Keep faith with the denomination’s Four Areas of Focus. But make sure the specific ministry application is effective and relevant in local contexts, especially the local church.
That was the message hammered home May 3 as the United Methodist Council of Bishops continued its meeting in Dallas.
“This is not just a program,” Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted said of the Four Areas of Focus. “This is our way of being as United Methodists.”
Adopted in 2008, the Four Areas of Focus stress ministering with the poor, developing principled Christian leaders, creating new and renewed congregations and improving global health.
Bishop Sally Dyck of the Northern Illinois Conference referred to both the Four Areas of Focus and the Vital Congregations initiative as particularly important when denominational unity is severely tested because of disagreements over homosexuality.
“I sometimes wonder if we didn’t have these Four Areas of Focus and Vital Congregations as a guide, how we would go forward together in this time,” she said.
Bishops heard from Dan Krause, top executive of United Methodist Communications, that the denomination’s messaging about ministry emphases needs to reach the local church.
“We want every local church to be able to see themselves in the Four Areas of Focus,” he said.
The Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, shared a first-ever collaborative quarterly report from agency leaders detailing the agencies’ work, including through the Four Areas of Focus. She is the convener of the General Secretaries Table, which brings together the top executives of the denomination’s general agencies.
Cape spoke of a new commitment by agency leaders to work with bishops, conferences and local churches on mission initiatives.
The unity-through-mission theme was much in evidence, stressed an address by Bishop L. Jonathan Holston of the South Carolina Conference.
“Whatever it takes, we will do this together,” he said. “The church needs us to maintain focus. The church needs us to be accountable to the mission and ministries that transform lives for Jesus, our risen Christ.”
Bishops spent part of the morning discussing in small groups where the Four Areas of Focus are working well, and where they might be better applied in local contexts. Each table compiled a list of ideas to be shared with leadership groups of the council meeting later in the day.
But some of those ideas were shared in the plenary, with public health drawing much of the attention.
Dyck noted that gun violence in Chicago constitutes a public-health crisis, and has the church considering how best to respond.
“One of the things we’re working to get up and running is trauma awareness,” she said.
Bishop Karen Oliveto of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences mentioned that a rise in drug addiction is devastating families and communities.
“That’s something we would love to see our church take hold of and develop programs that can address these issues,” she said.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Nevada Conference urged a broader understanding of public health, including root causes of widespread health issues.
“Where one lives is a tremendous factor in whether we’re going to be healthy or not,” she said.
Alsted said the stress on the Four Areas of Focus at this meeting was in part to help new bishops get acclimated.
But he added that it’s a message all United Methodist leaders need to hear.
“There are so many things going on in the church,” Alsted said. “We speak very much about unity and lift up unity, and one of the ways of keeping unity is to remain focused in mission.”