In her inaugural episcopal address
at the 2023 Iowa Annual Conference Session of The United Methodist Church, Resident Bishop Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai encouraged the body to react to the challenges facing the church not with anger or retribution but with healing, reconciliation, and love and that it should begin within our communities and us. She emphasized being a Christ-like presence, her commitment to #BeUMC, going deep in spiritual formation and Christian discipleship, focusing outward, and making hope real.
During her time in Iowa, she has toured four of the five districts and met many clergy and laity, visited with circuits and district gatherings, worshiped in many different churches, and engaged with youth ministry and equine counselors.
“I have seen the ministry that you do—Iowa—the people that you are. I have seen you. I have seen the worry lines in the faces of our clergy and the tired and haggard looks of some of our laity. I have seen and heard the discouragement, the anger, the grief, and the trauma of an ongoing fight that is ending in a painful divorce,” said Bigham-Tsai. “But I have also seen the hope and the joy on the faces of young clergywomen chatting away at dinner at the Primrose Cafe
in Corning. I have been a part of animated, theological conversations around a fire pit in the backyard of young pastors as we discussed the ministry of Nourished,
a spiritual community, and a gluten-free bakery.
And, I have seen laity gather (on Laity Day) in their commitment to racial justice, inspired by stories of racial healing. I have seen you at the Iowa Annual Conference, and this is what I know…I know that you are all made in the image of God and that you are good.”
Watch the Opening Worship and Episcopal Address
Bigham-Tsai said, “We must be in the presence of Christ with one another.” She emphasized the importance of us being present with one another, saying it “cannot be overstated because of the separation first caused by the pandemic and because of the fracturing and harm done by this division, we must hold each other in a space of healing from the trauma that we have all experienced.”
“Pastors, you must be visible and present with your people as you lead in your congregations. Laity, you must be present with your pastors to support them and to be coworkers with them in ministry. Superintendents, we must, as a cabinet, find new and innovative ways to extend the ministry of presence throughout this annual conference,” said Bigham-Tsai.
Bigham-Tsai added that members must continue to proclaim and celebrate their identity as United Methodists, in particular, their unique Wesleyan focus on a theology of grace.
“That means being the Holy Spirit empowered disciples of Jesus, who welcome all people to the table of God's mercy, and who combat the scourge of racism and homophobia, and transphobia and misogyny because we recognize that all persons are made in the image of God, no matter their race, or gender, or gender identity or sexuality,” said Bigham-Tsai.
See images from the first day of the 2023 Iowa Annual Conference.
Bigham-Tsai introduced a new book that Bishop Ken Carter has written called Unrelenting Grace: A United Methodist Way of Life.
This book is being provided for free to all in-person attendees at this annual conference. She will begin a conference-wide study focusing on the book in the fall.
“And when it comes to our call to be a grace-filled church, amidst the divisions and disagreements of our time, this is what we must know. We must know that it doesn't matter who is right or thinks they are right. It only matters if we are loving. It doesn't matter who is right or thinks they are right. It only matters if we are welcoming, and it does not matter who is right or thinks they are right. It only matters that we see the image of God, the likeness of Christ and all people and be Christ to all. Friends to do any of this. We're going to have to go deep spiritually,” said Bigham-Tsai.
She went on to say that this begins by going a mile deep and an inch wide in terms of discipleship, spiritual formation, and the study of the Scriptures.
“We must go a mile deep in the intentional formation of disciples of Jesus Christ, who can meet the test of these times, disciples who can deal with the complexities of these times, disciples who can meet the divisions of these times,” said Bigham-Tsai.
Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai recalled visiting Matthew 25 in Cedar Rapids and how they have gone deep into their community by providing affordable housing in a depressed area, urban gardens, and combatting blight by buying a liquor store and turning it into a grocery store.
“It is revitalizing a community and building relationships with the least of these as if they were Christ himself,” said Bigham-Tsai. “Let's bring focus and vitality to our ethnic churches, our historic African American congregations, our Hispanic congregations, our Asian and African churches, and let's start new congregations that can attract the growing diversity in this state.”
Bigham-Tsai told the body that she wants to put Iowa on the map and live into our vision of God’s hope made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people.
Referring to the scripture read at the beginning of her address, Genesis 1:24-27b (CEB), Bigham-Tsai said, “God made us together as a beloved community, as a holy connection, as the body of Christ called United Methodist. And after, God made us and formed us into the connectional body that is the Iowa annual conference. Do you know what God said? Es bueno—It is good—C’est bon—It is good—Johda—It is good—Nimzur’i—It is good—Lahat Muh Ayos—it is all very good! Iowa Annual Conference, remember who you are. Amen.”