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1:00 P.M. EDT April 12, 2011

Erin Hawkins addresses the United Methodist Church Leadership Summit webcast in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Erin Hawkins addresses the United
Methodist Church Leadership
Summit webcast in Nashville, Tenn.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
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As a presenter at the Leadership Summit on April 3, and as a church leader who has been involved in many conversations about change in the denomination, I have been reflecting on this time in our life as a community of faith with great anticipation and even greater prayer.

Many friends old and new have sent me words of encouragement and challenge about what was discussed and what was noticeably absent during the summit webcast. My experience then — and the many conversations I’ve had since — has led me to share what I left unsaid that day.

I was asked a question about overcoming our racial divisions in the church that led me to a more general reflection on diversity and inclusion. As I spoke, these words were written on my mental teleprompter: “We must continue to have open and honest discussions about sexual orientation in the church — conversations that lead to peace and unity, not contempt and division.”

I got to the place where I could practically feel the words on my lips and stopped. I struggled for several minutes with whether or not to speak up, and sadly, I let the moment pass.

I must admit, I was afraid. I feared that raising this often emotionally charged issue would somehow derail the conversation and undermine this attempt to initiate worldwide conversation on mission and ministry effectiveness. I was afraid of a whole host of things that often confront those who have professed to follow the way of Christ.

My choice to remain silent — however well reasoned in the moment — did not sit well with me. While I am not one given to absolutes when it comes to judging right or wrong, in my heart I know my silence was wrong.

Why do I confess my sin of omission?

1. Metrics and financial sustainability are not the only things we need to talk about. Let me be clear, I unapologetically support the position that our current practices as a church are financially unsustainable and that we need more vigorous and comprehensive ways to assess and communicate our impact in every community that we serve. This requires a dramatic reorientation to the way that we “be and do church.”

That being said, sustainability and mission and ministry effectiveness are inextricably tied to our capacity to love our neighbor, to bring about justice in the world and to be willing to engage the tough questions that people within and outside our faith community deal with every day.

To not at least mention sexual orientation is to deny that it is a real and present tension within our church. It also reinforces our tendency as a denomination to skirt around or to be slow in addressing issues of inclusion. How sustainable is a church whose leaders don’t create opportunities to name the justice challenges it faces? A vital (healthy) church engages with boldness and humility the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, war, poverty and hunger.

2. Effective leadership is a driver of vitality. The Call to Action report clearly names clergy and lay leadership as a driver of church vitality. Integrity is essential to effective leadership. During the webcast, I called for our leaders to exhibit courage and grace in the face of the “isms.” Many agreed with me. If we are to be part of a renewed, relevant and vital church, we must to the best of our ability — and with God’s help and saving grace — exhibit these qualities as well. I failed that day but am thankful for a God of second chances.

3. God has a vision for the church. Our brothers and sisters in the Democratic Republic of the Congo asked this deeply profound question during the summit: “What is God’s vision for the church?”

In Matthew 19:21, Jesus admonishes a rich young man seeking his own form of sustainability to “sell everything you own and give to the poor… then come follow me.” I believe that God is shouting to us from the highest heavens, “Get rid of it! All of it!” We must get rid of our attachment to oversized and costly buildings that sit in mockery of the almost nonexistent ministry happening. We must get rid of our dependence on old methods, policies, structures and viewpoints that no longer prove useful or just.

And when we have gotten rid of everything that stands in the way of our being God’s hands, feet and heart in the world, we will be free to give lavishly of our love, passion, commitment and service to the poor, brokenhearted, sick, excluded, abused and marginalized. Then and only then will we be a church that truly makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Conversations about the future of The United Methodist Church are far from over. There will be many more opportunities for all of us to make our voices heard. My hope is that no matter what our beliefs are, we will choose to do so.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi is my prayer for all of us during this time, that our love will grow more and more; that we will have knowledge and understanding with our love; that we will see the difference between good and bad and will choose the good; that we will be pure and without wrong for the coming of Christ; that we will be filled with the good things produced in our life by Christ to bring glory and praise to God.

*Hawkins is the top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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