Episcopal Address by Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey

June 03, 2013

The following address was delivered by Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey on June 3 during the 2013 Louisiana Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, held in the Gold Dome on the Centenary College campus in Shreveport.

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey delivers Episcopal Address.
 …And our adventure begins.

 I have been looking forward to this since September 1. It seems like just yesterday that we crossed the Mississippi River Bridge behind the Red Cross Disaster response truck on the heels of Hurricane Isaac.

Dean, Elizabeth and I now call Louisiana home and call you family. You have been gracious in every way and I have never been more proud to say I am a United Methodist and even more so to say that I am the bishop of the Louisiana Annual Conference. Already, you have taught me what it means to be people of faith.

I have to admit to you that I am incredibly anxious. I have been to about 25 annual conferences but never thought I would be in this role. I should have paid more attention, visited less with my buddies and drank less coffee and Diet Coke in the hallways.

As I have shared with many of you, I never prayed to be a bishop. I prayed for God to use me. I was willing to put myself out there for God to use me as God saw fit. My prayer at Jurisdictional Conference was simply to receive enough votes so as not embarrass myself. But here I am – called to lead in an incredible place, at an incredible time, for such a time as this.

It is an incredibly complicated time to lead the church.

While not a zoo, it is complicated.

I have spent the last nine months listening and learning. As I toured the annual conference last fall and visited the districts, I tried to be keenly attuned to what you were asking, needing, saying and even not saying. I was listening beyond words to the unspoken yearnings and requests of the heart.

You asked me then what my vision was for the annual conference. I shared at that time that I had some hunches, but were I to share a vision it would simply be Cynthia Harvey’s vision, not the vision of the Annual Conference. I wanted to hear from you, experience you. I also wanted to hear what others were saying about you.

Today, I want to share the fruit of all of these conversations with you and about you. I believe that through this nine-month process what has emerged is what I pray is a common way forward; a reaffirmation of our common values; an explanation of the vision and mission that will guide the conference leadership as we serve together; and finally, a suggestion for a path for us in the days to come that will allow us to serve Christ, our church and our community.

We will reaffirm the mission of the United Methodist Church to Mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

By the way, you will receive copies of all of this in tomorrow morning’s RIGHT NOW! (daily conference newspaper).

As we live this mission in the annual conference I believe:

Compelled by Christ’s love, we the people, lay and clergy leaders of the Louisiana Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church are:

  • Leading others into abundant life in Christ.
  • Engaging with our surrounding communities locally and globally in significant ways.
  • Learning, living and telling the gospel story to the nations.
  • Reaching out and drawing in people from all walks of life resulting in vibrant, alive, and vital congregations.

Notice the “ing” words, the action. If you were able to look into the future you would see an Annual Conference that is leading, engaging, learning, reaching out and drawing in.

If we are not leading others into an abundant life in Christ, we cease to be the church. We are about making disciples not members. We must deepen our discipleship by leading people to an experience of what it means to be in right relationship with Jesus Christ.

What does it mean to engage with our surrounding communities locally and globally in significant ways? If in fact we are intentional in making mission field appointments, of calling our clergy and our laity to serve not just the church at the corner of First and Main but at the intersection of people’s lives, you have to be a place that is synonymous with the community.

Our churches must be THE place for the community. When the cabinet thought about this, the word we used -- which I am not sure is even a word -- is that the churches in our communities needed to be the Bombdiggity!

The place to be. There should be little daylight between your church and the community. You ought to be the place for the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to meet, you ought to be the place where the local high school football banquet is held.

You ought to be at every home football game, choir concert, Rotary Club meeting. You should be the place people turn in time of need. . . where funerals and weddings are held.

You must be the face of the church in the community. Ministry in the public square is important to our life and work.

You have an incredible story to tell, you just have to tell it. I think this is one of the most difficult things for us to do – tell our story. But friends, if you don’t tell it, who will.

You have to tell people about this abundant life in Christ; you have to tell people about your connection in the community. You have to share your own experience of the living God. This is old-fashioned evangelism. We fear that word sometimes. You have to live this testimony by living out of your own life. Living and telling the story by how you live, who you are – to BE – is a telling of the story. When people meet us--before a word is uttered--they ought to get a sense that there is something extraordinarily different about us.

Our communities are changing before our very eyes and if we don’t respond to the changing needs of our community, we will become irrelevant. Some of us are already there. Some of our churches yearn to be the church of 25 or 50 years ago.

Dean Harvey assists Bishop Harvey as she opens a welcome gift from the Conference.  Their daughter Elizabeth looks on.

I totally understand the desire to return to the church week after week and find comfort in the familiar, but friends, what is familiar to us does not often reflect the places we now live. We have to go beyond our comfort zone. This may mean we have to give up some things. It may even mean we have to learn some new things. We might have to broaden our belief system. We may not agree on everything, but we have to learn to embrace one another.

John Wesley once said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding the small differences.”

May we not love alike?

I hope you notice that vital congregations come at the end of the preferred future. It is a result of our work. This is intentional on my part.

You see worship attendance, membership, professions of faith are incredibly important and critical to “who” we are-- but they are Outputs.

There are many churches across the denomination and even beyond the United Methodist Church that worship millions, have huge membership rolls and conversions by the thousands, but they are not leading change in the communities they live in and around the world.

Transformation occurs when we invest ourselves in making a difference. I am convinced after talking to you last fall that when we lead others to an abundant life in Christ, when we engage with our communities, when we learn, live and tell the gospel story, when we reach out and draw in – we won’t be able to help ourselves.

We will have an increase in worship attendance, membership, professions of faith because we have made a difference and people will want to be a part of our exciting faith communities.

That, friends, is my expectation. We will lead boldly and courageously into the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable.

When I was the head of United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), I had a brilliant Monitoring and Evaluation person. She had come from the Rockefeller Foundation and frankly was probably under-employed at UMCOR. I did not understand a single word she said most of the time. I asked her to tutor me.

Virgina and i spent a few hours each month together and it was in one of those meetings that the heavens opened for me. We used an exercise of a project in Kamina, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was a water project. She asked me what my expected outcomes were.

I puffed up because I knew the answer to this one. I said, we are going to dig three wells and the catchment area is about 20,000 people, so that means 20,000 people that did not have safe water will now have safe water to drink, wash dishes, brush their teeth with the toothbrushes in the hygiene kits we delivered…

She turned to me and swiftly said, “Wrong.”

“Those are outputs not outcomes.

What will be different because we will dig three wells in these villages?” Now, that’s a different question that requires a much different answer.

They will have safe water therefore they won’t get as sick and we will have a healthier community which means that they will be able to work, feed their families, have healthier babies.

It also means that since it is the girls’ job to fetch water--which is a day long process and therefore they cannot go to school – girls will now be able to go to school and receive an education. This could also mean they don’t get pregnant at an early age which means they will likely live longer since they won’t die in childbirth because they are so young.

When they do have children, their children will be healthier because the women can learn about prenatal care……

Outcomes – because we have made a difference in people’s lives, we can transform not only their lives, but the world, and ourselves.

So, yes, Bishop. Nice vision, but how do we live it out? We have to have a basis for our decision making. Why do we do the things we do? Why are we who we say we are? We have to have core values, values that we hold dear, that are non-negotiable to our way of being in ministry.

These are not my core values, they are the core values I saw in you or what I sensed that you desire for how you want to be in the world. I heard you say these things, if not in words, certainly in your actions.

In order to live into our vision for our preferred future, we will live and lead with:

INTEGRITY

  • We will describe honestly what we see with grace and compassion.
  • We will be guided and directed by missional purposes.
  • We will be forthright and transparent in all that we do.

We will live and lead with

ACCOUNTABILITY

  • We will measure our actions and decisions by their connection to our mission.
  • We will be accountable to each other for this connection to purpose.

We will live and lead with an

UNRELENTING LOVE FOR ALL PEOPLE

  • We will place the needs and interests of people before the needs and interests of the institution.
  • We will prioritize transformative relationships over sustaining buildings and budgets.

We will lead and live with

COURAGE AND RISK

  • We believe that new times call for new actions.
  • We are willing to trust ourselves and each other, and risk acting in new and courageous ways in order to transform a dying institution into a vibrant movement of faith and action.


We will live and lead

HOLDING NOTHING SACRED BUT THE MISSION

  • We will be open to the creative movement of God’s spirit, not institutional priorities, in order to serve the mission.

Admittedly, these scare the heaven out of me. And they should make you a little nervous too. If they didn’t, I would say they would not be core values.  

We are often way too nice. We are from the South, so we can’t help ourselves. We have to speak the truth in love. When we value integrity we create a sense of trust that is frankly missing. There is a deficit of trust among us and therefore we have conversations that are not helpful and have an undercurrent of dishonesty that does not always count on grace and compassion.

If indeed we are guided by our missional purposes, we will do so with the greatest of integrity, lifting up what is right and good. This does not mean that I am right and good and you are wrong and bad, but that the missional purpose is the right thing. We are people who will lead not by doing things right, but doing the right things.

Imagine with me for a moment what it might look like if we were honest and transparent with one another and created a place of trust among clergy and laity? We would honor each other’s work rather than question it. Not only would this be efficient, it would be celebratory.

Not many people like or enjoy being accountable. This often means making difficult decisions. It means you have to be result driven. You have to be effective! People are going to ask you to tell them what you have accomplished and how. This is a “kissing cousin” to integrity. You have to do what is right for the sake of the mission and be willing to account for it – it is not always popular.

All of the core values scare the “heeby jeebies” out of me, but these last few really do. As your bishop, I am responsible for the institution, but I am not responsible for saving it. I am not an institutional preservation kind of girl.

I am about relationships, the people, transformation. We often place more value on our buildings than our people.

I know that you made a decision to invest in new church starts as a first priority, but might I remind you that we call this Congregational Development and Transformation. This is about transforming people’s lives, and leading others to an abundant life in Christ. Exciting things are happening and I cannot wait for you to hear from Donnie Wilkinson and Rob Weber.

Buildings, while important, should not define us as the people of God and certainly not as a church.

Last month I attended a forum of the active bishops. We had a moving worship service at the border wall at a place called Friendship Park. Now, Friendship Park is not a park as you and I know it.

It is simply a location along the border wall just feet from the beautiful Pacific Ocean where families gather to see their loved ones, albeit through a tiny square opening the size of a postage stamp.

It is barely big enough to stick your pinky through it and touch your loved one on the other side.

Every Sunday a United Methodist pastor gathers with a congregation on the U.S. side and the United Methodist Mexican pastor gathers with a Mexican congregation on the Mexican side.

It is at that wire mesh wall that people worship, sacraments are shared. No building, just people.

All it takes is 20 seconds of insane courage, just 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery and I promise you something good will come of it.

My daughter painted a canvas for me with these words that sits on the window sill of my utility room. It is one of the last things I see before I walk out the door

All it takes is 20 seconds of insane courage….

We are in a time and place as the United Methodist Church that calls for new action.

We have to be courageous, take smart risks. Remember we have never traveled this way before.

We cannot continue to be the church we have been. We have to look to other places to inform us – is it science? Is it medicine? I try to make it a habit to watch a TED talk. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. These are 18-minute talks by the world’s most fascinating doers and thinkers. I try to watch one each week in a field totally unrelated to mine to learn something new.

Just last week, Bob Mann--good United Methodist and chair of the Manship School of Mass Communications at LSU--spoke to our LEAP (Leadership Excellence Advancement Program) graduates, made up of mid-career pastors.

He introduced me to British historian A.J.P. Taylor who in 1957 said that “All change in history, all advance, comes from non-conformists.”

He goes on to say that if there had been no troublemakers, no dissenters, we would still be living in caves. “Today’s realism will appear tomorrow as shortsighted blundering. Today’s idealism is the realism of the future.”

I think that is worth saying again.

“Today’s realism will appear tomorrow as shortsighted blundering. Today’s idealism is the realism of the future.”

While I am not suggesting all of you become troublemakers, I am suggesting that you experiment, that you take risks, that you exercise creativity, that you become innovators, that you look into the future. What do you see? Remember that today’s realism will appear tomorrow as shortsighted blundering.

I read a recent interview in the New York Times with the CEO of YOUSEND IT. He says, “If we are not failing, at least a little bit, we are not trying hard enough. If you don’t do that, you’re going to end up with a culture that is stagnant and not thinking about the next generation of products and experiences.”

Does that sound familiar? When we experiment, risk, and are even non-conformists, my hunch is that we might discover new ways of “being” that bring about God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.

I have this feeling that the answer is right in front of me and I just can’t see it. This life’s work we are called to is a game of inches. We have to just be able to put one foot in front of another and take a step. Sometimes it might be into a pile of “you know what” and other times it might just be the life- giving step we need to take.

A mother sent her young son out on a pitch dark night to be sure the barn door of the family farm was locked. He left but returned in just a few seconds. His mother asked, “What’s wrong?” “I can’t do what you asked because it is too dark and I can’t see the barn from the house.” Mom hands him a flashlight and sends him out again, only to return a second time in less than a minute. “What’s wrong this time?” “I still can’t see the barn the flashlight isn’t strong enough to see that far.” The mother sends him out a third time saying, “You don’t need to see the barn. Just walk to the end of the light.” (Gil Rendle’s Monograph “Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics”)

When we walk to the end of the light, the next portion of the path is revealed. You just have to take a step in the right general direction.

What I know is that standing still isn’t going to cut it. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to take time to reflect, discern and ponder. But it does mean we cannot be paralyzed in our movement. This is scary stuff.

All it takes is 20 seconds of insane courage, just 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery and I promise you something good will come of it.

Finally, we are spirit led people. We have to respond to the spirit’s nudges in order to remain faithful to our call to serve the mission.

Oh if we could just be a movement again. I often think John Wesley is spinning like a top in his grave. All he wanted is for his pastors to get on their horses and go to where the people were. Jesus said go out into “all the world,” not go into the church.

John and I share a dream. He says, “I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.”

I want you to be unleashed by the Spirit!

And when you are, you:

  • Lead others into abundant life in Christ.
  • Engage with our surrounding communities
  • Learn, live and tell the gospel story
  • Reach out and draw in people from all walks of life

When you are unleashed by the spirit you will live and lead with:

INTEGRITY

ACCOUNTABILITY

UNRELENTING LOVE FOR ALL PEOPLE

COURAGE AND RISK

HOLDING NOTHING SACRED BUT THE MISSION

Your cabinet is committed to traveling through your districts again this fall as we continue to flesh out what it means to live out of these core values. We want you to try these on and see how they fit. How do these look in your community?

When I talk about leadership development, this is what I mean. A leader in the Louisiana Annual Conference is compelled by Christ’s love to lead others to abundant life in Christ; engages in the community; learns, lives and tells the gospel story; reaches out and draws in people from all walks of life.

A leader in Louisiana leads with integrity, is accountable, shares an unrelenting love for all people, leads with courage and takes risks. A leader in the Louisiana Annual Conference holds nothing sacred but the mission.

Our ability to develop principled Christian leaders – both laity and clergy – could be, I believe, the “make it” or “break it” for us.

First of all I believe, many of our laity are waiting to be asked. You have incredible expertise at your fingertips, friends, but you have to know your people in order to know what gifts they bring.

I want you to know who is in your congregation. Pastors you ought to know who is in church and who isn’t. You need to know who your givers are and how much they give. Giving, or the lack there of, is a spiritual matter. If you are going to tend to the spiritual needs of your congregation, you need to know where they are and who they are.

If you will recall, I had a whole other life before I entered ministry. I was called to ministry out of the pew. Between my husband and me, we have held every leadership position known to humanity in a church. Pastors recognized that we had gifts to share and someone tapped us on the shoulder and asked us to serve. We taught Sunday School, led the youth, cleaned the toilets, mowed the grass. I am still trying to figure out where toilet bowl cleaning and grass mowing are gifts of the Spirit.

Some of my most memorable and formative ministry happened when I was serving as a lay person. I am sure you have similar experiences.

Times and places where you were spirit-led in ways you never imagined God would use. We all have!

I believe in what I like to call the Order of the Laity. I believe our laity are the most underutilized folks around. When our clergy and laity work side-by-side, incredible things happen.

Now, I know that often when people forecast numbers for our beloved United Methodist Church it sounds like a weather forecast, or worse yet, like the disaster App I installed on my phone my first days at United Methodist Committee on Relief. It tells me where disasters might be occurring in the world – earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes. Yes, there really is an app for that.

The reality is that Louisiana is in much better shape than most annual conferences in the United States. The average age of our ordination class this year is 44.8. Not bad when the average age of our clergy denominationally is in the mid-50s.

Currently, our elders under appointment are around 54 years old and our local pastors 56-57. This is not too bad.

But our forecast over the next few years is partly cloudy at best with storms anticipated.

Let’s look at the forecast.

If normal retirement is 65 or 40 years of service, 65 of our clergy will be 65 or have 40 years of service by 2014, and that number jumps to 92 by 2016.

This tells me that our ability to identify and help people cultivate a culture of call to ministry will be critical.

I venture to say that these numbers reflect our laity as well. If our churches are to be the “bombdiggity”, we are going to have to woo people to our churches.

We are going to have to woo young people from our seminaries to Louisiana. I want this to be the place to serve in the connection.

I want Louisiana to be the “bombdiggity” for young clergy. That means we have to make room for them, we have to continue to develop their leadership skills and hone in on their passions.

Our pews are getting grayer and I must admit I am one of those, but I want for our churches to be relevant to the “20-somethings.”. . churches that focus on the things that are important to them. We must continue to be relevant, and the one way to do that is to continue to listen to what our young people are telling us, and not just listen but respond. Or better yet, allow them to respond.

We have to be intentional. We can’t just say we want young people and expect them to come.

We can’t just say we want young people, and when they do come, get upset because they spill coffee on our carpet or make noise in worship or God forbid that they sing different songs or use their cell phones for their Bible.
If I was in a church today, instead of asking people to put away their cell phones, I would ask them to take them out. Silence them to avoid chaos, but I would ask them to use them during worship. Go to Facebook and post your status – “I am in church today, praising God.” Or Tweet – “Heading out on a mission trip,” or better yet, “Awesome sermon today!”

I always worry a little when I visit your churches because I don’t carry a Bible; it is on my iPhone. I wonder if you think I am checking my text messages or watching YOU Tube videos of talking kittens while you are reading the scripture, or worse yet, preaching.

We cannot lead the church the same way today.  

And I must tell you that leading the church today is messy! Leading the church today can cause trouble!

The reality is this: We have to be the church of the young and the mature. We have too much work to do for any one of any age to be left on the sidelines
Imagine sitting here in 2016. Will we share stories of leading others into abundant life in Christ?

Will we talk about how lives have been changed because we have engaged with our communities? Will you be able to say that you reached out into your community in a way that frightened you?

Will we have learned, lived and told our stories to the nations?

Will there be evidence that we have reached out and drawn in people from every walk of life?

Will we sit together and be able to say that we have faithfully led with integrity? That we have been accountable? That we have shared and experienced an unrelenting love for all people? That we have led courageously and taken risks? That we have been open to the movement of the spirit and held nothing sacred but the mission?

I hope so. Because I don’t know about you, but this is why I am here.

I think it was Parker Palmer that said that we can either break apart in chards or break open in possibilities.

I choose “break open in possibilities.”

The Lord said, I now make a covenant, in front of all your people. I’ll perform dramatic displays of power that have never been done before anywhere on earth or in any nation.

All the people who are around you will see what the Lord does, because I will do an awesome thing with you!

I cannot wait to see what awesome things God has in store for us. If you will recall, at the installation service I used a simple line from Joshua, chapter 3 as the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan. They were to keep their eye on the Ark of the Covenant, and as long as they followed it, they would know the way they should go even though they have never travelled that way before.

It has been nine months, and I am clearer than ever before that if we face the future together we will know the way we should go even though we have never traveled this way before, and God will do an awesome thing with us!