Pastoral Letter from Bishop Laurie regarding IAUMC's Missional Direction

Pastoral Letter from Bishop Laurie regarding IAUMC's Missional Direction

August 21, 2020

August 21, 2020

To the saints of God in the Iowa Annual Conference,

Grace and peace in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Where did the summer go? It’s getting toward the end of August, and our children and youth have already begun or are about to return to school in a variety of configurations due to COVID-19. After the conclusion of our Iowa Annual Conference Clergy and Laity Sessions, the Legislative Session, two Orders services, and several town hall meetings, we have all needed time in August to rest and enjoy the summer.   

I am so grateful that, in the midst of COVID-19, and most recently, the intense “derecho” storm that caused widespread damage in much of the state, you continue to creatively and passionately proclaim the love of Jesus Christ and reach out to all those who need our help. The scripture that comes to mind for me right now is found in 1 Peter 3:15b and 16a, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.” (CEB)

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are a people of hope. Over the past five months, we have had to reinvent how we do church because of the coronavirus. I have been amazed at the faith with which you have embodied a hope that spreads Christ’s love by treating one another with respect and humility, welcoming all to be a part of the body of Christ, and reaching out into our communities in service. 

Our Annual Conference Legislative Session was just a month ago, but it seems like ages. What excites me the most is that in the midst of uncertainty and things outside our control, the Iowa Annual Conference has affirmed who we are and where we are going as disciples of Jesus Christ. I have invited several of our leaders to share where we are headed with our mission and vision in Iowa.       

Circuit Ministry: Reclaiming Our Past to Lead Us Forward

At the same time as we voted to reduce our districts from eight to five and approved a 2021 budget that is a considerable reduction from the 2020 budget, we also stepped boldly into the future by setting an exciting new direction for the Iowa Annual Conference with circuit ministry. Rev. Dr. Jaye Johnson, our Director of Congregational Excellence is leading this effort and offers these words. 

From the beginning of the Methodist movement, looking over one another in love was a foundational aspect of our expression of the faith. Circuits were one of the ways that oversight was accomplished. Today circuits are still how the British Methodists function, so from our past will come our future in the Iowa Annual Conference as we implement circuits in the coming year.

We will initiate a rolling implementation of circuits starting October 1 and will begin a new set of circuits every three months. Those working on guiding this process include Rev. Bill Poland, Director of New Communities of Faith; Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck, Director of Clergy & Leadership Excellence; Rev. Dr. Jaye Johnson, Director of Congregational Excellence; Rev. Paul Wilcox, Transitional Superintendent; and Rev. Ryan Christenson, Associate Director of Congregational Excellence.

“It’s our intention that for at least eight hours a month, the leader of the circuit will gather together all those who are pastoral leaders and a circuit lay leader to focus on leadership development around the L3 process, which is Loving, Learning, and Leading,” said Rev. Bill Poland. The L3 Process is critical to the circuit process. As we meet, trust grows. A sense of spiritual intimacy happens when we’re sharing our covenant together and when there’s spiritual accountability around how we’re living a Christian life with one another. As we draw nearer to each other, our relationship can spark a transformation in the church.

Another potential benefit is that as these lay and clergy leaders study together and reflect on their own ministries, they will be emboldened to reach out into their communities and take more risks. Because we’re so focused on survival, we become fearful of taking risk, the very risk that God has asked of us. Ministry is not intended to be a safe thing, and if we’re only doing what provides for our survival, we’re not being the church that Jesus calls us to be.

Already, one circuit has been piloted, and the church communities that are involved have seen some great results, particularly with worship attendance. As of August 1, our team has met with pastors from the Ft. Madison area, the Iowa City area, Scott County in the Davenport area, and the Des Moines metro, Casey-Stuart, Pocahontas, and Iowa Falls areas.

By the end of August, we will be meeting with laity of these churches, with anticipated launching on October 1st. We will then be launching another round in January and each three months or so until all churches and clergy in the Iowa conference are in circuits. Once the pilots are up and running, they will have regular meetings with the superintendent and with conference leaders, who will be providing leadership development, while also learning how to improve the circuits by getting feedback from the pilot groups.

There was legislation at the Iowa Annual Conference to reduce the number of districts from eight to five. Our intention is that those lines will be malleable because we want to draw the district lines based on the circuits they are intended to serve. This is a way to help determine our structure from the ground up, based on missional needs and the needs of local congregations. With this new structure, churches will be able to better work together to identify ministries or missions that are important to them and their locality. Patience will be necessary in this process.

In the coming months, our team will also plan to confer with the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Board of Laity about circuits to assist us in designing how we envision the laity component of the process. In the meantime, we are planning to have a lay leader in each circuit.  

Finally, our team wants to stress that this cannot be an “add on.” Instead, as an annual conference we will need to look at ways to reshape and reorganize the work of the annual conference using the circuits. If you have questions about circuits, please contact a member of our team, or you district superintendent. 

More information can be found here.


Financial stewardship is an essential part of our life as disciples of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 9:7b-8, “God loves a cheerful giver. God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work.” Rev. Ron Carlson, superintendent of the Northwest District, has a passion for stewardship. 

What is it that you love? I have a favorite quote that is attributed to Amy Carmichael, “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” Are you giving to those things that you love? Do you love building new churches, preparing clergy and lay leaders for ministry, helping missionaries, expanding Bible studies, providing leadership for youth ministry, cooperating and dialoging with other faith traditions through interdenominational and ecumenical work, or advocating for peace and justice? These things and more are supported by your General Church apportionment. 

Do you love camps, higher education, mission and ministry programs, advocating for women and minorities, developing leadership and disciples, caring for those in need or affected by storms? These things and more are supported by your Iowa Conference Missions apportionment.

Do you love your local church, your pastor, and lay leaders in your local church and around the conference? And do you love knowing about what is going on in the conference and the denomination? These things and more are supported by your Iowa Conference Ministries apportionment.

As we enter the last quarter of 2020 and plan for 2021, our stewardship in the form of apportionment giving takes on an even more significant role in our conference. Covid-19 and other financial difficulties have reduced our cash reserves, and our 2021 budget no longer includes an allowance for unpaid apportionments, making our apportionment giving now more important than ever. Over 78 percent of apportionment offerings stay here in Iowa working to support the mission and ministries of local churches, districts, and the Annual Conference. These dollars support work that truly reflects what we love. 

I love the connectional nature of our Church because together we do so much more than any one of us can do alone. Together we will navigate this time and come out on the other side, stronger as a church more faithful as disciples and closer to our God and neighbor.

Restructuring of Boards, Agencies, and Districts 

We acknowledge that there is a need for the restructuring of our conference boards and agencies and districts so that they can function more effectively in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Rev. Dr. Harlan Gillespie, Clergy Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Connectional Ministries, shares our plans in this area.

The action of the 2020 Iowa Annual Conference Legislative Session to move from 8 districts to 5 is closely tied to the development of circuit ministry for our Conference. The organizational change of the number of districts is also leading to changes for Conference and district boards, agencies, and committees. 

Many of our existing Conference and district organizational structures are devoted to specific tasks, including but not limited to: leadership development and credentialing (Board of Ordained Ministry, District Committees on Ministry, Board of Laity, and district lay ministries); property matters (Conference Board of Trustees, District Boards of Church Location and Building, local church Boards of Trustees); financial management and development (Conference Council on Finance and Administration, local church finance committees); and Conference and District Connectional Ministry Councils, including advocacy ministries, church and new ministry development, and specific missions.

We all know very well that organizational and structural change means very little unless there are fundamental changes in our relational and spiritual lives. This is the most difficult form of change. Yet, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, transformation happens.

The overall mission (purpose) of our Conference and district boards, agencies, and committees is “to inspire, equip, and connect” local churches (circuits), new communities of faith, and extension ministries to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ. This mission belongs to the members of every district and Conference board, agency, committee and also includes Conference staff and the Appointive Cabinet.  

Inspiring, equipping, and connecting is a way of creating a relational and spiritual environment for God to birth new life in us personally and as the church. This happens through our everyday mission of discipling and loving God and our neighbors in everything we are to be and do (Matthew 28:16-29, Matthew 22:34-40, and related passages).

This fall and into the early part of 2021, our Conference and district boards, agencies, and committees, along with Conference staff, will be engaged with spiritual and organizational realignment. This work will begin by Zoom and Microsoft Teams for meetings between district committees and their parallel Conference board, agency, or committee. This is an opportunity to reset our work together as the church living in a new ministry context. 

Gil Rendle, in his book Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World, (page 26), notes that a different conversation is necessary in this new ministry context. I invite you to ponder his questions for our work as leaders of the church:

  • “Who are we?”—the question of identity.
  • “What has God called us to do?”—the question of purpose.
  • “Who is our neighbor?”—the question of context.

Creating an Anti-Racist Conference 

One of our priorities this year is creating an anti-racist conference.
Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck, our Director of Clergy and Leadership Excellence, leads this effort. 

Throughout July into the early part of August, the Anti-racism Leadership Team began to take form. This body is made up of gifted, called, and diverse clergy and laity from across the Iowa Conference. Identified through peer- or self-nomination, or via recommendations from our caucuses, advocates, boards and agencies, this team is a beautiful representation of who we are in the United Methodist Connection, called to the ministry of mercy and justice in our common baptism. This team has three primary tasks that were named at our most recent Legislative Session AC2020: 

  • Build compassionate relationships that facilitate honest and courageous conversations about our racial identities and experiences.
  • Equip our clergy, laity, and congregations to do anti-racism and equity work within their own communities. 
  • Deepen our understanding of our own (individual and corporate) complicity in systems of oppression,, and cultivate spaces and opportunities for learning, confession and action.

We look forward to introducing each member of our team to the Iowa UMC family. Team members include: Rita Carter, Nitza Dovenspike, Rev. Abraham Funchess, Jr., Rev. Dr. Willy Mafuta, Deb Streff, Rev. Jerry Spencer, Rev. Padma Templeton, and Rev. Dr. Jackie Thompson. 

In addition to these members, invitations have been extended for representation from the Filipino and Korean caucuses; Board of Laity; Board of Ordained Ministry and Commission on Religion and Race.
In 1786, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, reflected upon the revival that began during his lifetime and wrote these words in Thoughts Upon Methodism. "I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

By God’s grace, the Iowa Annual Conference will continue to share the love of Jesus, form committed disciples, and reach out to a hurting world with hope and Holy Spirit power. My sisters and brothers, this is a time of great anticipation and possibility as God calls us to embody the grace of Jesus Christ. The fields are ripe for the harvest! Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”(NRSV) We will not stop speaking of hope because God is not done with us yet. 

Thanks be to God!
Bishop Laurie