Epiphany Address: Watching Over One Another in Love

Epiphany Address: Watching Over One Another in Love

January 08, 2021



Epiphany Address Transcript:

WATCHING OVER ONE ANOTHER IN LOVE
 
January 4, 2021, Bishop Laurie Haller
Epiphany Address                                                                               Iowa Annual Conference
 
 
Bishop Laurie Haller:
 
Good evening, friends. Grace and peace in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am deeply grateful that you have chosen to participate in this time of reflection and celebration of where we have been as United Methodists in Iowa and how God is leading us into a future with hope. This is a very tender time in the life of our denomination, yet it is also a time of great possibility.
 
As we ground ourselves in God’s word, I would like to read the gospel lesson for Epiphany, which is on Wednesday. Listen for the word of the Lord from Matthew, chapter 2.
 
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 
They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 
He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.
 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 
He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 
When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 
10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. 
Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 
12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
 
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
 
Let us pray. Guiding God, bless us on the road we have chosen to seek your star. Light our paths that we may not walk in darkness, but walk with you, the light of the world. Enable us to offer gifts worthy of the Christ child. Teach us to be wise, and empower us to risk sharing our hope, our joy, and our peace with the world. Amen.     
      
Last September, I was taking an early morning walk around the neighborhood. It just happened to be the first day of school in Clive, and as I walked by, I saw a man bring his two young sons out of the house and accompany them to the bus stop. They were maybe in second and fourth grade.
 
What caught my eye is the fact that the father is a state trooper, and when he’s off-duty, his squad car is parked outside their house. As he walked with his sons, all of whom were wearing masks, two other people who looked to be grandparents were standing in the front yard watching. The trooper got his sons situated, then came back to the house and stood in the yard, making sure everything would be okay when the boys got on the bus for the first time in the new school year. 
 
When another little boy came out of a neighboring house and joined them, the father walked back to his sons, put his arms around both of them, and gave them each a kiss on the head. He then walked back to the house once more, got in his squad car, and drove to the corner. There he again waited until the bus stopped. You know what he was doing, don’t you? He was watching over his boys in love. The boys gave their Dad a final hug and climbed on the bus, and it drove away. I’m sure I was not the only one who could not hold back the tears.
 
On the path that lights our way because of the star, our call, the call of the magi, the call of the father, and the call of each one of us, is to “watch over one another in love.”[i] This is the heart of our Wesleyan rule of life.    
 
At the beginning of this new year, we gather as United Methodists in a time that is unlike any other that we have known. The convergence of so many difficult things affects each one of us in some way.  
 
COVID-19 still rages, hundreds of people die every day, and as we patiently wait for our turn to get a vaccine, we lament, “How long, O Lord. How long?” Many people in our state and country are still unemployed, and hundreds of businesses are closed for good. Our clergy are weary and stressed as they “reinvent church” and lead out of a new normal. The Black Lives Matter movement is challenging us to recognize our own biases and white privilege. Many of our churches are finding it difficult to pay their bills, which affects the viability of some congregations as well as our commitment to apportionment giving. Our conference structure needs to be reimagined.
 
And then there is the uncertainty that we all feel about the future of The United Methodist Church after the postponement of the 2020 General Conference until the fall of this year. In the midst of our differences around human sexuality, will we find a way to honor and bless one another as we anticipate that different forms of Methodism might emerge?
 
The season of Epiphany speaks of the journey of which we are all apart. It’s a journey of life, a journey of faith, and a journey of hope. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we, like so many in the Bible, are a people who journey. In Matthew chapter 2, we read that after Jesus was born, Magi from the East journeyed to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is this newborn King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and want to honor him.”   
 
Herod, of course, became suspicious and asked his advisors, “Where is this King supposed to be born?” They said, “Bethlehem.” So, Herod said to the magi, “Why don’t you go to Bethlehem, find the child, and report back to me? I want to worship him, too.”   
 
You know the rest of the story. The magi saw a star in the east that led them to a house. There, the magi honored the child and offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are gifts that still have meaning. Gold symbolizes how, as people of faith who live in hope, we must invest in our children’s future today. Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin that signifies God’s presence in the midst of life’s challenges. And myrrh is an embalming oil that not only laments the great loss of life through COVID-19 but also promises resurrection and new life.  
 
Having worshipped the baby Jesus, the magi left to go home by another way after being warned in a dream. Meanwhile, the angel said to Joseph, “Take the baby and go to Egypt. You’ll be safe there.” Mary and Joseph stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Then they journeyed back home and settled in Nazareth.   
 
Like the magi, we, too, are on a journey as a conference, and as we journey, we are called to watch over each other in love, just as the state trooper would not leave until his children were safely on the bus. Epiphany speaks of that journey. The journey is one that you and I in Iowa share with people all over the world: people of different nations, ethnicities, languages, and religions. We need each other. 
 
But journeys can also be disruptive and lead us to places we’d rather not go. Regardless of whatever stand we take on human sexuality or any number of other issues, we are on this journey together. At the same time, we may soon be at a place where the journey will lead some United Methodists elsewhere. There will likely be forks in the road, and we may simply need to bless each other with hearts of peace.  
 
What ultimately sustains us on this journey, however, is hope. In Romans 5:1-5 (CEB), the apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” 
 
Hope is what undergirds all that we do in the Iowa Annual Conference. Do you remember our Conference Vision Statement? “God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people.” Faith, fruit, and fire. 
 
And our Mission is to “Inspire, equip, and connect communities of faith to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ.”
 
My friends, don’t lose hope because God is not done with us. As we enter a new year, what sustains us is hope in the midst of disruption; hope in the midst of the ravages of COVID-19; hope that is evidenced by our commitment to serve God by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness; and hope that, by God’s grace and by watching over one another in love, we will live out our vision and mission in a way that honors God and one another and transforms individual lives and the world. Everything that we do in the Iowa Annual Conference is framed by our missional priorities.    
 
I want to share several things with you this evening as we begin this new year together. Some of them are updates, others consist of new information. And I want to remind us that, as a conference, we are living out our Strategic Priorities, which were created in 2017 and include: 

  • Creating World-Transforming Communities of Faith
  • Equipping Ourselves and Others as Transformational Leaders
  • Directing Our Resources to Our Common Goals
As a way of living out those strategic priorities, I introduced in September 2019 what I have called Vision 2032
 
I laid out a vision for the Iowa Annual Conference where, in the church of 2032, relationships will be more important than theological convictions. 
 
I remain convinced that by cultivating healthy, trusting, loving relationships with those who think differently than we do, we are able to overcome whatever barriers separate us from each other. 
 
Second, in the church of 2032, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo. 
 
I imagine a church where all ideas will be welcomed, discernment of the gifts of the laity will be a priority, new ways of being church will emerge, and the enthusiasm and vision of new young leaders will be encouraged and celebrated rather than squelched. I envision a church that throws open its doors, not just so people can come into taste and see, but so we can all go out to serve and love.
 
And, third, in the church of 2032, our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: 
 
To go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do. 
 
This three-pronged vision lies at the heart of the gospel and is the foundation for our spiritual lives. 
 
I want to turn now to brief reports about six ongoing initiatives in the Iowa Annual Conference. Links providing additional information for these initiatives will be provided in the transcript for this Epiphany Address. The complete transcript will be posted on the conference website this evening, shortly after the Address. 
 
As most of you know, the development of circuit ministry is our future in the Iowa Annual Conference and is one of our most important initiatives. This report comes from Bill Poland and Jaye Johnson. 
 
In September, a training event was held for our first round of Circuit Leaders. As of November, nine circuits have begun meeting. The Circuit Team and Superintendents have been gathering monthly with the Lay and Clergy Circuit Leaders to prepare for Circuit meetings and to learn from them. Numerous changes are being implemented as a result of feedback from our first Circuit Leaders. This includes a move to monthly training of potential Circuit Leaders in each district. Beginning in February, the District Superintendent and a coach will work with Clergy Circuit Leaders identified by the DS. They are seeking gifted lay and clergy to lead as a team. If you feel called and gifted to co-lead a circuit, we encourage you to consult with your DS or a member of the Circuit Team.
 
Circuits are being formed for support and mutual accountability to the missional priorities identified in each pastoral charge. These 3 to 5 priorities must be accomplished if the local faith community is to fulfill its mission to “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” The priorities are identified in consultation with the DS and local church leadership.
 
Within the Circuits, pastoral leaders will be equipped to take their priorities and develop adaptive strategies with their congregations for implementation in Ministry Action Plans or MAPS. To implement these strategies, each ministry will be encouraged to develop teams of laity working with the pastor to grow in discipleship and become better leaders for the cause of Christ. 
 
The circuit members will meet for approximately 8 hours each month in a process of Loving God and each other, Learning to become better disciples and more effective leaders, and Leading adaptively in today’s rapidly changing context (the L3 process). Key essentials to this process are prayer and worship, spiritual accountability, a shared covenant, and Reflecting, Adjusting, and Doing our Ministry Action Plans. While maintaining these key essentials to the process, circuits will be free to adapt their meetings to their needs and context. 
 
In addition to support, mutual accountability, and intentional leadership development, it is hoped that in the sharing of MAPs, members of the circuit will discern the Spirit’s leading into collaborative ministry with those outside our churches. Just as our faith communities are the primary places of discipleship development, we hope that our circuits will become the primary places of our connection. By working together, we better develop our shared ministry and resource our mission. This is a huge transition for us here in Iowa, and it is coming during one of the most challenging times and circumstances. It will take nothing less than the Spirit of God to empower us and lead us through it.   
 
A second initiative in our conference is being honest and clear about our financial position. This report comes from our conference treasurer, Maggie Biggs, and the Conference Council on Finance and Administration.   
 
The financial health of the Iowa Annual Conference is reflected in the financial health of our local congregations and their members. We are very much aware that we are all in this together. Significant highlights of 2020 include:
  • On April 15, the Council on Finance and Administration activated the spending contingency plan. This plan prioritizes our expenditures when the Working Capital Reserve drops below 90 days of cash flow based on our daily operating expenses. 
  • In May, the Conference received a $1.2 million Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) Loan to fund qualifying operating expenses for the Conference, Justice for Our Neighbors and Women at the Well. The forgiveness application has been submitted. If this loan is forgiven, it will offset some of the shortfalls in 2020 Apportionment giving.  
  • By the end of November:
    • We received 55% ($7.2 million) of the 2020 $13.1 million budgeted Apportionment giving. Based on prior years, our projection is that we will receive $8.9 million or 68% by year’s end.
    • Through designated Apportionment giving from 200 local churches, we received $1.6 million for General Church Apportionments. An additional 90 churches were on track to pay 100% of GC Apportionments. We are thankful for this support. To pay 100% of GC Apportionments, we would have needed to receive another $1.2 million from the remaining 447 churches. Results will be known after the January 8 remittance deadline. 
 
Our Reserve is currently $2 million. How much of the Reserve will remain at year-end is dependent upon:
 
1. If the PPP loan is forgiven. 
2.  Savings gained by improving efficiencies, effectiveness, and reduction of staff positions.  
3. Savings gained by holding the 2020 Iowa Annual Conference Session and the regular meetings of boards, agencies, and committees virtually.
4. Apportionment giving received by the deadline of January 8, 2021.
 
At the Annual Conference Session held last July, the Council of Finance and Administration (CF&A) presented, and the Conference adopted the 2021 Conference Budget. This reduced 2021 Apportionments by 25%, giving financial relief for congregations. 
 
The 2021 Budget is a result of:
  • Three years of the intentional realignment of Conference Staff (including year-round camp staff), thus reducing the number of full-time equivalent staff positions by 40% by the end of 2021.
  • Implementing cost savings and efficiency measures.
  • Transitioning from district office spaces to virtual offices and reduction of districts to 5 and the number of Superintendents to 5.
  • Removing the “safety net” of a budgeted allowance for unpaid Apportionment giving. It will be more important than ever that churches contribute toward the connection in 2021.  
 
More details will be presented at the Conversations on Local Church and Conference Finances on January 23 and 30. Everyone is invited to participate. Please choose the date and time that works best for you. 
 
A third initiative is Reimagining our Conference Council on Ministries structure to position us for more effective ministry and outreach. This report comes from Jeff Branstetter and Ian Montgomery from our Bishop’s Operational Team and Duane Daby, chair of our Connectional Ministries Team. 
 
A task team, led by laypersons Jeff Branstetter of the Harlan UMC and assisted by Ian Montgomery of the Cedar Rapids St. Paul’s UMC, and made up of clergy, laity, and Conference staff, has been meeting over the last few months for the purpose of reimaging the Conference Connectional Ministries Council (CCMC). The task team has gained feedback from over 25 CCMC representatives.
 
This feedback indicates that CCMC needs to be more flexible, adaptive, and relevant to local church needs in today’s context and be aligned with the emerging Circuit Ministry. With CCMC funding significantly reduced due to lower Apportionment giving, some prioritization is needed in order to be “difference makers” around important Conference missions and ministries. 
 
CCMC can no longer function primarily as a “granting” agency. A reimagined CCMC needs to be able to inspire, equip, and connect local communities to live into the ministries to which God has called them. The following are emerging themes: 
 
  • Our Conference Camping program provides critical discipleship formation for youth and is worthy of continued investment.
  • Changing demographics in Iowa are creating a strong need for diversity and inclusion of immigrant and ethnic populations while concurrently helping local churches understand different cultures and becoming an antiracist Conference. 
  • The consolidation of similar ministry areas will simplify communications and align diminishing financial and human resources.
  • We need to bring clarity to the ways that CCMC boards, agencies, and committees might walk alongside and resource local churches and circuits.
 
As for the next steps, the task team has begun to assemble and draft criteria for assessing if, how, and where each existing CCMC ministry fits into a reimagined CCMC, such as:
 
  1. Is there a reasonable, objective, and positive prognosis that the ministry will contribute to the Vision of the Iowa Conference for the foreseeable future?
  2. Is the ministry nimble in its execution? Is the ministry able to move quickly and effectively with changing circumstances and not be bogged down by slow, unresponsive, or unproductive behaviors? This implies that a ministry’s structure is simple and adaptable.
  3. Does the ministry area duplicate another CCMC ministry? Are funding resources available outside of the Iowa Conference? If so, consider consolidation and partnerships where appropriate.  
  4. And, finally, where does the ministry area best fit within the future Iowa Conference structure? Does it reside at the Conference level or within one or more of the new circuits, or with a specific church? This might address start-up or ongoing funding sources. 
 
The Task Team will continue to work with the CCMC representatives to finalize a new structure, which will be presented to the Bishop’s Operational Team no later than April 1, 2021. 
 
A fourth initiative is our Camping program, and this report comes from Bryan Johnson, our Director of Camping and Christian Formation.
 
Camping Programs at Okoboji and Wesley Woods United Methodist Camps share the love of Christ as the focus of our ministry by engaging youth, congregations, and individuals. The camps are committed to being places where all are welcome to make new friends, learn about Jesus Christ, and grow in faith.
 
As apportionment subsidies continue to change across the Iowa Annual Conference, the Board of Camps has embraced the challenge of identifying new partnerships and funding mechanisms. Our camping ministry has tackled fiscal challenges head-on rather than simply fold as apportionments change. In February of 2020, the Board of Camps launched its first Annual Campaign. The campaign was supported by over one hundred volunteers and raised $170,000 in gifts and pledges. These funds will be used to ensure that our camps continue to be a place for youth to grow in Christ. The success of the Annual Campaign, along with strategic long-term decisions, means that our camping ministry has decreased its apportionment request by 50% in just five years.
 
This upcoming February, nearly 125 staff and volunteers have agreed to participate in our second Annual Campaign on behalf of Okoboji and Wesley Woods United Methodist Camps. As one of the primary youth disciple-making programs in the state, youth camping ministry is a critical part of our church’s future by serving over 2,000 young people each summer. In addition to the Annual Campaign, small teams of committed volunteers are currently contacting local churches across the state, seeking monetary support. These initiatives are proving to be successful and have created an even greater sense of connection between the local church and camps.
 
Finally, campers are registering, and camp staff are preparing for Summer 2021 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. With the hope of continued distribution of the vaccine, the leadership of our camping programs is committed to providing a safe environment on site this upcoming summer for campers and guests. The Board of Camps is also committed to continuing to enroll any young person regardless of financial status.
 
Thank you to all who continue to invest in the youth of The United Methodist Church. As Christ says to his disciples in Matthew 19:14, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. 
 
A fifth initiative is caring for our clergy during this time. This report comes from Lanette Plambeck, Director of Clergy and Leadership Excellence, and Joni Mardesen, Director of Human Resources and Benefits Officer.
 
The life of a clergyperson carries with it a number of unique challenges and anxieties. The burden does not just fall on them, but also on members of their family who support their ministry. We recognize that the leadership challenges and pressures have been even more complex since the Pandemic began. 
Care for our clergy and their families comes in many forms and from several different sources.  There are resources to address physical, mental, and family health concerns. Other resources provide practical information and guidelines around specific areas of concern in their life, for example, financial health, time management, and vocational discernment. Some of these resources include:
  • Access to a variety of confidential counseling, coaching, and support resources through our employee assistance program provided by Employee & Family Resources
  • Wespath resources to support our clergy in their financial and overall wellbeing
  • Care through the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) Orders/Fellowship, the care team, and mentoring supports
  • Connection to Ministry Coaches, Spiritual Directors, or Continuing Education including on-line retreats and events from across the conference and the
  • Referrals to the Des Moines Pastoral Care and Counseling Center, and other forms of coaching and mentoring.
There are also a number of recently developed care resources available to both clergy and laity:
  • Reflective Supervision - out of a partnership with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry - this is a unique hybrid of spiritual direction, ministry coaching, and pastoral care.
  • “Abiding in Exile” and other supports and resources coming out of the Conference Mental Health Task Force - this is a weekly e-letter for clergy and laity both; and,
  • “Redeeming Babel”, which is in partnership with Duke Divinity School and is available to clergy and laity both. This 7-week study on anxiety as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
  • National Alliance of Mental Illness and fantastic lunch-time webinar through the NAMI Iowa connection.
Whether you are experiencing challenges in your ministry, in your call, or within your family, we hope that you will reach out through the many support systems and resources available to our clergy and their families.
            
The sixth initiative is the formation of what we are calling “The Ezekiel Team.” This is a small group whose goal is to discern what a way forward can look like in the Iowa Annual Conference after General Conference meets from August 29 to September 7, 2021.
 
The Ezekiel Team has a three-fold purpose:    
  1. To get through the pandemic together. 
  2. To move toward General Conference together.
  3. To respond to General Conference together. 
 
Rev. Ron Carlson will be the convener of the Ezekiel Team, and team members will commit to meeting virtually once a week for an hour, beginning in January and lasting until July. They will also be making regular reports to the Conference, which will be published in the weekly 360. The group includes laity and clergy representing different theological viewpoints.
 
I want to make a few concluding comments. Many of you have heard about Methodist class meetings. Kevin Watson, Associate Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, writes that “The class meeting was started in 1742 when a group of Methodists was trying to figure out how to pay off a building debt in Bristol, England.” The Bristol Methodist society was divided up into groups of twelve people, and the leader would go around every week to collect money from every member. Responding to a complaint that this would eliminate poor people from participating, it was decided that those who had more resources would cover the shortfall. 
 
And you know what? Soon these Methodists “began to ‘bear one another burdens,’ and ‘naturally’ to ‘care for each other.’” The class meeting, then, quickly developed into much more than a capital campaign. It became a crucial tool for enabling Methodists to “watch over one another in love,” to support and encourage one another in their lives with God. In fact, John Wesley thought that the oversight and support that the class meeting provided was so important that it became a requirement for membership in a Methodist society.”
 
Watching over one another in love. I still see the state trooper on occasion, watching over his young sons in love. And every week I witness United Methodists watching over each other in love as well. How might our conference, our state, and our world be different if, instead of fussing with one another, we all watched over each other in love? 
 
The early Methodists watched over one another in love, and it sparked a movement that spread around the world: a movement of grace, a movement of witness, and a movement of hope. We, too, can choose to be a part of that movement. It’s the hope of wise men traveling to Bethlehem from the East by following a star; the hope of Mary and Joseph, who fled to Egypt to escape harm; the hope of United Methodists to be witnesses to the grace of Jesus Christ; and the hope of our world for a vaccine that will stop the spread of the coronavirus. And, in the midst of our hope, we keep our eyes on the star, believing that we, too, can shine and become a guiding star ourselves, bringing others to Jesus, and watching over one another in love.  
 
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine; This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine; This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine; let it shine; let it shine; let it shine.  
 
We have about 25 minutes now for you to ask a question or share comments. Email them to vision2032@iaumc.org or add them to the comments on Facebook.
 
But before we do that, I want to share a quick COVID update from Lanette Plambeck, who has so faithfully been tracking COVID statistics in Iowa over the past ten months. 

We would like to thank you for your faithful response to the November 18th directive from Bishop Laurie Haller and the Appointive Cabinet that paused in-person worship and church activities through January 10th. You may recall this decision was made in response to worsening COVID-19 positivity rates across the state and the profound pressures being placed on our healthcare systems and frontline workers.  We deeply appreciate the ways in which you partnered together through Advent, Christmas Season and Epiphany to provide virtual worship, small group opportunities, and resourcing our local faith communities with pastoral care, stewardship planning, and connecting with your broader community during this hard and holy time. After consulting with local leaders and healthcare personnel - and in review of reported numbers across the state - this directive will be lifted with a return to yellow status after January 10th.  

To determine your best next steps as a local congregation, you are encouraged to return to the 3-2-1 Re-Entry Guideline available on the Conference Website and would ask your local re-entry leadership teams to review your county/public health numbers, hospitalizations, ICU bed availability and deaths as you make your re-entry decisions. 

Our recommendation is that for churches located in counties with positivity rates at or below 15.0 percent - and review and implementation of your protocols - you may resume in-person worship and gatherings with appropriate safety protocols of masking, physical distancing and other recommended safety procedures in place. For counties where case positivity rates are above 15.0 percent, it is requested these congregations consider remaining in the red.

Additionally, we would encourage your leadership to access the Vaccine education and availability guidelines from the Iowa Department of Public Health and share this resource with your congregations. Also, to encourage your faith community to get their flu shots if they have not yet done so.

Rev. Dr. Harlan Gillespie:
Thank you, Bishop Laurie, for that inspiring message and for the words of hope as we watch over one another in love. And thanks to everyone who has been present this evening either through the live streaming from the conference website or on the Facebook page, the Iowa Conference web conference. This address is being recorded as was mentioned earlier and was available on the conference website for you to review and share with others. 
 
We're very interested in reflections and questions about the initiatives and things and other things in Bishop Lori's address. And remember, you can ask questions about the initiatives by using either the vision2032@iaumc.org email address and also you can send your questions using the @IowaUMchurch Facebook page feed. Melissa Drake and Jaye Johnson will monitor that and bring those questions to us as well. And also remember, you can use that same email address to ask us questions ongoing after tonight. We will respond to your questions as quickly and fully as we possibly can. To answer your questions, we have some persons that Bishop already mentioned who are working on the six initiatives. So, we'll go to questions right now. And we'll kind of check the email address. 
 
Question:  There was a mask mandate put into place for our churches back in November before we were directed to be closed. Is that mass mandate still in place when we reopen?
 
Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck
Answer: Yes, we are requesting that you follow the 3-2-1 protocols that you can resource from the conference website. And those protocols include masking and physical distancing, frequently washing your hands and having hand sanitizer stations available. So, all of that is in the 3-2-1 information. We would ask that that you continue to take those precautions as you return to worship.
 
Question: Who will be in my circuit?
 
Rev. Dr. Jaye Johnson
Answer:  We have our Superintendents who are now in the process of picking the circuits. And so, they're going to be looking for what those groupings will look like. The circuits are open to all pastors that are quarter time or greater but are required for those who are halftime or more at this time. So currently, they're being formed. We have a currently meeting we doing a training coming up in February for new leaders and then be launching from there.
 
Question: Is youth camping a viable long term in Iowa? 
 
Bryan Johnson
Answer: Absolutely. What we are experiencing is just a change in function and how we have operated for decades. The Iowa United Methodist campsites have depended on the apportionment subsidy in order to operate. But in today's era, our camping ministry has made some decisions to become more viable. So, looking ahead, we've been able to do a successful annual campaign. We're in the midst of a major gifts campaign where we're reaching out to churches, missions committees, endowment committees, and looking for partnerships there. The result of those two fundraising efforts in addition to some of the other strategic moves toward a future where Iowa camps are able to be more financially self-sufficient and would not necessarily be dependent upon the apportionment system, which has been the case for decades and decades. 
 
Question: Who are the members of the Ezekiel Team?
 
Rev. Ron Carlson
Answer: We are finalizing the people as we speak, and we should have something coming out late this week or early next week as to who the members are.
 
Question: Can you verify who has the final decision as to the congregation returning to in-person worship?
 
Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck
Answer: Every congregation has its reentry team. Some are using their church council while others have formed a reentry team. Reentry teams will work with their pastor or other leaders on how they can best live into the recommendations coming from the Conference. So, it is a local church decision. And as we watch over one another in love, our request would be that if you are over 15.0 positivity rate, that you would stay red status. And even if you've gone to under 15.0 positivity to watch the trends that are coming from Iowa right now. And if you start to see numbers trend up, to maybe returning to red. But it's a local church decision. And we would ask that you adhere to the 3-2-1 plan as you're able. 
 
Question: Can you explain why it's so important that local churches be involved with national giving in 2021? Even more so than in previous years?
 
Norlan Hinke
Answer: First of all, I think there's a misnomer out there about these 20% unpaid Apportionment, that's, there's no money behind that. So that is a zero effect on the cash flow. But the effect is, when that was in place, the apportionments were inflated by 20%. It just became difficult to understand. And it, quite frankly, from some of our opinions, didn't have a lot of merit to be in there. So now the situation though is the budget is exact. So, the revenue needs to come in to meet the expenses. There's no 20% cushion there of unpaid, but there was no money behind it anyway. So, it's a zero cash flow impact.
 
Question: Does it mean we get to the contingency plan that the CF&A has for us in terms of limiting spending faster?
 
Norlan Hinke
Answer: Not really because the contingency plan is based on liquidity. Maggie does a liquidity ratio. Our objective was 90 to 120 days, and we got way down considerably, considerably less than that. And the reason to put the plan into place is to make sure that we have adequate funds coming in. So, we can pay salaries, we can pay lease payments, we can pay necessary payments, not wanting to not make all payments, but having to prioritize and Maggie's done a good job of that. But what it really means is that it's just a whole lot simpler to understand the budget. Because revenue is revenue and expenses are expenses, and there isn't that 20% number in place that really wasn't a factor anyway.
 
 
Question: How are the members of the Ezekiel Team being chosen?
 
Rev. Ron Carlson
We, as a Cabinet sat down and we formed a small group where we identified people of clergy and laity coming from different perspectives of understanding of theology and how we can move forward. And we have vetted that list through the Bishop. And we have approximately eight clergy and eight laity across the spectrum of understandings and beliefs. And then we asked the individuals and as they commit to the process, then we were forming the group.
 
Rev. Dr. Harlan Gillespie
Also, in addition to that, Ron, I will also add that it includes a variety of persons who would self-identify my different genders as well. So, it includes quite a variety and diversity as much as possible.
 
Question: Is there a single source for the positivity rate in our county? Is it the pastor's decision to enforce the 15% rule?
 
Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck
Answer: There are four primary sources that I turn to the Iowa COVID-19 report: Iowa Department of Public Health and a couple of other resources. Those are updated tomorrow morning on the conference website. Each of the links will tell you exactly what you will find there. We do tend to lean into the school percentages as well, one of the resources. And then there's an excellent resource from Iowa State University. 
 
The pastor is the one that really oversees when worship happens, how it happens in the local church, but we would encourage the teams to work together. We all know that in all forms of ministry, clergy and laity need to be in step together as disciples of Jesus Christ. And if you are having challenges in having the conversation, then then I would encourage you to reach out to your Superintendent or to me and we can share information as well. The 15 percentage is what that the health system has stated and I am working with them on Tuesday mornings. This has been our guiding percentage, and we would encourage you to also maintain that. But if you're having a real struggle, please reach out to your Superintendent or to me and we can talk through that and share the data as well.
 
Question: As the circuit ministries are being formed and implemented, how do the district leaders play a part?
 
Rev. Dr. Jaye Johnson
Answer: We are continuing to work through the connection between the district lay leaders and the lay leaders of the circuit teams. So that's something that's going to be ongoing and developing. We have some things that are being tried within the central district that we're kind of piloting that we're experimenting with. But the total and complete answer is, it's still a work in progress.
 
Bishop Laurie Haller:
Thank you for your questions, comments, and expressions of hope. Each one of you is a shining light in the sky, meant to bring glory to God. What a joy it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, charged with watching over each other in love. 
 
I invite you now to join in our closing litany, where your response will be, “We will watch over one another in love.” 
 
Closing Litany:
From the dust of the earth, we are formed and to dust, we will return. We are from earth dust, the same substance as the dust of the stars. 
 
Imagine: in the beginning, God took a handful of stardust, and shaped it, and breathed into it, and there was life. That first person – and every person since – was made of this same stardust, the holy dust of creation.
 
As stardust people, made in the image of God, every single one of us is a beacon of light, guiding others to the love of Jesus. And as an Annual Conference of stardust people, this year we are following the light of 6 initiatives, as if they were 6 points of a star, guiding us to God’s perfect light. Please join with us as we name and claim this light leading us forward:
 
Lord, shine into us so we remember who we are and what we are called to do, connected together, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 
 
All: We will watch over one another in love.
 
Lord shine into us as we remember that everything we have and everything we offer is a direct reflection of God’s great love for us, caring for the least of these, and sharing with transparency as we plan for the future. 
 
All: We will watch over one another in love. 
 
Lord, shine upon us as we remember that even the very core of our conference structures - our boards, agencies, and commissions - are beacons of hope, connected together, shining our advocacy, justice and discipleship out into the world. 
 
All: We will watch over one another in love. 
 
Lord, shine upon us as we celebrate and support our camping and retreat ministries as places where call is cultivated, relationships are formed, and Christ can be known, sparking the faith and leadership of the young people of the church. 
 
All: We will watch over one another in love. 
 
Lord, shine into us as we care for our leaders, both lay and clergy, who reflect the brightness of the Son, knowing that in the weariness and pain of the world we can grow dim and exhausted. We will continue to be connected together with compassion, so that we continue to burn bright and not burn out. 
 
All: We will watch over one another in love. 
 
Lord, shine upon us as we remember who we are as a church together, moving toward General Conference together and responding to General Conference together, recognizing that our connections may look different, but claiming our identity together as the body of Christ. 
 
All: We will watch over one another in love. 
 
The light of God’s purposes has shone upon us. We carry that light into the new year.
 
The star of God’s promises that led to Bethlehem, now leads us to serve throughout the Iowa Conference and into the world as we watch over one another in love. 
 
Thank you to each one of you for being a part of this Epiphany address. God bless you.
Let us pray. Living God, your radiance shines in the beauty of creation. In Christ your Son, you have given the world eternal light that burns brightly in the midst of darkness. Like the magi, when you draw us near, we are overwhelmed with joy! Lead us by your Spirit to share your warmth and grace with our neighbors. Let our lives in this new year be an offering. We pray through Christ, the light of the world. Amen.
 
Thank you to each one of you for being a part of this Epiphany address. Go in peace.
 
 
[i] “General Rules of the United Societies” in The Works of John Wesley edited by Rupert E. Davies Vol. 9 The Methodist Societies: History, Nature and Design (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), p. 69.

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