On January 5-6, 2024 approximately 100 participants joined together at St. John’s UMC-ABQ to consider new ways to gather and to be a truly inclusive church.

The event kicked off with Conference favorite, Ken Medema leading “Lord, Listen to your Children Praying.” He exhorted participants to mingle with others and say to each other, “You are loved” and “You are the salt of the earth.” Our Conference has had several events since the pandemic but this gathering felt like the events “of old” where people unabashedly hugged and lovingly engaged with one another.

It was such a spirited way to welcome our guest preacher/teacher, Rev. Charity Goodwin. She is the Pastor of Spiritual Formation at the Gathering – a UM community in St. Louis. She has studied with Brene’ Brown and brought some of that teaching into her talk with us, such as giving ourselves permission. We considered the Scripture verse involving Mary and Martha. Mary’s the thinker, Martha’s the doer and the one we sometimes forget is in the story, Jesus is the feeler. We need a bit of each, or in other words, we need to bring more emotional intelligence into our interactions with one another.

Our host, Rev. Josh Kouri offered the devotional using the Scripture verse about how the Disciples left their father in the boat to follow Jesus. He said, “Can we stop thinking that Methodism’s best days are in the past…? What a crock!” To the people who remain United Methodist in areas where their churches have disaffiliated, he said, “You would’ve been the sons that said ‘See ya, Dad!’ We have lions in our midst and we need your courage.”

Workshops were offered about online worship, church outside the church walls, worship in alternative places, Wesleyan faith formation, creating community through music.

In the afternoon, a panel discussion took place. Panelists were: Matt Greer, Ken Medema, Rev. Dr. Todd Seelau, Rev. Tiffany Hollums, Rev. Ross Whiteaker, Rev. Charity Goodwin and Rev. D.G. Hollums. Rev. Josh Kouri asked pre-selected questions in round one and the audience asked questions in round two. The questions were centered on the bigger picture – Where is the Holy Spirit working? What are the biggest challenges and highest priorities of the church? The answers predominantly focused on radically changing how we “do church.” One suggestion was to go into spaces that aren’t like us – see where God’s going and figure out how to meet Him there. The broader community does not see a place for them in the church. They discussed how, if you are different, you do not have a voice and one panelist said, “I’ll make room for someone without a voice to take up the space that I have and I’ll clean the toilets.” Figure out who is not here and has never been in the church and be vulnerable and courageous in trying to change enough for those folks to feel like they belong here. Give people permission to use their gifts to create vital and effective churches. Ken Medema said that creating vital community often comes down to two words, “Let’s EAT!”

Where do you see inspiration? Ross shared that he’s inspired when he speaks with pastors. Most are doing amazing things. He also said that if you want to be inspired, talk to a teenager. D.G. shared a hilarious story about his middle school-aged daughter asking him to pray with her friends on ZOOM who wanted a snow day. They prayed and the next day – a snow delay…Instant believers!

How does the church get past division? Todd responded that division is natural and can’t be avoided but we have to do a better job of disagreeing well. We need to celebrate the diversity of thought. Charity said that it’s often the “3rd way” but you need deep listening and empathy to get there.

What is your hope for what the UMC will look like in 20 years? Charity’s son is on the autism spectrum. She shared that when people whose children are differently abled come together, there is every kind of diversity and all people care about is taking care of their child, not what people look like or how much money they have. Ross shared that someone asked if they could use their church building for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and they gave them permission. Soon every NA group in the city was meeting there. The buildings do not matter. We need to love on people who desperately need it.

D.G. said that when a candidate is considered for ordination, one of the questions asked at the Executive Session has to do with whether they are embarrassed by debt. D.G. and Tiffany’s family had two people in their family attending school, they were deeply in debt. No one ever answers “no”, but they did and they received a standing ovation. There is a need to reconsider our requirements for clergy.

Todd said that in the Bible there are more stories about parties and fishing trips. He thinks that the UMC going forward needs more of that.

A member of the audience asked a question about feeling safe in the church when you are different: LGBTQIA+, an immigrant, homeless, young… Charity responded that we can do better by changing the language. It is a matter of being “nice and kind.” Tiffany stated very directly that we are not a safe space for people who do not look like us or act like us. We need to do hard things to make it safe. A story of a man who came to St. John’s without a shirt on was shared. Tiffany said that she noticed that after a time, the man was wearing a clean pressed shirt and soon realized that the former pastor of St. John’s, Randall Partin had literally given him the shirt off his back.

Several people wanted to know what the Conference was doing about immigration. El Paso DS, Rev. Dr. Pam Rowley described the work that El Calvario is doing and their search for JFON-El Paso Executive Director. We are working with several other denominations and entities in Albuquerque.

Another audience member asked where panelists felt the Holy Spirit moving. D.G. said, “Through our mistakes…not relying on our own understanding. The church should be failing a lot more often.” Ross shared a story about showing up at the last minute to serve at El Calvario – playing soccer with a little girl where they only had a doll head to kick around but they became fast friends.

One of the most poignant stories was from Todd. He said that he goes to a bar with is church where this “annoying guy” hangs out. He avoids him as much as he can. One of the members of his church got to talking to this guy and invited him to join them. Todd didn’t like the idea but he figured she would take care of him. They included him in their usual Bible Study. Afterwards, the guy said that he’d seen them at the bar but always felt nervous about asking to join but was so thankful that they did. After the group broke up, Todd hung around the bar with the guy for a few hours. People kept coming up to the guy and he just filled them with hope and light and sometimes shared what they’d discussed during the gathering. Todd said that if he’d have leaned on his own understanding, other people wouldn’t have experienced the light of God through this guy.

For those who we have not accepted or who have been hurt by the church, Tiffany said, “We’re so sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We need you to show us how to be better.” We need to allow our eyes to be opened and not be scared.

On Saturday night, participants shared what meant the most to them about the event and Ken Medema crafted a song on the spot. One of the group from Hobb’s whose church disaffiliated, Kim Portillo shared that she was so grateful for this gathering and to be surrounded by support and love. Several others shared about how disaffiliation and the divisiveness of the denomination and world had impacted them. One participant shared a few quotes from Charity’s initial talk when she spoke about how her grandparents impacted her. Her grandmother always said “hope”, when she meant “help.” Ken sang a song about the wisdom of elders.

We ended the night by joining in a huge circle around the Fellowship Hall. Pastor Charity prayed over us and Ken Medema led us in singing “All Through the Night.” It was a very special moment of togetherness and peace.

On Sunday, Pastor Charity preached for their services and Ken Medema provided the music.