Laity Address: We Have Everything We Need

June 15, 2023
Greetings. My name is Jennifer Swann, and I’m the Louisiana Annual Conference lay leader.

Let me confess that as a layperson, every time I stand up here at the microphone, it feels a little like cutting in line.  There are literally hundreds of people in this room right now who know more about pastoring and are better at public speaking than I am.
And If I’m being really honest, as a wife and a mother of three children who do not drive.  As a business owner and business partner, and employer, I understand better than many the sacrifices our lay people make to be a part of this communal work.

I would understand if, in the interest of time, we cut this one extra speech from the program. 

But… – our United Methodist Book of Discipline actually requires the lay leader to address the annual conference during our time together, and It requires the annual conference to provide time.

With the energy, we spend together reporting on conference work, debating the minutiae of policies, talking about budgets and committees, licensing, commissioning, and ordaining pastors.

It’s easy to lose sight of what we are here to do.

Not by our Bishop, who reminded us at the laity session that the laity make up more than 99% of the church.
But sometimes, even for the laity, it can be difficult.  I’ve attended the annual conference for over a decade now, and I can see how the work we are doing today could feel like the most important power we have as lay and clergy leaders.

But it’s simply not the case. 
Don’t get me wrong; There is no doubt that we must provide and care for our clergy.  They are devoted, and faithful people stretched thin in a time of shifting cultures, economies, workforces, plagues, and storms.

If we believe that employers should be compassionate and rooted in justice and mercy, we have to live those values as a church.
For every one of us here in this room today who votes yes or no on the business of the day, there are hundreds of United Methodists across the state not watching or waiting for us to act.  Many don’t even know we are here.  They are at work literally as I speak in their churches, homes, workplaces, and communities, living and sharing the Good News of the Gospel in powerful ways that make a kingdom difference for the world.  The work they are doing in their communities and the world is how the church exercises its power.  The work we do as leaders to form and equip and support those people is the most important work we do as leaders in the church.  One brave word lived out in our churches or communities has more power than 1000 published (or not published) as a resolution or report in our journal.
In fact, according to our United Methodist book of discipline, it is the Laity’s Christ-like examples of everyday living and sharing of their own faith experience of the Gospel which is the Primary evangelism tool through which all people will come to know Christ and the church will fulfill its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our primary evangelism tool.
Bishop Williamston, yesterday we met as a laity session, and I’d like to share with you one of the things we did together.
First off, Bishop, we know that we are at the beginning of a time of transition.  We know that the way that we function as a conference and on the district level will need to continue to shift to align with reduced resources. 
We can continue to let the stories of what we have lost and will lose define our story.
But I asked them to Imagine New York City in the 1830s.  The city had grown exponentially after the Erie Canal connected the Hudson River and Lake Erie making New York City the port city connecting that part of the country with the Atlantic Ocean. 

The problem was that the water supply had not kept up with the exponential growth.  Cholera spread by contaminated water ravaged the city.  1000s died, and about 1/3rd of the city’s population relocated.  And while people were dying of cholera, additional tragedy struck in the form of the Great Fire of 1835.  It started in December when the Hudson River, a major water source, was frozen over.  As a result of the city’s lack of an adequate water supply, before the fire could be extinguished, over 500 buildings and 17 blocks in the valuable commercial district were destroyed, along with valuable cargo and ships and significant loss of life.

But the real story is what came after.  In response to the epidemic and fire, the city council ordered plans to build an aqueduct to feed the city’s water system.  It also led to legislation establishing a board of health, with at least three of the four appointed commissioners being physicians.

Leading to significant improvements in health and sanitation for the working class of the city.
It’s not what happens to us that defines who we become.  It’s how we respond.
And Bishop, In the time it takes to sing two beautiful hymns, 195 of our laity wrote answers to the following, which we called “Dear Bishop…” questions:
  1. What are your hopes and dreams for the church?
  2. What are the essential conference functions?
  3. How can laity help raise up and develop more lay leaders?
I read each of the 195 responses at least once last night, and I look forward to reading over them again and sharing more with you and others in leadership.  And before I get into specific answers, I want to preface with two observations.  First, we are a diverse group with diverse ideas, hopes, and dreams.

Second, and this one may come as a surprise, can I tell you that in 195 responses, I don’t remember seeing the word “sermon” or a reference to Sunday morning at all. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not here to say what our pastors and others who fill pulpits do is unimportant.  We need solid preaching and worship services, and we appreciate the talent and work that goes into that part of our life together.
But Jesus himself preached to multitudes.

And yet there were 120 in the upper room waiting for him.

And although Wesley was a talented orator and gave many great and necessary sermons, and we wouldn’t be who we are without them, His talent in the pulpit is not the reason we were named “Methodist” or why his work began a movement instead of dying with him.
The first question asked about our hopes and dreams for the church – Bishop, you’ll be happy to know that Eeyore did not write the responses on these cards.  Our hearts are filled with hopes and dreams for the church.
Three themes emerged from our laity’s responses to these questions.

First – Many expressed hopes and dreams for \a church where all persons can experience and participate unconditionally in the body of Christ.

One response said “I want my church to be as welcoming to others as it was to me when I was growing up.”
And here are some others –

“To reach out with open arms to those who are disenchanted with Christianity due to discrimination and judgment.”

“That the UMC becomes a place of refuge for ALL.”

“A Church were all people are loved and valued.”

“I hope for a church that is filled with people in love with God.  I dream of a church where all people are included in its ministry.”

Words used over and over in our laity’s responses were unity, inclusion, reconciliation, and diversity.
The Second theme  – the responses overwhelmingly expressed a desire to dream big and move beyond our challenges with a renewed commitment to our Wesleyan understanding of grace and mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 
The Third theme – we hope and dream for a church more engaged and committed to learning from and serving our communities.
Bishop, our hearts are ready for both that period and the exclamation point you talked about yesterday.  We are ready to set our sights on Jesus and move forward.
For the next question, we acknowledge that our conference and district structures will be in transition as we realign and adjust to resources. 
In light of this reality, we asked our laity to help us answer the question:  What are the conference's essential functions?
We all agree that first and foremost, we need to be led in a spirit of hope.  And not just some kind of rosy optimism or superhero magic.  Not the cheap hope of the crowd at the beginning of Holy Week.  Not a simple hope for more people, property, power, and money. 

That kind of hope doesn’t cost us much.

But just as the same crowds that shouted Hosanna on Sunday, screamed “Crucify him” on Friday, that cheap Hope fails pretty easily for us too in the face of difficulty.
We follow the real Jesus – who lived and died and rose from the dead.  The resurrected Jesus.  We were not created to merely survive, but our God has overcome death for us already.
Jennifer Swann

We need leaders who continue to remind us that we don’t follow who we hoped Jesus would be on Palm Sunday. 

We follow the real Jesus – who lived and died and rose from the dead.  The resurrected Jesus.  We were not created to merely survive, but our God has overcome death for us already.

Bishop, we need to be reminded again and again and again that our hope does not come from the world, and the world can’t take it away. 

Raise the ceiling on our hope.

The hope we have in Jesus is the kind of hope that has real power.  The kind of power that overcomes, and it does
not come cheap.
Second, Bishop, during this time, we need the Conference to help fill those United Methodist Church deserts in Louisiana.  Many of our communities in Louisiana are unserved or underserved since the recent disaffiliations.  We need leadership, assistance, and resources in these areas so that no Louisiana United Methodist is left behind or forgotten.
As far as the other essential functions of the conference,

Here was my favorite answer: “I’m new to these procedures, but [the conference] should be a channel for invigoration and church vitality, togetherness,  and recalibration in the Gospel and in our individual and corporate callings.”

Bishop, we want the whole conference, from top to bottom to understand that ministry happens in the local church.  Not at the conference office, not in the district offices, not on the floor of the annual conference. 

It’s happening in local churches.  Big Churches, tiny churches, and everything in between.
These are the verbs our laity used to describe the essential functions of the conference (in random order):
  1. Equip
  2. Encourage
  3. Empower
  4. Order
  5. Connect
  6. Train
  7. Ordain
  8. Support
  9. Develop
  10. Nurture
  11. Coordinate
  12. Communicate
Here are some additional specific needs that were noteworthy:  we want our pastors to have the care resources they need, and we want them to be treated justly and compassionately – to take care of the shepherds. That is what one respondent wrote.

But care doesn’t mean no accountability.

We also want a conference that continues to develop our pastors and hold them accountable to their calling. 
Though we love and support them, we need them to be challenged. 
It’s hard to live as Christians in the world.  We need them to model vulnerability and growth for us so that we can be better Christians.

We want our lay people to be trained in intentional ways – ways that prepare them for ministry in their local settings and also ways that align with the training for our pastors.

We want to be ministry partners with our clergy, not consumers of ministry services.

We also need the conference to bring us, as laypeople, together.  You are the only people with access to every local church.  Help us join forces.  Help us tend our essential connection.
And Bishop, the third question was a bit of a trick question –
How can Laity Help raise up and develop more lay leaders?
Lay people, no more excuses.  We know how. 
Here’s one response:

“We need to prioritize connecting with and supporting young people – youth and adults.  Lay leaders must take an active Role in leading future generations of lay leaders “

And  here’s an additional list of what we said we could do:
  1. Share your story about being called with other lay people.
  2. People who feel invited and needed are more likely to answer a calling God has placed on their heart by entering into ministry with you.  Share opportunities, ask, invite, explain how they can help
  3. Mentor
  4. Build relationships
  5. Be a living example of what you want to see
  6. Network
  7. Offer training
  8. Encourage
  9. Teach and lead children and youth
  10. Coach
  11. Simplify
  12. Help people feel ready
  13. Invest in discipleship programs
We know y’all.

And as Bishop Williamston urged us yesterday.  It’s time to get up and do it.

We have everything that we need.

We can’t wait until we have ALL the answers.  We need to get started right now with the answers we have right now.
Let’s not wait for more resources.  Are hearts are willing, so the gift is acceptable.

We have everything we need to do exactly what we are being called to do right now.

And although there are a lot of things we want, all we really need is the powerful hope that we have in Jesus Christ.  The hope that compels the paralyzed to get up and walk.  It’s time to pick up our mats and get to walking.
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