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  1   Great Plans for the Great Plains: A Response “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth

. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7) To our sisters and brothers on the Transition Team, called by God to be his children and appointed to this labor of his holy church, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. As two lifelong and devoted United Methodists, current seminarians, and candidates for elder’s orders in the Kansas East Conference we have watched with great interest the work of the Transition Team and its recommendation to create a new Great Plains Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Kansas and Nebraska. For us and for our colleagues who will come into ministry in the next few years, this new connectional reality will frame our ministry, our community, and our lives. To be candid, we are troubled by the report’s theology and frustrated by its rhetoric, and after prayer, conferencing, and searching the scriptures we are compelled to respond. For us, the document does not resonate with the witness of scripture and tradition as we have learned them through our experience in the community and the exercise of reason. Thus we find that the vision of this report is one we cannot labor under with enthusiasm, for it seems to be a vision which trusts in our own strength instead of looking to the providence of God and relying solely upon God’s grace, a vision whose church is not a holy communion caught up in the activity of God’s Son and Spirit, but an institutional association defined by its aims and not by its Salvation. To some such theological objections may seem to have no bearing on the practical church business of the report, but it is precisely our conviction that the reorganization of annual conferences is a matter requiring theological reflection and theological language because it is a matter of the people of God. Our theology cannot be separated from our prayer and practice. In Jeremiah 29, which was chosen as the scriptural basis of “Great Plans for the Great Plains,” God has stern words for those who promise on God’s behalf what God does not intend: “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 29:9) The prophets denounced by Jeremiah were proclaiming easy answers and misplaced hope. They sought resistance against the king of Babylon and believed that God would bring them out of exile in a few short years rather than the seventy that God intended. God charged these false prophets with leading the people to “trust in a lie” (Jeremiah 29:31), in a hope for return grounded in their own desire for freedom and the actions of a God who would oblige them. What God and Jeremiah saw was an anxious people, rebellious against God’s call to patient trust and easily swayed by the story that they could determine their own destiny. God had a ready response to the people’s impatience: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 29:11). The clear unspoken implication is, “you, the people, do not know those plans.” We find here not a call to action, but a call to faith. The call to erect houses, to

  2   plant gardens, to have children is not a call to plan and build and be strong in a new setting, but a call to accept the yoke of defeat, a call to wait on the Lord, to trust in the Lord, and to at last live in hope of the Lord’s deliverance by the Lord’s strength at the Lord’s appointed hour. Like the speech of the false prophets in Babylon the “Great Plans” document is suffused with the imperative for human efforts to bring about works that are only God’s to bring. We struggle with the claim that we can “bring forth the reign of God” (p. 5) through our own efforts. It has already come in the person of Jesus Christ and it will be completed when Christ comes again. In the meantime we can only pray and witness to what God is doing in the church and the world, in ourselves and in others. The document gives the feeling that Christians are acting for God or in place of God. Sometimes we seem to be little more than middlemen in the trade of salvation, bringing God’s “grace to our time and place in history” (p. 1). In other places we are building or bringing forth God’s kingdom and producing transformation in the world. In either case the document stresses our efforts, the work of “our hands and shoulders” (p. 1), and does not urge a trust in the providence of God or a reliance upon the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit. As United Methodists we have lately liked to think that we can renew and restore the church to some image of past vitality and greatness. We want to contrive a strategy to escape from Babylon and return to Jerusalem on our own power, rather than seeking after faithfulness in the context God has given us. We want to please God by our ingenuity, our dedication, and our hard work so that we can win back the favor that we seem to have lost. But to us God says “I will fulfill to you my promise…For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:10-11). Jesus Christ is with us always—what other security could we need? The Holy Spirit of God dwells within us—what greater glory could we desire? In Jeremiah’s prophetic word we find that any restoration of fortunes comes only in God’s time and through God’s work. We may erect edifices, of leadership and resources, strategic plans and official initiatives, on paper and in offices, but on their own they are sterile and cannot bear God’s kingdom. It is not our call to build the church ourselves. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 128:1). It is because we are the people of the Lord and the temple of God’s glory that we must not think that we are the builders or can be the builders of that house. It is because the Lord has promised to be our God that we can trust even when things seem to be going awry that his plans for us will not be frustrated or abandoned. Likewise, when we go about this work of God as though it were our own, as though it were in our power, we fear that we forget the fullness of our calling as God’s peculiar and holy people. The "Great Plans" document offers a proposed vision statement that portrays the annual conference as primarily a sender of leaders and connecter of congregations. Yet our Discipline confesses that annual conferences are "the fundamental bodies of the church," (¶11) and the church we have experienced embraces so much more than sending and connecting. The church is the bride and body of Christ, a priestly kingdom and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, how the annual conference operates is not a matter of only organization and logistics, of the allocation of resources for the facilitation of growth and leadership, but a matter of God’s presence in the world. Other traditions will speak of the church as the “first sacrament” and at our best we too as Methodists speak of the annual conference as itself a means

  3   of grace. It is not an arrangement that is purely our affair but one in which God has chosen to act. We ought not to see the annual conference as ancillary to the work and worship of Christ, only facilitating and furnishing resources to the church’s real labor, but rather as indeed the “fundamental body of the church,” taking onto itself the totality of what it means to be the body of Christ. It is through the annual conference that the Word is ordinarily preached, since clergy, local pastors, and lay speakers receive their authority through the conference. Through the conference the sacraments are duly administered, since the clergy that celebrate and baptize are members not of the local church but of the annual conference. Even the physical buildings that anchor our local congregations belong to the annual conference. It is in an annual conference building that we gather for prayer and Bible study, fellowship potlucks and committee meetings. It is in the buildings of the annual conference that AA groups meet for healing, that the hungry are fed, that our programs for relief of the needy are organized. Within the walls of the annual conference we offer God our praises; we hear the Word preached by a member, a part, a limb of that annual conference and we receive the sacrament that is “communion in the body of Christ” from the consecrating hands of that annual conference. The annual conference is the church. It is therefore too small a thing to conceive of this annual conference, which is the mystical body of our Lord, having life in his Holy Spirit, being nourished with his body and blood, offering itself to the world in his likeness—it is too small a thing to envision this Annual Conference as just a sender and connecter, as a structure of accountability and an incubator of new leadership and missions. God’s is a sublimer vision. Where we are tempted to see policies and bureaucracies God sees a temple for his glory. Where we see an organization God sees the vine of his Son. Let us not lose sight of God’s vision of the annual conference because our eyes are so accustomed to seeing fleshly things! We train ourselves to see the church in this fleshly way when we concern ourselves chiefly with what we can do, what we ought to do, what we must do, instead of centering ourselves on what the Lord has promised he will do for us. As a corrective, then, to the temptation to frame our vision by what we can accomplish, we humbly offer an alternative language of growth: the language of the sower. To plant seeds is an act of profound trust. It is to be utterly dependent upon forces that you cannot control. To sow them widely requires even greater faith because it is impossible to know whether conditions will even make growth possible. The forces at work—wind, rain, and sun are much larger and more powerful than either sower or seed. To insist on a delusion of control in our sowing is vanity, and so this image is a corrective against trust in our own efforts. The seeds that God has given us are justice, mercy, piety, and evangelistic witness. The supply of these seeds is as limitless as God’s grace and there is no wasting them. While some may plant the seeds and others may water them, it is God who gives the growth. As we reflect on our preparation for ministry, we seek to become sowers: spreading the seeds we have received from God in whatever fields are opened to us by the grace of God, tending to them as we are given strength in the Spirit of God, and trusting always in the providence of God for their growth. The language of the sowing suggests a different way to view the task of responding organizationally to the consequences of episcopal area reduction in Kansas and Nebraska. If it is necessary and desirable to create a new annual conference, the vision for that conference should be rooted in our weakness, not our strength, in our hope that God will care for the seeds that we plant, and not in our ability to organize our own flourishing. To combine episcopal areas and

  4   annual conferences in the midst of decline is a sign of worldly weakness: we feel we must consolidate, we must “right-size” in light of our numerical decrease and financial inadequacy. We ought not only to be frank about this weakness, but also to accept it as a blessing from God, even if we discern in it the rod of his chastisement. What we should not do is decorate our weakness as an opportunity for strength, for it is in weakness itself that we hear most clearly the voice of Jesus saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Let us honestly and humbly acknowledge our weakness and soberly discern what it requires of us, but let us also eagerly embrace it, confess it, and claim it as the gift and grace of God, for “whenever we are weak, then we are strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). It is natural to be angry at weakness, it is appropriate to lament weakness, but so long as we flee from weakness and endeavor to spin it and hide it we cannot be for the world that crucified strength of God which is revealed in weakness. We are hopeful. We do not believe the United Methodist Church in the heartland or anywhere else is close to Wesley’s dire fear that it become a “dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” There are, as you say, “thousands of faithful United Methodists” (p. 3) witnessing across our region. The “people called Methodists” are still gathering around the table, serving the poor, searching the scriptures, and confessing their sins. In these actions we see seeds scattered into the world to grow and be harvested in God’s good time. They give us hope not in our own actions but in the providence of the Triune God, for we do not sow our seeds alone, but are all members of the body over which our savior Christ is head. May the Father we share, the Son we serve, and the Spirit in whom our fellowship resides bless and preserve you all. Luke Wetzel and Austin Rivera Duke Divinity School The Twenty-fourth Day of Lent A.D. 2011