In her first Episcopal Address as leader of the New England Conference, Bishop Peggy A. Johnson talked about circles – and the challenges we face when we try to “draw them wider still.”
From Acts 1:6-9, Bishop Johnson referred to Jesus’ words to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the end of the earth,” as “no little mission statement.”
“Jesus called them to be witnesses locally (in Jerusalem), in the suburbs (Judea), to the neighbors that they didn’t much get along with (Samaria), and to the ends of the earth (the entire world).
“This is not new news,” the bishop said. “Still, today, as followers of Jesus, we are charged with the same thing. We are called to go and go far.”
“I would emphasize that if your church’s ministry, your witness, your walk with the Lord does not resemble a “wider still” movement,”
Bishop Johnson said, “you may need to re-examine your scope.”
Scripture, the bishop said, shows an “unmistakable tilt toward the ever-expanding Spirit of God.”
She encouraged United Methodists in New England to embrace that same tilt:
“Someone once said ‘if you are not out in the margins you are taking up too much space.’ So keep going out there: with refugee resettlement, addiction recovery, foster care, mental health ministries, prison ministries, affordable housing ministries, disability ministries … the fields are ripe for wider still ministry. It is the kin-dom of God at its best.”
On the theme of circles, Bishop Johnson pointed out that they can represent “... all people around the circle as equals.” But, she said, circles can also sometimes “become a bit too comfy” because they are places where we “are safe, where we share common values and experiences.”
“When you start drawing the circle wider, she said, “you begin to break down the parameters of that safe little space and letting in the ‘other.’ Circle widening means ‘letting them in.’ That is hard, hard, work.”
And it is work, Bishop Johnson said, that we do not always succeed at. She pointed to disaffiliation as “a failure of faith on everyone’s part.”
“It underscores our inability to draw wider circles of inclusion, understanding, and tolerance and, instead, to keep our circle insular and safe and remain apart,” she said.
Another type of circle is a silo – which Bishop Johnson not only spoke about, but brought to the stage with her.
The barriers created by silos “keep some in and some out by design,” she said. “It is safer that way. It keeps control that way.”
“Our silos of committees, theological cliques, former conference affiliations, silos of old hurts over all of that, our silos of who decides what, all that human interpersonal stuff, is our biggest challenge,” Bishop Johnson said. “Silos are keeping us from new ways of doing things: cross committee work, sharing of resources, yes, and cooperative parishes.”
Bishop Johnson ended with a call to action; as she opened the silos on the stage:
“I challenge you to take up the work of opening up your circles,” or as she called it “circle busting.”
“When you do that,” the bishop said, “the circle can open up and there is no end to the wider still things that can happen in New England.”