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Bishop Laurie Haller offered the episcopal address Saturday at the 2017 Iowa Annual Conference session, her first since being named bishop of the Iowa Annual Conference. Bishop Laurie spoke to the Conference on the session’s opening day about how abiding in Christ’s love empowers us to bear fruit so that we become difference-makers.
Her address opened with the Scripture verse John 15:1-17, which begins, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
She then shared a personal anecdote about a flight experience she and her husband Gary had when she was a district superintendent in Michigan, where the pilot had to divert to land—ultimately, they were not in the right place.
Her story helped to illustrate her point that if congregations and conferences are going to be effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ and transforming the world, then programs, activities, and ministries need to be in alignment with the mission, vision and strategic priorities.
“Oh, we can plan dozens of activities every day in our local churches, which we United Methodists do exceedingly well,” Bishop Laurie said. “But if we’re not clear about our vision for ministry and what God wants us to look like five years from now, then we may not be landing on the right runway all the time, our ministries will likely be scattered, and we won’t serve as effectively as we could.”
She listed the three strategic priorities approved at 2013 Iowa Annual Conference:
1. Creating World-Transforming Communities of Faith
2. Equipping Ourselves and Others as Transformational Leaders
3. Directing Our Resources to Our Common Goals
“My friends,” Bishop Laurie said, “everything that we do here in Iowa as United Methodists, whether at the conference, district, or local church level should align with our conference mission, vision, and strategic priorities.”
She acknowledged that every church within the Conference has a unique make-up, but still, she said, they hold the same overarching purpose in common.
Referencing John Wesley, Bishop Laurie asked those in attendance the three questions Wesley had first asked those coming to be ordained at the third conference of Methodist preachers in 1746: “Do they know God as a pardoning God?” “Have they gifts?” and “Have they fruit?”
She continued, “John Wesley is also asking us as a conference right now, “Have you fruit, Iowa Annual Conference?'
“Are you modeling the love of Christ to everyone who walks through the doors of your churches?” the bishop asked. “What are you doing outside your buildings for the people most in need in your communities, the state of Iowa, and this world? Are all of your many activities making a difference? Where’s your runway?”
Citing passages from both the Old and New Testament, Bishop Laurie told the Annual Conference session, “Our call as Christians is to bear fruit by reaching out to all people with the grace of Jesus Christ.”
She spoke of the ultimate purpose of the Christian life, saying, “Our biblical mandate is to bear fruit in this life and thus bring heaven to earth every day.”
Mere faithfulness becomes a cop-out when churches become mired in the status quo and have no desire to grow, reach out to their neighbors, or serve the least, the last, and the lost, said Bishop Laurie. She then said, “Faithfulness becomes an excuse for the lack of fruit.”
The bishop offered an illustration of how fruitfulness is reflected in Iowa through its farming culture.
“Fruitfulness is effectiveness in ministry,” she said. “Fruitfulness plans for and expects results.”
“If John Wesley were alive today,” continued the bishop, “I am absolutely convinced that he would say, “Fruitfulness is being a difference maker.”
“Have you fruit?” she asked the Conference crowd. “Then make a difference! Why does the Iowa Annual Conference have strategic priorities and our new vision and mission statements? So they can be our runway for bearing fruit and becoming difference makers.”
Bishop Laurie shared varying difference makers in her life, before a video presentation of difference makers within the Iowa Annual Conference; ThreeHouse, the Wesley Foundation at Northern Iowa University.
She said the same question John Wesley had posed to his preachers each year would be posed all year in Iowa, “Have you fruit? Have you made a difference?”
Another aspect to bearing fruit in The United Methodist Church, she said, is remaining connected to the vine.
“We are a connectional church where every congregation in Iowa is linked,” stated Bishop Laurie. “We’re all in this together.”
“We need all of our churches to be healthy if we are going to bear collective fruit,” she said further. “We need to learn how to share best practices, create partnerships, mentor each other, and leverage the strength of our connection. But we also need to be faithful in paying our apportionments, the funds that each United Methodist congregation contributes so that we can make a difference together around the world.”
She shared the goal for the next conference year for every district, every church, and every United Methodist in Iowa to be a difference maker.
Conference attendees were given the opportunity nominate someone to be recognized as a Difference Maker, with a Difference Maker wall in the hallway outside the event hall.
“My dream is each one of us will wake up every morning for the next year, and the first prayer we pray will be, “God, empower me to be a difference maker today,” said Bishop Laurie.
She told the Conference session that every time you show grace to someone treat someone as a child of God, help someone in need, pray for someone, advocate for positive change in the world, or share the love of Jesus with someone—you are a difference maker.
“What good is a corn stalk without an ear of corn?” she asked. “What good is an apple tree if we don’t learn how to grow luscious apples?”
Bishop Laurie then went on to pose the question, “What good is it for our churches to run ourselves ragged, going from one activity to after another without a runway, without purpose and goals, and without connecting with the very people we seek to reach?”
She offered varying questions for ministry leaders, Trustees, staff, and clergy to ask in pondering whether there is fruit and how to do a better job sharing the love of Jesus.
She also told those in attendance that each one of them was created to make a difference.
“I don’t exactly where God will lead us in the years ahead,” Bishop Laurie said in conclusion, “but I do know this; Fruit-bearing and difference-making is essential to our vision, mission, strategic priorities, and our very future.”
She asked Conference session attendees to consider how they are inspiring, equipping, and connecting communities of faith to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ.
“How is the Iowa Annual Conference God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people?” she posed. “Have you fruit? Answer: Yes! Will you be a difference maker? Answer: Yes! So be it!”