Work progressing on vision for Virginia Annual Conference

By Forrest White

In the whirlwind of well wishes and words of wisdom that swept over Bishop Sharma D. Lewis after she was elected bishop in 2016, there came simple, practical advice from a woman who had already spent four years on the road Lewis would travel.

Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, encouraged Lewis to keep a document close at hand. It’s a document generated by the Southeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy, a document that explains why an elected bishop was matched to an annual conference.

“She [ Wallace-Padgett] would keep it by her side and ask, ‘Debbie, are you doing what the annual conference said they wanted you to do?’” Lewis said.
As the Virginia Conference prepared for life after Bishop Young Jin Cho in 2016, its leaders wanted a bishop to cast vision, to build upon Cho’s clarion call for disciplined prayer as a way of life. It’s written in that document from the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ), which Lewis will show you if you happen to find her in her Glen Allen office.

“God has blessed me to be a vision caster. God has blessed me to be a visionary. That’s just part of my DNA,” Lewis said. “It takes great strategic planning, great relationship building, great listening skills.”

The birth of a vision

Quite simply, she said, a vision is not birthed easily.

In the eight months prior to the 2017 Annual Conference at the Hampton Roads Convention Center, Lewis visited each of the 16 districts within the conference, holding separate sessions with clergy and laity, traveling more than 3,700 miles and meeting more than 3,250 people.

From those “Chat and Chew” sessions, the vision emerged. 

On Father’s Day 2017, during closing worship at Annual Conference, Lewis preached a sermon titled “Vision: Can you see it?” and unveiled the ministry vision for the conference – to be “Disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners who influence others to serve.” By 2020, she said, all United Methodist churches in the Virginia Conference will have a process for intentionally forming disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world through influence and acts of servanthood.

In her travels within the conference, Lewis kept hearing people speak of discipleship, of learning that comes through study and experience, of servanthood and social justice, of putting our faith into action.

After much prayer and discernment, Lewis wrote a paragraph on this emerging vision and shared it with the Rev. Christian Washington, a United Methodist pastor and founder of REAL Coaching, whom the conference hired to assist with the visioning process. She knew it was too long to be a vision statement.
More prayer led to the creation of the shorter statement, which she shared with Washington.

“I said, ‘Christian, this is what God has said to me!’” Lewis said. “He said, ‘Good! So what?’ I said, ‘What do you mean so what?’ He said, ‘Now you have to convince me.’”

Over the course of half a day, Lewis defended the mission statement. In the end, Washington warned that her work wasn’t finished. Your biggest defense is coming, he said. Would the Annual Conference be able to see it?

“After casting the vision in my sermon, I had people emailing me, calling me, Facebook messaging me … ‘I see it Bishop. I see it.’ The powerful thing about it? It wasn’t me. Even though people keep calling it Bishop Lewis’ vision, this was not me. This is what I heard for eight months on the road.”

Building around a vision

In the fall of 2017, Lewis assembled a Strategic Collaboration Team of 45 people she called “probably the most diverse group we have in this annual conference.”

Their charge? To take what Lewis likes to call a “deep dive” with the goal of implementing the vision because, quite simply, she isn’t interested in “moving furniture around and calling it something else. We’re looking at churches that have closed, churches that should be closing. We’re looking at all of that.”

From the larger group of 45, a 15-person steering team emerged. 

That team is using the Spiritual Leadership Inc. (SLI) loving, learning, leading model, with Paulo Lopes, conference director of the Center for Next Generation Ministries, serving as the group facilitator. 

Both the larger team of 45 and the smaller group continue to meet, looking at the conference through the lens of the ministry vision statement.
“We have a blank sheet of paper,” Lewis said. “I want us to take a critical, strategic look at this annual conference to see how we can do ministry more effectively.”

Looking to the future

It isn’t a matter of if change is coming, but rather a matter of when.

Some potential changes would require action at Annual Conference.

“The steering team is thinking and dreaming outside the box,” Lewis said. “The team is asking tough questions like do we need to restructure the annual conference? Will we need to reduce the districts? What positions may we need to add? What positions may we need to take away? What departments may we need to add to make this vision come alive?"

All of this work unfolds amid a backdrop of uncertainty, as the Commission on a Way Forward prepares its recommendations regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church in advance of a special General Conference scheduled for February 2019.

“People ask, ‘Bishop, aren’t you concerned that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the General Conference? We may be together. We may split … ’” Lewis said. “Everything they say is true. But no matter what the denomination may look like, if you don’t have any disciples you don’t have a church.” 

Just as in the ministry vision statement, being a disciple of Christ comes first, no matter what denomination a follower may choose, no matter what a denomination may look like.

“Part of my passion is discipleship,” Lewis said. “I don’t care whether you’re United Methodist, Baptist, or whatever. My desire, even as an episcopal leader, is for people to have and develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Making disciples in the Virginia Conference

Don’t expect the Virginia Conference to create a disciple-making process for all of its churches to implement. One size does not fit all when it comes to churches, especially in Virginia, where there is so much diversity among the many regions.

“Plus, you know your church better than anybody else,” Lewis said.

Instead of a model for all churches to use, she envisions the conference providing resources to the local church, including coaches.

“If we are intentionally making disciples and have programs in place by 2020, this annual conference should see growth,” she said.

In terms of members, the Virginia Conference is the second largest conference in the connection behind the North Georgia Conference, where Lewis was serving as a district superintendent when elected bishop.

She can’t offer a timeline for when specific change will come.

The hard work continues, with Lewis trusting the Holy Spirit to move, as the smaller steering group prepares to meet again in February, the larger group in April.

“This is a work in progress,” she said, a work guided by a vision statement not easily birthed, championed by a leader who keeps her marching orders close by.
The Virginia Conference asked for a vision caster and got one in Lewis, who has embraced the importance of vision at every level of her church service.

On that Father’s Day morning in Hampton, she opted to share Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of Proverbs 29:18 – “… that without a vision the people perish.” He puts it this way: “… if people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves. But, when they attend to what God reveals, they are most blessed.’”

“Your own life should have a vision,” Lewis said. “God didn’t make us to be aimlessly walking around, trying to figure out what we’re going to do.”

-Forrest White is a news associate with the Virginia Conference Communications office.



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