Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. -- Isaiah 43:19 (ESV)
United Methodist leaders in the Susquehanna, Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia Conferences are preparing to move forward in faith, cooperating in ministry and mission across geographic boundaries as two bishops share leadership of all three areas beginning September 1, 2021.
Bishops Sandra Steiner Ball of West Virginia and Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of Western PA have been assigned by the Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops to provide coverage of the Susquehanna Conference, in addition to their current areas, as Bishop Jeremiah Park moves into vocational retirement.
While it is common in the United Methodist Church for one bishop to lead more than one annual conference, this model for leadership is new. The two bishops have met weekly online and a few times in person to prepare for the launch of this experimental model for episcopal leadership.
“I am excited because we are going to be able to work out of our own gift sets, our own passions, so that we can resource these three conferences and we can move forward together to be where God wants us to be in mission and ministry,” said Bishop Moore-Koikoi.
“There’s nothing I like more than collaborating in ministry,” Bishop Steiner Ball said. I am just very excited that we have this new opportunity to work with three conferences and to be able to see what the movement of God’s spirit is going to bring about!”
“It’s exciting to work out of our own passions, but also to ignite passions of others in these three conferences so that they awaken to opportunities to work together in new ways and also to discover what God is already doing in these three conferences,” said Bishop Steiner Ball. “It’s just a creative moment!"
The experimental model is going to necessitate that “we grow and develop strong laity leadership in order to do what needs to be done,” Bishop Moore-Koikoi said. Groups of leaders will be asked to help the bishops discern and develop ways to support leadership development, better deploy laity leaders, share revitalization strategies, and support mission and ministry.
“We have an opportunity...to dream God-sized dreams, to see where Christ is at work and see where we can move alongside” to meet the physical and spiritual needs of communities, Bishop Steiner Ball added.
“This is not a forerunner to merging annual conferences!” Bishop Moore-Koikoi said. “We are NOT trying to do that. BUT what we can do is strip away some of the human-made boundaries.
“We are going to keep episcopal areas, keep Annual Conference boundaries for some things we need to do around polity, around leadership development and those kinds of things. But the boundaries are going to be more porous in order that we can deploy resources where they are most needed,” she explained.
“It’s about multiplication of ministry and resources and congregations,” Bishop Steiner Ball added. “It’s biblical...to multiply life in every way.”
The extended Cabinets of the three Conferences met together in Hershey, PA in early June to get to know each other better, learn about leadership practices and organization in each area and share ideas. Participants shared their concerns and what excites them about the possibilities for reinvigorating ministry.
Since then, there have been follow-up conversations and sharing of ideas and resources. Some aspects of the collaboration are not yet known. Additional details will be announced in August and September.
“God has planted a seed with us and with these annual conferences. And, you know, when you plant a seed, you can’t see what is going to come up,” said Bishop Steiner Ball. “You can have an expectation, but you can’t see exactly where the branches are...or what the fruit is going to look like. That’s the exciting adventure. I am thankful that God has planted within us in our call to mission and ministry to work together to make Christ known and to bring the transforming power of Christ to these three annual conference in new and vibrant ways.”
As the bishops and leaders watch the experiment, they’ll see what has worked and what has not and be able to share those things with the Jurisdiction and the denomination. The bishops said they hope to get good factual information and data to help the denomination discern the role of a bishop in the life of the Church.
“God does these new things so that we can learn … and help lead others into learning and thereby multiplying how we do ministry even better tomorrow and for future generations than we do it today,” said Bishop Steiner Ball.
The experiment will last for at least a year and the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, based at Wesley Theological Seminary, will help to evaluate the model.