By Bishop Jonathan Holston
“Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you a more excellent way.”—1 Corinthians 12:31
We hear it all the time: time flies. In so many ways, these four years in South Carolina have passed so quickly. This leads us to step back and reflect on the ministry that we have shared together.
For the South Carolina Conference, the mission continues to be making disciples for Jesus Christ and transforming the world through our quadrennium theme of “A More Excellent Way.” The leadership challenge in South Carolina has centered in engaging laity and clergy around the importance of organizational health. Our initial focus on organizational health engaged conference and local church leaders in a conversation on how we develop trust as the foundation of our life together in the congregation, the community and beyond. Therefore, the first year involved visiting all 12 districts in a time of sharing and listening, which was essential in advancing this emphasis.
In preparing for the 2013 Annual Conference meeting, we began to dream God-sized dreams, asking the question, “What would it be like if our Annual Conference meeting was a place for United Methodists from around the state to gather to make a difference while the business meeting was taking place?” With the theme of “A More Excellent Way: Sharing Stories of Serving, Giving and Living,” South Carolina United Methodists rose to the challenge of packaging a truckload of meals for Stop Hunger Now and raising $470,000 to fund the Stop Hunger Now shipment, as well as to support hunger ministries around the state. It was an acknowledgement of the depth of need close to home even as we expect God to work through us to address issues of poverty and health around the world.
As the second year of the quadrennium unfolded, a clear vision for how South Carolina United Methodists fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world began to take shape. The decades of court battles over the inequalities in funding public education in our state once more made the news with word of an imminent South Carolina Supreme Court ruling on the “Corridor of Shame” case. With the 2014 Annual Conference theme of “A More Excellent Way: Creating Corridors of Faith, Hope and Love,” congregations were encouraged to collect books for preschool and elementary children in a conference-wide Million Book Effort.
The Million Book Effort raised awareness about the depth of need in our state related to children living in poverty and the systematic issues that impact education in rural counties. Local churches responded well to the encouragement to connect with the schools in their communities and see the children in their community as their children, as well. The Pan-Methodist Campaign for Children in Poverty Task Force has worked diligently to keep the concerns about education before our congregations and to remind them to be agents of transformation. We continue that work ecumenically with the Bishop’s Initiative on Public Education, which includes Lutheran, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Pan-Methodist bishops. Not only does Ministry with the Poor include relationships with those caught in the cycle of poverty, but also advocates for changes needed to address systematic injustice.
In the spring of 2014, we held the first Bishop’s Laity Retreat for district lay leaders, lay servant directors and other conference lay leaders for the purpose of engaging laity in the conversation around organizational health. From this retreat came the vision of meeting in each district directly with local church lay leaders and lay servants. It was during 2013-2014 that the “Bishop’s Road Show” was born. Led by a team of conference staff and key leaders, some 1,500 lay leaders from around the conference met on 12 different Saturdays to talk about trust, healthy conflict and commitment.
Developing Principled Christian Leaders, both lay and clergy, continued into the third year of the quadrennium as we utilized “The Leadership Contract” by Vince Molinaro. Focusing on leadership as behavior rather than position, teams of local church leaders along with their pastor met together in districts to wrestle with how to lead well and how to effectively connect the congregation with the community. Planned by district leadership teams, the “Bishop’s Barbeque Bash” was developed to challenge congregational leadership teams to pursue church renewal by re-engaging the community. The theme for the 2015 Annual Conference was “A More Excellent Way: Becoming Disciples God can Use.” Lay and clergy leaders rose to this challenge as more than 3,000 persons from more than 600 churches participated in one of the 12 Bishop’s Barbeque Bashes held in each district.
The year 2015 was also a challenging year for the people of South Carolina. In the spring, a North Charleston police-involved shooting made national news and raised concern about how the community would respond. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, South Carolina state senator and pastor of Emanuel AME Church, helped to organize a Pan-Methodist Prayer Service bringing together the faith community to acknowledge the need for justice and healing. Not long after that service, Rev. Pinckney and eight others were killed in a racially motivated shooting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The response of the “Emanuel Nine” family members, the Charleston community and the state of South Carolina was something no one thought would happen. Soon after, state leaders made the long-overdue decision to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the State House grounds. This witness to justice, forgiveness and community positioned South Carolina for leadership in a global arena.
As United Methodists continue to wrestle with the legacy of racism in the state and church, we seek a more excellent way to love one another and witness faithfully in our communities about God’s healing love.
In October, an unprecedented weather event caused extensive damage across the Palmetto State. The rains came early and continued throughout the month, resulting in devastating flooding that impacted 24 of the 46 counties and affecting more than 100,000 households. United Methodists, with the guidance of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, continue to lead in the response and recovery effort. More than 40 of our churches experienced damage. Because of the generosity of our neighbors, we have been able to assist 13 of those churches in returning their facilities and property to wholeness.
As we come to the close of the quadrennium, we share in the 2016 Annual Conference theme of “A More Excellent Way: Making Space for God to Work.” This has been a time of dreaming the God-sized dream of raising $1 million for Imagine No Malaria in order to address this significant global health issue. Even with the devastating floods and the generous giving to address the need, this effort continues to help our local churches learn how they can make a difference in impacting this preventable, treatable and beatable disease.
We continue to make space for God to work by cultivating new places for new people. Our goal of 50 new places for new people include new church starts, additional sites of existing congregations, new worship services in strategic congregations, strengthening the African-American presence in small cities and resourcing opportunities for Hispanic-Latino ministry. Each year, our apportionment giving has increased even as we dreamed God-sized dreams and sought the financial resources to fund them. God has been faithful as our local congregations have embraced a more excellent way of making disciples and transforming the world. Each challenge to step out on faith and trust that God can use us beyond our expectations has resulted in new opportunities for local churches to make a difference in their communities.
Looking back on the ministries of this quadrennium, it becomes clear that the four areas of focus are interrelated. Developing principled Christian leaders involves engaging in ministry with the poor. An annual conference focus on improving global health can be a vehicle for renewing existing congregations. Disciples are formed and grow when we challenge our state to address the root causes of poverty. Working to transform the world can transform our congregations and communities. Dreaming God-sized dreams in a more excellent way invites generous giving and enthusiastic commitment to being a movement-oriented Body of Christ.
In closing, it has been a privilege and blessing for Felecia and me to be in ministry with the laity and clergy of the Columbia Area. We have rejoiced in the opportunity to have shared God-sized dreams with United Methodists across this wonderful state. Thank you for helping us to envision a more excellent way of mission and ministry.
Grace and peace.