Dulworth pitches for the Cabinet

Rev. Elbert Dulworth has served as Superintendent of the Marquette District for the past five years. As Dean of the Cabinet, he reported to the Annual Conference on Sunday morning, June 4. ~mic photo/Hannah Hazen

The Dean of the Cabinet joins Charlie Brown on the pitchers mound to talk about leadership.


REV. ELBERT DULWORTH

Dean of the Cabinet

Good morning, Bishop, Colleagues, Conference! I bring you greetings on behalf of the people and churches of the Marquette District which is surrounded by three of the Great Lakes; where our geography includes approximately one-third of the state of Michigan; where the waters are bluer than the oceans; where people enjoy life at the same latitude as the Bishop’s hometown of Duluth; and where we just this past year celebrated and supported their first new church start since 1978.

Friends, it has been a joy to serve as the first dean of the Michigan Area Cabinet for this past year. I’ve had the privilege to serve on one of the best teams in the annual conference. Even on the hardest of days, the people who share in this special ministry of superintending with me, really do care about our local churches first and foremost. We know that you are central to the mission of the Church. Our hearts are filled with a longing to see vital centers of mission and ministry throughout the Michigan area where disciples of Jesus Christ are nurtured, developed, and sent forth to a world that is desperate to hear a good word; a simple word; a word of truth:  “God loves you!”

In 2012, the General Conference declared that District Superintendents are expected to be the chief missional strategists for their districts. Since that time, your DS’s have worked hard to live into that role.

I will confess that the task is not always easy. There are always distractions that abound in the work of the superintendency. On some days, it is easier to feel like a fire chief than a chief missional strategist. It is more tempting and perhaps easier to go around putting out blazes that someone else started whereas being the chief missional strategist has caused us to have to think about what fires we might just let burn so that we can see some new life coming down the road. It’s always easier to throw water on the blaze than to wait and see what new growth might be possible after a controlled burn.

“It is more tempting and perhaps easier to go around putting out blazes that someone else started whereas being the chief missional strategist has caused us to have to think about what fires we might just let burn so that we can see some new life coming down the road.”

About a month ago, depending on your location within the state of Michigan, the morel hunters came out of their homes and headed to their favorite hunting grounds. With their bags in hand, they were looking snatch up some of the tasty treats. Now I don’t know much about hunting for morels and no one has ever given me the location of his or her favorite hunting grounds, but I’ve heard that in the years after a forest fire, the soil in those locations is best for finding morel mushrooms. The other day another colleague told me to look under fallen trees. I’m sure that a biologist could tell me why that happens, but I like to think that whatever happens is yet one more sign that God brings new life in the face of what appears to be death and an end.

As chief missional strategists for the district, your district superintendents seek to identify the places where we see signs of new life or hope for new life, even when there are times in which we must first face the reality of death. That’s not easy work. Colleagues and friends, we’ve stood by the bedsides of those that know they are dying and look forward to the life that is to come. We’ve stayed with those who’ve lived a good life and come to the end with a sense of hope as they step into eternal life. We’ve also stood by the bedsides of those who’ve been terrified of death and are looking for a word of assurance that is hard for them to believe in that moment.

In this way, the work of the superintendency is not too different from the work of a pastor in a local church.

Throughout the past few years, district superintendents have not only sought to identify those places where new life is being called forth, but we have also intentionally sought to live together as an example of the new life that is offered to us in this Michigan Area. We felt that if our area was going to be ONE Michigan Conference, we would strive to live into that reality first.

As an appointive cabinet, four years ago, we started meeting for a combined January retreat which begins our appointment season. For the first couple of years, we did our work separately. We worshiped and ate together, but we worked separately. We used the same location but had separate agendas and meetings. Beginning in 2016, we began meeting together and working on appointments together, but there was still more of a separate nature to our work. We ran two to three agendas at the same time. There was the Detroit agenda, the West Michigan agenda, and the combined agenda. That didn’t last long before we realized we needed one agenda together for the Michigan Area. It was just too difficult to be thinking as two different bodies.  We knew we needed to work more as ONE.

” … we realized we needed one agenda together for the Michigan Area. It was just too difficult to be thinking as two different bodies.  We knew we needed to work more as ONE.”

Then in September, as if we were not experiencing enough change already, we received a new Bishop. Can you believe it? Last July, Bishop David A. Bard was appointed to serve among us beginning September 1. As with other episcopal transitions, there was a time of wondering among cabinet members how this would all work out. In no time, Bishop Bard caught on to our new way of operating and got on board with how we do things in Michigan. Actually, friends, we discovered a bishop who continued to listen and to lead.

Bishop, I didn’t know much about you when you were elected. Dawn and I were on vacation and watching the live stream of the Jurisdictional Conference. I knew that I would have to work closely with a new bishop. I remember reading your bio at the time and thinking, “This is the Bishop we need in Michigan.” And Bishop, we thank God that you have come to serve among us for such a time as this! Thank you for your leadership in these past few months and at this first annual conference of your episcopal career. You have led us well and will continue to do so. Please know that you have our prayers as you lead us.

As we approached our January appointive retreat a few months ago, who would have thought that we would make some 120 appointments and ensure pastoral leadership for upwards of 850 churches across the state of Michigan? And yet, by the grace of God, your cabinet has come together to do just that. At the same time, we’ve had difficult conversations with churches and pastors about what the future holds. We’ve also committed ourselves to hold hope-filled discussions about what could be done differently.

At our fall retreat, we even had to talk about how fewer district superintendents may be covering more churches and more territory so that resources can be reallocated for making disciples of Jesus Christ in order that we might see the world transformed beginning in the state of Michigan.

Superintendents have had to rethink what it means to be the Church. In doing so, they have developed regional church models, trained certified lay ministers, supported the development of new faith communities, and helped to identify resources so that new ministries might be developed in local churches.

This has not been easy work. It was not without bumps in the road when we sat down and decided to work together. There have been pauses along the way when we’ve discovered that at times we think, perceive, and even hear things differently. There have been stops and the need for a break at meetings from time to time when we’re just not listening to one another. As committed as the cabinet has been to working together, sometimes it has been hard. And yet, we’ve been committed to this relationship that God has called us to for such a time as this SO THAT we might equip and connect through Christ-centered mission and ministry, bold and effective leaders, and vibrant congregations throughout the Michigan Area.

You know what though? We’re not the first to do the hard work. Cabinets before us have done hard work, too. Annual conferences that preceded this one have done hard work. Clergy and laity who came before us have done hard work. The business of disciple-making, the business of the Kin-dom, is sometimes hard work.

“We’re not the first to do the hard work. Cabinets before us have done hard work, too. Annual conferences that preceded this one have done hard work. Clergy and laity who came before us have done hard work. The business of disciple-making, the business of the Kin-dom, is sometimes hard work.”

I wonder if perhaps Jesus knew the hard work that would be before us as disciples when he saw the crowds that had flocked to receive a good word or healing and turning to his disciples he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”(Matthew 9:37, NRSV)

People throughout our world need what we have come to experience in Jesus Christ. They need us to see them through Jesus’ eyes of compassion and love. They’re ready and waiting, hungering for the bread of life upon which we feast. Brothers and sisters, just look out into the world around you.

We know there are fields to harvest and there is work to be done when we see the harassed and helpless in urban areas decimated by the poor decisions of elected officials throughout the state as well as in our rural towns and villages where access to resources and quality education have left children hungry and without hope in classrooms that are falling down around them.

We know there are fields to harvest and there is work to be done when the people of Flint are still in need of clean water, safe neighborhoods, and so much more. We know that there are fields to harvest and there is work to be done when people are homeless in Detroit and Lansing and Grand Rapids as well as in our small town communities throughout the state.

We know that there are fields to harvest and work to be done when Volunteer in Mission teams are sent out from the Michigan Area to build churches, repair homes, and bring hope to places where disaster has brought about a sense of hopelessness.

We know there are fields to harvest and there is work to be done so long as heroin addiction remains an epidemic and people think that that the way to treat the disease of addiction is through incarceration rather than offering treatment options that break down systems and cycles of addition.

We know there are fields to harvest and there is work to be done when churches welcome those who already look, act, and speak like they are saved, but cannot figure out how to welcome the stranger, give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit those who are sick and in prison.

We know there are fields to harvest and there is work to be done as long as people are turned away from Jesus by those claiming to bear his name because they are labeled as “incompatible” rather than given the title that belongs to each and every one of us; the title that is the irrevocable promise of a God who loves humanity everyone no matter what; the title that defines every human being on the face of the earth; that title, “Child of God.”

Hey! Beautiful people! Don’t you know that you are beloved? Don’t you know that your neighbor is beloved, too?

“Hey! Beautiful people! Don’t you know that you are beloved? Don’t you know that your neighbor is beloved, too?”

Oh, friends, there are fields to harvest and there is work to be done so long as one person; one life; one human being has not come to know that undeniable truth that he or she is a “precious child of God”, loved by the One who created, redeemed, and sustains our lives, and there is nothing anyone can do to take that away. Or as my good friend and colleague, Jeff Nelson would say, “God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it!”  NOTHING!!!

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” But listen closely to the next lines of our scriptures from earlier, my friends. “But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if NOBODY tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?”

In one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons, Charlie Brown is pitching the championship game. All of the other kids are standing around him at the pitcher’s mound trying to be supportive in their own ways. Someone shouts out, “Get this last man out, Charlie Brown and the championship is ours!” Another says, “You can do it, Charlie Brown. We’re all behind you!”  Lucy says, “That’s right, Charlie Brown. We’re with you. Pitch it to ‘im, boy! Strike him out…” And then she whispers in his ear, “You Blockhead!”

Then something must have stirred within Charlie Brown because, in the very next frame, all of the kids are arching their necks and looking up at the sky as they proclaim, “It’s a fly ball!” Another kid begins to shout, “Catch it, Charlie Brown!”

Linus says, “Catch it, and the championship is ours!” Then someone asks, “Have you got it, Charlie Brown?” “Don’t miss it!” shouts Linus. “Get under it, Charlie Brown!” hollers Lucy.

As the kids start talking to one another, you hear things like, “Isn’t this exciting?” and “What if he drops it?” And Lucy says, “If he drops it, let’s all kick him!”

Others say, “If Charlie Brown catches this fly ball, we’ll win the championship!”  “Just think of it. . . we’ll be CHAMPIONS!”  “We’ll all get our names in the paper!”  “And they’ll give us a gold cup!”  “And pins and buttons, and pennants. . . .”

In the very last frame, all of the kids have moved in close around poor old Charlie Brown as they shout in unison, “DON’T DROP IT!!”

And that my friends, is what it’s like to be a leader in our day, isn’t it? At times, anyway, it feels like that, doesn’t it? Susan Beaumont hit the nail on the head for us not only in our annual conference but also in our local churches, didn’t she? This is what it means to lead in these liminal moments in our lives together as an annual conference and as a local church. How do you lead when all of the voices are shouting around you?

“How do you lead when all of the voices are shouting around you?”

Perhaps, Jesus really understood what this time would mean for us when he said, “The harvest is plentiful (lots of people need to know this great love that we have come to experience in Jesus Christ), but the laborers are few.” Sometimes leading can be a lonely place, can’t it?

As a Michigan Area and now as a Michigan Conference, we have committed ourselves to working together because we are convinced that we are stronger together in ministry and mission to the Michigan area and the world. But what shall we do when the pop up is hit and everyone is standing there expecting us to catch the ball that we just pitched?

Go back to the good news. “The harvest is plentiful!” Jesus didn’t say, “The harvest is scarce.” He didn’t say, “The harvest is lacking this year!” He didn’t say, “The harvest has rotted off the vines.” He said, “The harvest is plentiful!” The fields are ripe for picking. The world is ready to hear a word of hope, a word of good news, a word that builds up rather than tears down, and a word that cherishes every human being for who we are, “precious children of God.”

The harvest is plentiful! The fields are ready. And God chooses us to send out into that harvest. Will you go with me? Though at times you don’t know how to harvest the fruit, will you go with me anyway? Though at times you’re tired from trying to figure the latest piece of harvest machinery, will you go with me?

Several years ago, there was a young boy named, Will, in one of the churches that I was serving. He must have been about three years old while I was there. Each Sunday, Will would stand in his pew at the back of the sanctuary when I would give the benediction. As I stretched out my arms, he would stretch out his to offer me a blessing in return. One week after I had just returned from vacation, his mother stopped me to say, “Hey, I have to tell you this story.” She said, “Pastor, last week we came to church while you were on vacation. It wasn’t long before Will started looking around and tugging on my shirt sleeve.” She then said, “When I asked him what he wanted, he asked, ‘Mom, where’s Jesus?’ After a moment of trying to think how I would answer that question, I realized that Will was looking for you, Pastor.”

My wife, Dawn, who was standing nearby, cautioned Will’s mom that my head was big enough as it is. Will has grown up quite a bit since that time almost fifteen years ago now. Yet, I continue to think of him from time to time. Will blessed me each and every Sunday, but that day, he reminded me that even when I think I’m going about a simple worship ritual, I’m still out sharing in this abundant harvest to which God sends us by God’s grace. I knew each and every Sunday that Will was watching and saw Jesus in me. I was watching, too. And I saw Jesus in the fields that were ripe for harvest.  I saw Jesus in Will.

Looking out into the fields with compassion in our eyes and in our hearts, we hear, “And how is anyone going to tell them unless someone is sent to do it?” Perhaps today, we might say, “It’s time to play ball! Go catch it, Charlie Brown.”

And now, Bishop, colleagues, and friends, since this is the second dean’s report I’ve given before an annual conference and my third year in a row in this capacity in one way or another, I’ve got some work to do in another field. It’s time for me to go play ball! And let me tell you a secret: we’re going to win this game, together!

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