Palmer: Church is increasingly seizing change

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By Linda Green*
Nov. 3, 2008 |ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga.(UMNS)


Bishop Gregory Palmer

It's OK for the church to stumble a bit as it struggles to address rapid changes in society and the world, says the new president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

In his first address before the council, Bishop Gregory Palmer noted that the image of stumbling is a powerful metaphor for a struggling church when considering its life and mission. The council, meeting Nov. 2-7 at St. Simons Island, is the top clergy body of the 11.5 million-member global denomination.

"Stumbling has gotten a bad rap," but the truth is that "we are a community of stumblers," Palmer told the council on Nov. 3. "We stumble because there is not sufficient light. We stumble because we sometimes refuse the full gift of the light. But the amazing thing is that even when we stumble, the real light still shines."

Palmer, who was elected the council's president last April, believes "stumbling in the light" can create a breathing space for the church.

During the last 16 years, he noted, the denomination has been profoundly affected by the declining significance of mainline Protestant denominations, the shrinking influence of Christianity in the Western world, rapid technological change, population shifts and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

"In face of this change, The United Methodist Church has wrestled a debilitating sense of loss and grief as we behold our numerical, if not our spiritual decline," he said. Voices and prophetic nudges, both ecclesial and secular, have suggested that "if you stick to business as usual, you will surely die."

Because the church is slow to change and is suspicious of change, "the pain of remaining the same has begun to exceed the pain of change," the bishop added. "A sense of urgency has been created and we find ourselves taking hold of the opportunity."

"The pain of remaining the same has begun to exceed the pain of change."
Bishop Gregory Palmer

The church's increasing awareness of its global nature and its absence of young people-combined with its efforts to increase collaboration among its boards and agencies and create a mission statement-are indications of the "readiness for more than a plodding-forward movement," Palmer said.

The bishops also are primed for change. The council's purpose, focus and passion has been "synergistically" met by other tables of leadership in the church-the top executives of churchwide board and agencies and the delegates to the 2008 General Conference-as "we find ourselves in the midst of a sea of opportunity" to proclaim and embody God's love to a lost, broken and hurting world, he said.

"It is amazing that when we face and lean in the right direction, we discover that there are others who are doing likewise even if the place where we stand is different," Palmer said.

Church leaders "got what we asked for" when the 2008 General Conference approved four areas of ministry focus for the church. He said the bishops and the other leaders are now charged with "putting flesh and bones" on the focus areas of global health, church growth, leadership development and ministry with the poor.

Change is messy, Palmer declared, and bishops and church leaders will stumble again and again. "If we stumble long enough, we will find ourselves walking with the confidence of God's strength and love," he said.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville,Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

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