Leading through Crisis; Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy Goes Virtual in 2021

By Rick Wolcott*

“Being at the retreat is energizing, renewing, cup-filling, and relaxing, all at the same time.”
– Rev. Dogba Bass
Aldersgate UMC

“The retreat is an opportunity for Black clergy to affirm their unique calls and to be affirmed.”
– Rev. Gary Henderson
United Methodist Communications

The Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy returned in a new way August 24-25. The 60+ participants from the East Ohio and West Ohio Conferences of The United Methodist Church formed a virtual community on Zoom amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to fellowship, worship, and learn together around the theme Leading through Crisis.

“Last year we were not able to gather, as you know. We did not do so virtually, and we certainly last summer and fall did not attempt to do so physically,” said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, resident bishop of the West Ohio Conference. “Bishop Malone and I made up in our minds that this year we’re coming together under some technology, if necessary, in order to not lose the gift of this and the momentum of this. So, thanks be to God for this wonderful genius of technology. Part of my brain and heart say that this is not ideal and then on the other hand I look out and I see faces of people who would be likely not to be here because of distance so perhaps this is far more ideal than we had imagined. It doesn’t give us press the flesh kind of presence with each other, but it allows in effect more of us to be together, where we can all remain safe.”

“There is power in the name of Jesus and where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, we know that the Lord is indeed among us. We have planned these two days to help you, help all of us, slow the pace down, to clear the stage, if you will, to take some time to calm the noise in our lives – and we know that there is a lot of noise in our lives. When there is so much noise and when we’re constantly moving and going and people pulling on us sometimes it’s hard to focus and hear the voice of God. We are here together over these next two days to be refreshed and renewed in our spirit but also to be better readied and equipped for leading in these challenging times and in these times of great opportunity,” shared Bishop Tracy S. Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference.

“I always look forward to this yearly retreat. It affords a few opportunities: It allows a break time, refreshing time and refocusing time. It allows a time to reconnect with old colleagues and make new connections,” said the Rev. Angela Lewis, superintendent of the Canal District. 

Celebration UMC pastor the Rev. Gerald Cameron added, “This retreat provides me with the opportunity to connect with Black clergy throughout the connection and to worship with them authentically.”

A team from the West Ohio Conference planned the opening worship service. Bishop Palmer invited the Rev. Dr. F. Willis Johnson, pastor of Living Tree Church in Columbus, to preach the sermon. His message, titled “It Ain’t Over,” was grounded in the passage from 1 Kings 19:1-18 in which God encourages a discouraged Elijah. 

“Ministry is a responsibility that is taxing, sometimes overwhelming, and ofttimes thankless. All of us in this life of service along this path of our respective faith journeys have experienced periods of frustration, fruitlessness, famine, and fatigue. It’s inevitable that all of us at some point have, we are, or we will grow weary,” Johnson said before stating that there is still work to be done. “It was the same work for Elijah that it is for us and for us that it was for Elijah. There’s still people needing to be blessed. There’s still people that need to be delivered. There’s still people that need to be set free. There’s still people that need to be fed. There’s still people that need to be advocated for. There’s still more work to be done for our collective survival and our thriving.”

Johnson told the clergy gathered from around the country and across The United Methodist Church that there is still more for each of them to do.

“It ain’t over. I know what they’re predicting. I know what the forecast looks like but it ain’t over. It ain’t over. I know this chapter is ending but there’s a new chapter beginning. It ain’t over. I know you’re tired, but it’s not worth giving up,” Johnson implored.

Held for the first time in 1982, the Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy was the vision of then-East Ohio Conference Bishop James S. Thomas, who created the event to nurture and develop clergy whose diversity and perspective is invaluable to the Conference. All East Ohio Conference clergy are invited each year to attend the Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy. 

Precious in God’s Sight – The Importance of Self-Care

Bishop Linda Lee was the keynote speaker for the first day of this year’s Retreat. She said that part of the work the clergy need to do is to care for themselves so that they can care for others. She focused on the disciplines of spirit, mind, and body that clergy need, especially as they navigate these ever-changing times and bring leadership to the churches and communities they serve.

Click here to view the video above on Vimeo. From that page you can download the video for use in your church or ministry setting.

“One of the things that is important in taking care of ourselves is putting ourselves in the position to be able to receive the love and nurture and care that God has for each one of us but especially those like you who are always offering that to someone else,” Lee said. “Self-care is a three-fold process. Self-care is physical, it is mental and emotional, and it is spiritual. Those dimensions are all interrelated.”

The retired bishop serving in residency at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary shared a few simple exercises to help participants reconnect with themselves and to center themselves with God; she shared from her perspective what is essential in terms of self-care; and she reinforced repeatedly the importance of taking Sabbath time.

“We need to ask the question, ‘what do I need to do to take loving, responsible care of myself?’ and then we need to listen to the answer. Self-care is not that difficult. The most challenging part is trusting the answer and having the courage to follow through once we hear it,” Lee said.

“Bishop Lee’s presentation on self-care caused me to reflect on how I do self-care even in retirement. I have discovered that I have to intentionally schedule both days off and Sabbath rest,” offered the Rev. Neriah Edwards-Boone from her home in North Carolina.

“The part of Bishop Lee’s lecture dealing with stress and trauma resonated with me because I am in the midst of helping folks deal with the stress and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, political and social unrest, law enforcement killing un-armed Black people, and senseless violence all around us daily,” stated Aldersgate UMC Senior Pastor the Rev. Dogba Bass. 

A team from the East Ohio Conference designed the worship service for day two of the Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy during which Bishop Malone invited the Rev. David Whitt, pastor of Twinsburg Faith UMC, to preach.

His sermon told the story of a well-known pastor who had good intentions but got caught up in his believed importance to the church at the expense of his self-care, a mistake that cost him his life.

“Whatever your place, whatever your calling, whatever your situation … it’s not about you or for you,” Whitt said. “Life is not a do-it-yourself project. Life is not self-advancement, self-appointment, self-seeking, self-righteousness, self-sufficiency, self-esteem. Life in ministry is about surrendering to the One who thought about you in the first place. What a relief! It’s not about you, it’s not for you! Rest in knowing that you are always in the heart and mind of God. Be well and do well. You’re always in the mind of God.”

Shifting Leadership Patterns, Perspectives and Positions in a COVID World

Day two keynote speaker the Rev. Dr. Stephen E. Handy, Sr., lead pastor of McKendree UMC in downtown Nashville, TN addressed the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic during his presentation “Leading through Crisis: Shifting Leadership Patterns, Perspectives and Positions”

He shared that our mission has not changed over the past 18 months, but we need to realize that what was is now history so we can’t go back to doing ministry the way that we did before the pandemic. We need to relaunch church and realize that the building has a new front door, a front door that is now virtual. People now go online to check out the church, its people, and its leadership.

Click here to view the video above on Vimeo. From that page you can download the video for use in your church or ministry setting.

“God has given us this wonderful space to discover, equip, and send people out differently. This is the best time, I believe, in Christiandom that we’ve ever had. It is the greatest opportunity to leverage our faith. It is the greatest opportunity to connect those who don’t know Jesus and connect to those who need to be reminded of Jesus – and sometimes those people are in our congregations,” Handy said.

McKendree UMC had no video presence before the pandemic but within six days put in a system, began doing ministry virtually, and discovered in doing so that the congregation is made up of six unique generations, each with its own wants, needs, thoughts, and perspectives.

“Understand the generations,” Handy told the Retreat participants. “We did not do that until COVID hit us and now we’re starting to understand what it means to do generational inclusiveness. So, the question in the midst of the pandemic is how do we connect, communicate, and collaborate with each generation?”

There is excitement in doing things in a new way, but there is also fear, and the unknown – each of which causes stress and anxiety that can wear-out clergy, leaders, and congregants.

“What we have found is that some leaders during this COVID have gotten stuck. We believe that we are people of the Gospel, and the Gospel gets us unstuck. We have a DNA that is always calling us forward. We have a faith that stands before us. So, we don’t get a day off from doing ministry and mission, but we better take a Sabbath. It is important to retool and refresh yourself on this journey,” Handy offered.

He also challenged East Ohio and West Ohio clergy to change some of the words they use.

“We often talk about managing people. I want to suggest that we don’t manage people, we manage systems, but we equip people. One of the other shifts I’m learning during this pandemic is control. Whatever controls I thought I had I didn’t really have. So, I need to shift from controls to empowerment, to empower people to do the work of ministry,” Handy said. “We have stopped using the word members in our congregation. We’ve started using the word missionaries. We call them city missionaries. We are all called to be in the marketplace trying to figure out where Jesus is. Jesus is in the marketplace inviting us to join Jesus in this work.”

“Dr. Handy’s presentation was timely in presenting this COVID season as an opportunity to re-focus worship and to consider new ways of collaborative ministry in and with community,” said the Rev. Marilyn Coney, pastor of Tiffin Faith UMC.  

“The marketplace is where church happens. Jesus spent his ministry out in the marketplace, and we lead through crisis by being where the people are. This means being in relationship in inclusive and intergenerational ways,” said Will Fenton-Jones, EOC director of Multicultural Vitality. He and the Rev. Donnetta Peaks, West Ohio Conference director of the Office of Ministry, once again partnered to plan the logistics for this year’s Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy.

Participants missed being together in-person, but they were still able to fellowship virtually thanks to creative thinking by Jones and Peaks. Day one ended with an online cooking class taught by Chef Rasul Welch of Farmer’s Feast. Clergy were provided the recipe in advance so that they could have the ingredients on-hand as they followed Welch’s instructions. Then it was time to test their knowledge with a trivia contest led by Ryan Gohmann of Cleveland Awesome Trivia.

“I really enjoyed the social hour. It was something that was different and reminded me that taking time out for socializing with others in good clean fun, engaging in learning a new skill, and taking time out for play is important, even if it is over Zoom!” said the Rev. Darlene Robinson, pastor of Wildare UMC. 

Next Steps: Applying What Was Learned

“After attending the Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy, I plan to connect with many of the clergy represented with the West and East Ohio Annual Conferences. Some of the issues that they are facing within their churches are similar to mine, which is why I found commonality with many of the clergy,” Cameron shared.

“My questions to pastors going forth will change a bit,” Lewis said. “I will ask where and who are their marketplaces and spaces. How are they reaching their communities, not only where they are but beyond the city?”

“Bishop Malone and Bishop Palmer have done well in providing spiritual leadership and engaging others for quality training,” Coney said.

“For me it was all about the connection. The regular connection with these colleagues, though infrequent, is valuable to me. This retreat is the pause that refreshes,” Henderson shared.

EOC Director of Strategic Ministries the Rev. Beth Ortiz said it was important that she participate in this year’s Retreat.

“I needed to learn and hear. I must realize my experience of life, of COVID-19, of ministry, of everything is not a universal experience and I welcome chances to hear from others and to learn from them and along with them,” she said.

“The superb combination of preaching, fellowship, and practical instructions which has been a hallmark of the Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy is a model that could be used in many settings within and beyond the boundaries of the Conference,” offered Whitt. 

The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to wolcott@eocumc.com.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.