Resilient Leadership the Focus of the Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy 2022

By Rick Wolcott*

How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Resilient Leadership was the theme for the 2022 Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy. Dozens of clergy persons from the East Ohio Conference and the West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church gathered September 6-8 at the Nationwide Hotel and Conference Center north of Columbus to learn, fellowship, and worship together.

All East Ohio Conference clergy were invited to participate in the Bishops’ Retreat with Black Clergy, which began in 1982 when then-East Ohio Conference Bishop James S. Thomas created the event to nurture and develop clergy whose diversity and perspective is invaluable to the Conference. This year’s joint retreat for the African American clergy of the East Ohio and the West Ohio Conferences featuring Bishop Tracy S. Malone and Bishop Gregory V. Palmer met in-person for the first time since 2019.

Bishop Tracy S. Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference shared that the retreat provided clergy a wellness opportunity for their spirit so that they might lead well in the places to which they have been called to serve.

“It is important to have a sacred space where our Black clergy’s Spirits can be renewed but also a place where Black clergy can develop and retool for leadership, to be resilient especially in this time of chaos, this time of challenge, and this time of loss and trauma,” Malone said. “They themselves need to be renewed in their own Spirit so that they can be resilient as they continue to lead in their respective ministries because you can’t pour from an empty cup. You can’t lead well if you are not well yourself.”

Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, resident bishop of the West Ohio Conference, stated two reasons why he feels the retreat continues to be a vital resource for clergy.

“First, it’s important for colleagues and peers who are sometimes defined by their demographic specificity to be able to have time together for learning and for strengthening their life and their ministry,” Palmer said. “The second thing is our denomination has had an initiative, of which my colleague Bishop Malone is co-chair, on Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century (SBC 21). You don’t strengthen Black churches without strengthening Black leaders. While this retreat doesn’t come under that banner it serves the purpose of strengthening African American leaders to serve Black churches and to serve the whole Church because right now the vast majority of clergy of Color are serving cross culturally, for a variety of reasons.”

Clergy who registered for the retreat were encouraged to prepare for their time of learning by reading How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season by Susan Beaumont and We Shall Be Changed: Questions for the Post-Pandemic Church by Mark D. W. Edington.

The Post-Pandemic Church Needs to Flex Five Adaptive Muscles

Keynote speaker the Rev. Blair Thompson-White, director of Leadership Ministry at Texas Methodist Foundation/Wesleyan Investive, facilitated conversations on The Five Adaptive Muscles. An ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church, Thompson-White has served as a pastor in a variety of settings, including small town Kansas, downtown Dallas, and suburban Richardson, Texas.

“The Five Muscles were developed after conversations with bishops, conference leaders, clergy, lay people, spiritual entrepreneurs, and people outside the Church about what are the adaptive changes the Church must make to thrive in this post-pandemic world,” she said. “From all those conversations emerged, very clearly, these Five Adaptive Muscles: grieving well, discerning purpose, walking alongside or neighboring, distributing power, and expanding imagination.”

Thompson-White explained that muscles need to be exercised to keep them from atrophying, so clergy and laity are being invited to exercise them through conversation.

“When we think about congregations that are thriving, they’re having conversations around these Five Muscles all the time in their leadership,” she said. “They’re asking, ‘what are we grieving now?’ and ‘how is grief affecting our decision-making?’ They’re constantly discerning, ‘Where is the Holy Spirit at work?’ ‘What is the difference God is calling us to make? that’s our purpose for this next season.’ And we’ve defined the season as only the next 12-18 months. No more long-term strategic planning.”

On the first day of the retreat, Thompson-White painted a picture of the present-day landscape of the Church. On the second day she explained each of the Five Muscles and facilitated full- and small-group discussions about ways that the participating clergy can invite people in their respective settings into conversation about adapting the Five Muscles into their context.

The Five Adaptive Muscles, each listed with key discernment questions, are:

  • Grieving Well
    • What is our shared narrative of grief?
    • How is grief impacting us and our decision-making today?
  • Discerning Purpose
    • Are we living out of our self-appointed preferences, or God’s purpose for us?
    • What is the difference God is calling us to make now?
  • Walking Alongside
    • What is needed to move from “We welcome you” to “We stand with you”?
    • What is God already doing in our neighborhood and how is God calling us to join in?
  • Distributing Power
    • Where is the power in your congregation and in your community?
    • What happens if someone in your church says, “I have a dream for a ministry?”
  • Expanding Imagination
    • Who can teach us what we don’t know?
    • What questions have we been asking that need to be reframed?

Discussion on the final day of the retreat focused on discerning faithful next steps, which Thompson-White shared is critical to ministering in new ways.

“I hope the language becomes a part of how they see their ministry and that they go back to their church and invite people to have these conversations in their context and that that will provide new ways of seeing and ultimately space for the Spirit to work and ignite their imagination for what’s possible in their context,” she said.

Each Day of the Retreat Began with Powerful Worship

The days of thinking in new ways and informative conversation each began with powerful worship. Bishop Palmer began the retreat by preaching during the opening service and Bishop Malone was the preacher during the closing communion service.

On Wednesday the message from the Rev. Dr. Ivy Smith, pastor of Canfield UMC in East Ohio, was grounded in the words of the Apostle Paul found in Acts 17:19-28.

“The theme of Paul’s sermon in Athens is this very point: God has no favorites. We are all his children, and he sent Christ to save us all.  This is what makes Christianity available to everybody. Often, I hear persons glibly criticize Christianity because of the failure of individual Christians. Indeed, there may be a lot wrong with some Christians, but there’s nothing wrong with Christianity. It can pass any test. There is abundant evidence that the principles or morality, ethics, and human relations that are found in Jesus’ teachings meet tests of the highest scrutiny even from secular points of view,” Smith said.

“If this world needs anything, it is a wider acceptance, a more faithful practice of, and a deeper commitment to those ideas and ideals as set forth by that marvelous preacher, teacher, and healer from Nazareth in Galilee, whom we believe to be the Son of the living God,” she continued. “He not only taught these lofty concepts, but he embodied them and lived them. He stretched out his arms to the people of all nations and all backgrounds. Christ tore down the walls, ignored our tribal habits, and celebrated the dignity of all people in the sight of God. In Christ everybody is God’s somebody was the theme of Paul’s great sermon on Mars Hill and what we must proclaim each time we stand behind that sacred desk.” 

Thursday morning the Rev. Sherri Blackwell, pastor of Asbury South UMC in Columbus in the West Ohio Conference, preached about her love/hate relationship with James’ words found in the first chapter of the Book of James noting that she loves his words when all is well but wants nothing to do with them in the midst of struggles.

“Suddenly God said to me, ‘What if you’re hearing James’ words all wrong? What if James is the very one you need to hear?’ It made me think. What if, instead of lamenting that I don’t have joy what if I were to look only at the moments in the current situation as it is where I can find that joy that James is talking about? What if I focus intentionally on where God is, where that joy is?” Blackwell asked.

“Where have you seen God since COVID showed up? Where have you seen God in all the negatively surrounding who we are as quote unquote United Methodists and what’s going to happen in 2024? Because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, much less in 2024, but where is God in our conversations? Brothers and sisters, because we are all in this together, my prayer is that each one of us can really put ourselves in that frame of mind in that frame of Spirit where we can indeed count all the joy so that whenever the frustration comes, when the lack of patience, when the anger, when the tiredness comes we can, instead of focusing on that because it’s so easy to do say, ‘no, I reject that. I will count it all joy.’”

Bishop Malone’s closing message was grounded in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, in which Paul prays to God about the thorn in his flesh.

“We serve a God who works all things together for the good for those who love Him, who are called according to His good purposes. We all have thorns in our flesh, in our sides, Amen? Persons who lie about us. Folks who try to undermine our leadership. Folks who are trying to get in the way of the vision, the imagination of what God is trying to do something new. We’ve all got situations in our personal lives and in our professional lives, and our church lives that are overwhelming. We all have thorns, do we not? If we are honest, if we start doubting – and we know what self-doubt leads to. But don’t we know that God’s grace is sufficient.” Malone said.

“We have decisions to make about how we shall lead and we have each been given a charge and we each have an inherent power within us, the Holy Spirit, and by God’s grace we have been given this gift and with this gift is a great burden and with this gift is a great responsibility but God does not give us vision where God does not make the necessary provision for you to live fully into your calling and into your purpose. We have to choose to be resilient in our leadership.”

Following the service of communion, the Rev. Ed Fashbaugh, executive director of Connectional Ministries in the East Ohio Conference, and the Rev. Donnetta Peaks, director of the office of Ministry in the West Ohio Conference, invited clergy to pray over the Rev. Thompson-White, Bishop Malone, and Bishop Palmer.

Learn more about the Five Adaptive Muscles.

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