, and one of the greatest moral and spiritual crises of our time.”  

Alive Community Outreach, the ministry that Monte started, is focused on walking with victims, educating and empowering young persons in the way of non-violence to build peace in their schools and communities, and identifying youth most at risk for perpetrating violence or being victimized and developing intervention. One of the efforts of their ministry is the development of a Peacemaker Academy at South Side High School which is one of the most racial diverse schools in Fort Wayne. Out of that experience, in response to the on-going need, a staff person was hired to support an after school peace club.  

“Students want to make a difference, want to make peace,” Mante said. “The students are reminding us adults that yes, they are our future, but they’re reminding us that they are our present. They have the desire and capacity to change the world right now.”  

Monte urged all United Methodists to work for peace and to end gun violence by finding someone locally who is doing this work and come alongside them or to volunteer at your school.

Later in the day, the conference heard testimony from three persons on their experience in the church with homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism.  

Rev. Angie Cox talked about being deferred by the Board of Ordained Ministry multiple times, not because of her gifts and call to ministry, but because of her sexual orientation. Kiri Anne Ryan Bereznai spoke of being an autistic, non-binary, trans woman with a long pedigree of experience in the United Methodist Church and yet not fully accepted. Rev. Mary Ann Moman recounted her experience with heterosexism in the presiding at a wedding of two men, Michael and Allen, and the objectification the couple experienced in the press after the story of the wedding went public. After listening intently to each of these presentations, the body was invited to sit in a circle with one another and talk about how we, as a church, can live into our baptismal covenant that proclaims all persons as beloved children of God.  

Bishops sat with delegates, visitors and alternates sat together, and they shared their own stories and heart. The time of deep conversation concluded with an act of prayer and confession.

Following the time of sharing, Walker Brault, lay delegate for Minnesota, brought a motion for the Jurisdictional Conference to adopt the resolution entitled Queer Delegates’ Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People in the UMC. This resolution called for annual conferences and the jurisdiction to not pursue or resolve in an appropriately timely fashion through a non-punitive, just resolution process any complaints against clergy and bishops regarding their sexual orientation or clergy who officiate weddings of LGBTQIA+ persons and commits to a future of The United Methodist Church where LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered in the life and ministry of the church in our jurisdiction.  

Three persons offered their own testimony in response to the legislation. The resolution passed 129-33.  

A decision of law of the bishop was requested if any of the provisions of this resolution contradict the Book of Discipline and limit the rights and obligations of bishops and Board of Ordained Ministries as required under the Book of Discipline. A decision of law requires the presiding bishop to submit a written response to the Judicial Council about the appropriateness of the action taken by the Jurisdictional Conference.

Action Items

In other actions, the North Central Jurisdiction approved re-instituting a jurisdictional committee on ordained ministry. They passed resolutions on a Code of Ethics and Leading with Integrity, both of which spoke to how delegates and leaders in the church need to make decisions in the best interests of the future of the United Methodist Church, and if planning to disaffiliate, to recuse themselves from leadership roles. Affirmation was also given to the formation of a U.S Regional Conference through support of the Christmas Covenant and Connectional Table legislation proposing the establishment of regional conferences. 

The 2023-2024 Jurisdictional Budget was approved with apportionments in the amount of $211,777 and $212,075 to be apportioned among the 10 annual conferences in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

The ministry of Rev. Paul White, NCJ Conference Secretary, was recognized after many, many years of faithful service. 

General and Jurisdictional Conference 2024

Dates and locations were announced for the next gatherings of the general church. General Conference 2024 will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina, April 23-May 4, 2024. Jurisdictional Conferences will be held in the five regions around the US July 10-13, 2024. The North Central Jurisdictional Conference will take place in Sioux Falls, SD.

2022 Episcopal Assignments

At the end of the consecration worship service Saturday morning, United Methodists in the North Central Jurisdiction learned where each of the jurisdiction’s nine bishops will be assigned effective January 1, 2023. Bishops are normally assigned for a four-year term, but this will be a shortened assignment as the Jurisdictional Conference is scheduled to meet in its regular sequence following General Conference, in July 2024 to elect and assign bishops for the 2024-2028 quadrennium.

The North Central Jurisdiction’s Episcopacy Committee is responsible for assigning bishops—a process that begins immediately after all bishops are elected. The committee includes two people from each annual conference, and members concluded their work at about XX (time) Friday.

Here is the complete list of assignments for January 1, 2023 to August 31, 2024:

  • Dakotas-Minnesota Conferences: Bishop Lanette Plambeck
  • East Ohio Conference: Bishop Tracy Smith Malone
  • Illinois-Great Rivers Conference: Bishop Frank Beard
  • Indiana Conference: Bishop Julius C. Trimble
  • Iowa Conference: Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai
  • Michigan Conference: Bishop David A. Bard
  • Northern Illinois Conference: Bishop Dan Schwerin
  • West Ohio Conference: Bishop Gregory V. Palmer
  • Wisconsin Conference: Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is the director of connectional ministries/clergy assistant to the bishop for the Minnesota Annual Conference. Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference.