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Last week, at the Leadership Institute sponsored by the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, I was invited to be one of several bishops to articulate their vision of what The United Methodist Church might look like in the year 2032. I am sharing that vision on my blog today, knowing that, while specifically referencing the conference I serve, the anchor principles of this vision could well apply to other areas of The United Methodist Church. These principles have already been part of cabinet discussion.
As we begin to live into a new future for The United Methodist Church, I envision a church thirteen years from now that is fully engaged in contextual ministry around the Iowa Annual Conference and in every other conference. Iowa is a farming state, and we are highly dependent on the weather and our crops. We have corn and soybeans; corn and cattle; corn and pigs; and corn and dairy products…and we have approximately 150,000 United Methodists in 750 churches.
The first thing many Americans think about when Iowa is mentioned is the Iowa caucuses. In fact, a week ago Sunday in the Des Moines church I attended, I met one of our presidential candidates who is a United Methodist and was in town to campaign.
Iowa has also been home to immigrants since the 1830’s when settlers started moving west across the country. Our fertile farmland topsoil, also known as the “black gold” of Iowa, was a huge draw. Immigrants from around the world are woven into the fabric of Iowa and are an integral part of our churches as well.
Unfortunately, farming is a difficult and often stressful profession, highly dependent on circumstances beyond the farmers’ control. This has been an especially challenging year because of severe flooding, tariffs, and the shutting down of ethanol plants. And in our rural communities, suicide rates are increasing. Two years ago, I talked with a pastor who said that the first three funerals in their first year at a new church were suicides.
The closing and consolidation of schools and hospitals in our rural areas has also had a deep impact on our economy and our churches. At the same time, it has opened doors for United Methodists to be a spiritual presence to communities in crisis and engage around things that really matter, including environmental and racial justice and class disparity.
There are three things I want to share with you about my vision for the church in Iowa in 2032. First, in 2032, relationships will be more important than theological convictions.
In Iowa, we’ve been pretty evenly split around human sexuality, but the landscape is changing. Do you know what I’ve learned? Our rural farming communities tend to be more theologically conservative than our bigger cities. However, in smaller churches, there is usually someone who is either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. Or they know someone who is. And our LGBTQ friends are accepted for who they are because, after all, they’re part of the church family. They belong. In 2032, human sexuality will be a non-issue because long before then we will have recovered our heart—that we are all connected with one another in love.
People from other parts of the country often don’t know that from its creation as a state in 1846, Iowa has had a long and proud history of being on the cutting edge when it comes to justice and civil rights. In 1851, Iowa eliminated the ban on interracial marriage. In 1934, the first permanent mosque in North America was constructed in Iowa. And in 2009, Iowa was the third state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage.
I envision a church in 2032 where our faith communities may be smaller, but they will also be more agile. Our churches will find their own niches in ministry. At the same time, they will also open the doors to everyone who desires to know who Jesus is and deepen their own spiritual lives, at the same time as they participate in mission and justice ministries. Iowa Nice is not just a phrase. It’s real!
Consider Grace Ottumwa UMC. Until this year, the large town of Ottumwa had three churches: Wesley, Willard Street, and First. Last December, they all voted to merge, with a 2/3 majority from each church. They’re selling all three facilities and are now worshiping in the high school cafeteria. There is a new young pastor, and the church’s long-term goal is buying property in the next three years. In the church of 2032, relationships will be more important than theological convictions.
Second, in the church of 2032, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo. In 2032, Iowa congregations of all sizes will be birthing new faith communities and Fresh Expressions of Christianity. They might revolve around ethnic or interest groupings, or they might be simply small groups who choose to worship in homes on a weeknight around the dinner table.
New ministries will evolve organically from folks who have a particular passion. Our congregations will become twenty-four hour a day saving stations that host various community groups. All ideas will be welcomed, discernment of the gifts of laity will be a priority, 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 all people can come into taste and see, but so we can all go out to serve.
Consider First UMC in Des Moines, formed in 1835. By 1906, it had a thousand members—after it had birthed eleven other churches in the city! Like many downtown churches, First Church, Des Moines, has experienced decline in recent decades, but at the same time, the city has changed and is very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.
In addition to the primary congregation, there is also a South Sudanese Mabaan congregation worshipping in the church and partnering with FUMC. In July of 2019, a new lead pastor who is Hispanic was appointed, and a new Hispanic worshipping community held their first service was yesterday! In the church of 2032, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo.
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.
In 2032, we’ll have fewer elders and more local pastors, bi-vocational pastors, and Certified Lay Ministers (CLM). But we’ll also be able to do more with less, as we unleash the power of the laity. The days of expecting the pastor to do everything are over. There will likely be fewer district superintendents, so they will supervise the elders, and selected elders will supervise local pastors and CLM’s. This will free superintendents to be the missional strategists of the districts.
Our larger churches will become teaching churches, and we will recommit to our Wesleyan heritage of class meetings for education and encouragement. I also envision clusters of churches, yoked together with larger county seat churches that become hubs. In 2032, staffing will be creative and contextual. At the same time as we focus on creating vital congregations, we must also care for the health of all our clergy and work with them around effectiveness, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being, and self-care.
And then there is appointment-making. By 2032, the days of entitlement will be long gone. Clergy will no longer be guaranteed that each successive appointment will include a higher salary and a larger church. We will deploy according to gifts, graces, and effectiveness.
In the church of 2032, we’ll be looking at appointments through missional eyes and will seek the right leadership with the right skills in the right place at the right time. When a church becomes open, we’ll ask the SPRC Committee, “What are the three most important things that your new pastor needs to do for your church to thrive?” With that information, we’ll announce open churches and invite clergy to indicate their preference and why they would be a good fit for the church’s priorities. Our cabinet will be as transparent as possible with appointments so that we can place the best possible pastor for a particular church to thrive.
Consider our kid preachers at Broadway UMC in Council Bluffs. Broadway has a “kid pastor” program where they teach children as young as pre-schoolers how to pray and be in ministry. Who says kids can’t lead in prayer or teach a class or create a new mission? In Iowa, we have a lot of after school programs in our county seat towns and rural churches. Children and youth, as well as adults, are hungry to learn, to participate in hands-on mission around immigration, racism, climate justice, and mental health, and to create programs that minister to the unique needs of their community.
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.
The good news is that Jesus is at work in communities all over Iowa. What an exciting time it is to be the church! 2032 will be here before you know it. Are you in? Are you all in? Let’s do this together!