Pastoral Address to the Presbyteral Session of Conference 2022
Below is the text of the Pastoral Address to the Presbyteral Session of Conference 2022, given by the Revd Sonia Hicks, President of the Conference 2021-22
Worshipping the God of Impossibilities
In order to be an effective tool in the hands of God, it is important to know oneself. It is vital to have some self-awareness about the things that we are good at and the things we are not so good at. It is the Holy Spirit who accompanies us on this journey of greater spiritual consciousness. Therefore, a recognition of our own strengths and weaknesses is part of the criteria and competencies at every stage of formation, for church leaders, as we seek to grow more into the likeness of Christ. For instance, before receiving a note to preach, it is expected that a person already has an awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. It is also expected that they are willing to embark on a journey of discovery about what it means to lead people in worship. Before entering their first station as a minister, that awareness should be deepening and be grounded in the acceptance of God for them as a beloved child. Furthermore, there is an expectation that the individual is already learning ways to be as resilient as possible in ministry. The complete list of competencies, for each stage of ministry within the Methodist Church, can be found on the website and is, I feel, a useful tool to reflect on as we journey together in ministry and in love. In my own journey towards greater self-awareness, I know that I am a pessimist. I am pessimistic about my own abilities, and I am often pessimistic about the ability of others. Why is this? Why am I a glass half-empty sort of person? I know that personality and background have a part to play but so do the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is difficult to be an optimist as the workloads we carry increase and the people to take on roles in the church, decrease even more rapidly. I find myself looking are my own meagre resources and I say: ‘It’s impossible’, ‘There’s no way that can happen’, ‘That is way too difficult to achieve’.
And it is important to be a realist. Should we not aim for the achievable, the attainable, the do-able? Perhaps in that way we won’t disappoint others or ourselves. We should not set unrealistic targets but we need to still aim high. After all, we are dealing with the things of God. When I was in ministerial training, I can remember another Methodist student telling me not to get too stressed about essay marks. ‘Sonia,’ he said to me, ‘If the pass mark is 45%, then everything over 45% is wasted effort’. Now, I am all for being a realist but that did not make sense to me. How could I guarantee obtaining exactly 45%? What if the essay was graded at 40% or 44%? Just to say, I never did follow that piece of advice! But what is achievable for the British Methodist Church? What should we pursue as we seek to be faithful disciples of Christ?
Over this year, I have sat with different groups of Methodists and sensed the exhaustion hanging over them. Each goal that is set by the annual Methodist Conference is laudable but the overall effect on our diminishing membership and colleagues is crushing. There are, after all, only so many impossible things that can be achieved before nightfall! As I return to Circuit ministry, I am under discipline to help the Wembley Circuit ensure that its Safeguarding procedures are fit for purpose, that every person’s pastoral needs are being met, that the Local Preachers are being supported, that Ministerial Development Reviews and Reflective Supervision are being attended to, that the spiritual needs of Christ’s flock are not being neglected, that the properties within the Circuit are being properly maintained. It is my task to ensure that I pay proper regard to the standing orders that govern the life of our church and that I remain diligent in my studies and personal prayer life. No wonder so many of us are feeling exhausted, burnt out and constantly under pressure. But perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way. What if the resources we need are not my resources or your resources but the resources of God? What if?
In the Gospel reading, Jesus has just heard of the death of the Baptiser. Herod acquiesced to the demands of Herodias’ daughter. “Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” [Matt. 14: 8] Jesus tries to withdraw to a deserted place but there is no let up. The crowds seek him out. Ministry has a way of claiming our attention whether we are tired, sick, or grieving. Like Jesus, our attempts at self-care often fade as we face the demands of God’s people. Compassion often consumes us. As evening approaches, the disciples come to Jesus: “...This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” [Matt. 14: 15b] The disciples recognise that there is a problem – it will soon be too late for this vast crowd to disperse and get some food. The solution, as the disciples see it, is to send the crowd away sooner rather than later. The logical thing is for Jesus to stop feeding the crowd spiritually so that they can go and feed themselves physically. But, amongst the disciples is the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. The disciples already have all that they need if they could but see it. Jesus tries to open their eyes to the possibilities before them: “Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away, you give them something to eat.’” [Matt. 14: 16] St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that the ministry they are undertaking is God’s and that God provides what is necessary for the success of that ministry. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” [2 Cor. 4: 7] The power to accomplish the things of God is given to us by God. We are already holding all that we need to achieve great things for God. It is in our hands, today, already. Even the disciples are not empty handed: “They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” [Matt. 14: 17]
Many years ago, I realised, at short notice, that it was the Methodists turn to host the annual World Day of Prayer Service. I went into full meltdown mode! “What? No way! That’s totally impossible! I have no capacity to take on one more thing!” Does that sound familiar siblings? We have all been there. Into an already impossible workload yet another thing is dropped into our laps. Conrad, my husband, looked at me and said, “Why don’t you ask Kathryn?” Kathryn O’Mahony was our Circuit Youth Pastor who was also one of the Circuit Local Preachers. She was very competent, but she just had her first baby, and the sleep patterns were still all over the place. “Conrad, that’s silly.”, I replied, “Kathryn has more than enough on her plate. I couldn’t possibly ask her.” A week later, I was even more anxious
The service was scheduled in the afternoon and most people, in that church, were in full-time employment. There was no one else available, except me. But I did not have the time. I had tried to move things around, but I still did not have the capacity to get the venue ready for this ecumenical service. Conrad, hearing my anxieties at length, simply said, “Why don’t you ask Kathryn?” “No way!”, I protested, “Even if I could have asked her before, there’s less than a week now to the event. If I can’t manage it, how will a new mother manage it?” I looked at my diary again for that day. There were already two diary clashes and I hadn’t finished the sermon for that week. Perhaps there was someone else who could take it on, I thought desperately. So, I rang a couple of colleagues, but they were busy with other events. As the days ticked by, I got more and more anxious. I wasn’t sleeping, I was snapping at Conrad even more, I was furious with God. Why wasn’t God helping me?!!
Conrad, looked at me and said, “Have you asked Kathryn yet?” By this time, I was so desperate, so filled with hopelessness, that I just dialled her number. After listening patiently to my woes, Kathryn said, “Of course I’ll do that for you. The baby can stay in the vestry if he needs to sleep.” I could not believe my ears. Instead of believing in the power of God to use what I had at my disposal, I kept telling myself that those resources were too few, too meagre.
I was looking at the clay jar and not the treasure within. The disciples too looked at the five loaves and two fish, at their disposal, and forgot that the Messiah was with them. They forgot that God could and would take care of God’s people. Do we believe this to be true? I am not CEO of the Universe - it does not all depend on me. What God needs me to recognise is that I am God’s creation and that I have God’s treasure within me. Siblings, I have found that it takes all my strength to believe those two facts. I am God’s creation and that God’s treasure can be found within me. When we have grasped that information, then we are ready to recognise that each one of us is created by God and we all have God’s treasure within us. For, if we acted as if those two things were true, imagine the potential impact on the ministry of the Methodist Church? It could also alter our view of the world in a positive way. This is what it means to serve the living God. This is how to be Kingdom-people.
Our first appointment was in the High Wycombe circuit where Conrad and I job-shared so that we could take care of our first child. I spent three days per week looking after the pastoral needs of the churches and three days looking after Nathan, our son. To be honest, it was often easier dealing with the church members than entertaining a toddler and preparing meals! One day, I was washing the dishes and Nathan asked if he could help me. I put a chair in front of the kitchen sink and lifted Nathan onto it. I stood behind him, so that he would not fall off, and I continued washing the dishes whilst Nathan played with the bubbles. He was very happy and totally engaged as I cleaned each piece of crockery and cutlery. Into that space, hearing our small child chatter away, I heard God say to me: “Sonia, this is the ministry I call you too. I will look after my people, and you are called to join in.” Later, Nathan proudly told his father that he had washed up all the dishes. Of course, he hadn’t – I had but isn’t that the ministry we are called to? God completes God’s mission and we, Mr Wesley’s helpers, are called to join in.
Whenever I forget that conversation with God, ministry seems hard and dispiriting. I feel as if everything depends on me. That I am failing to be the CEO of the world. But, when I allow myself to just join in with the missio deo, then I feel lighter, more free, less anxious. This is what it means to serve the living God. This is how to be Kingdom-people.
As I have travelled around the Connexion, I have heard how overloaded Methodist people feel by Conference initiatives. Yet, oftentimes those Conference decisions come before us via memorials and notices of motion. I wonder therefore are we all responsible for the ‘monster’ that is before us in relation to new initiatives within the life of this church? As the pandemic ebbs and flows around us, we feel that there is little space to undertake new plans. Across this Connexion, I hear Methodists saying how overwhelmed they feel. But some of these tasks are core to the mission of God that we are called to.
Firstly, the Justice, Dignity and Solidarity Strategy outlines a pathway of how the British Methodist Church can be a safer place for each one of us regardless of gender, ethnic background or sexual orientation. Anyone who has a protected characteristic, as defined by the Equality Act of 2010, will know that this church is working to make them feel accepted, included and listened to. For too long, certain people have felt marginalised in this church.
They have heard statements on justice but felt that the British Methodist Church remains a place where injustices continue. But if God is on the side of those who are marginalised, then every Christian is called to stand alongside those at the margins. This is not an optional extra -
It should be at the very heart of all that we are seeking to be. It is also a strategy that we will achieve together. Jesus didn’t just ask the disciples to deal with the crowds’ needs by themselves. Jesus didn’t say to Simon and John ‘Sort this out and the rest of the disciples can watch from the side-lines.’ Jesus worked with all the disciples to solve the problem that they were facing. We worship the God who makes ‘the impossible’ possible. Together, with God, the Methodist people can deliver on the JDS Strategy. This is what it means to serve the living God. This is how to be Kingdom-people.
Secondly, how can this church grow when we have seen falling membership numbers decade after decade? We find ourselves asking: are the God for All proposals even possible? We can’t seem to keep the members we have now, how can we grow numerically and spiritually? Yet, I have seen new initiatives up and down the country. Like spring shoots after the winter, sometimes these new initiatives are half buried under dead leaves but, if you look closely, the green is visible. New life is coming. The Vice President and I visited the Newcastle District where three churches in one circuit had closed. The Superintendent had stepped down, due to ill-health and the new Superintendent talked of the fragility of the situation. One of the churches that had ceased to worship in the Methodist building took the decision, because of Covid restrictions, to continue to meet for worship in a local park. They gathered outside, sang hymns and prayed together. As people walked by, some stopped and joined in. The people who stopped weren’t necessarily Methodists or even Christians, but they wanted to be a part of this small group worshipping God in the outdoors. New life is coming, siblings. Green shoots can be seen. God is calling us to be faithful as servants of God. To put our trust in God not in our own strength. I have been a Christian for over forty years and not once has God not been alongside me. Not once has God failed to provide what I need spiritually at the time of God’s choosing. God has strengthened me, equipped me, filled me with the Spirit’s presence. Yes, I have felt the full force of life’s storms but, like many of you, those storms have not robbed me of the faith I have in God. This is the message that we need to share with every person we meet. That, for me, is evangelism. That, for me, is spreading the good news of God’s love which was present in the life of Jesus and is also present in God’s people today. God is building God’s church because God loves each person. But church-building is risky business. It does not happen overnight. It requires commitment from the strong to assist the weak. If green shoots are to be nurtured, across this Connexion, it will mean that strong Circuits might have to forgo ministry so that other parts of the Connexion can flourish too. We cannot resource everywhere. We cannot provide paid ministerial staff to everyone. Choices will have to be made. What will be important is how those choices are made. Will the choices we make bring glory to God and will those choices help the Methodist Church to proclaim the message of God’s love where it is most needed? This is what it means to serve the living God. This is how to be Kingdom-people.
As modern-day disciples of Christ, we believe that God can make the ‘impossible’ possible. That it is God who can give strength to the weary and breathe new life into dry bones. As the Bible says: “...those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” [Isa. 40:31] God gives vision to God’s people so that we can see the possibilities even in the valley of the shadow of death. This is a reality to be grasped as we continue to faithfully follow where God leads. It was my great privilege to attend 3 Generate in October last year. To be surrounded by hundreds of young people, who truly believed that anything was possible, was one of the highlights of the Presidential year. I was staggered by the waves of enthusiasm. They were enthusiastic about God. They were enthusiastic about the Church. They were enthusiastic to be together worshipping and dedicating themselves to God. What is preventing that enthusiasm in my walk with God, in your walk with God? These young people had also been through the pandemic. Their school and church lives had also been turned upside down. They too had known the pain of bereavement. Yet, in that space, they were being passionate about their faith. Where is my passion for the Gospel? Where is your passion for the Gospel?
Where is our enthusiasm for God and the ways of God? When we feel that the ministry we seek to offer is lost in a sea of administration, perhaps we need to remember who we belong to; the rock from which we are hewn. The Psalmist writes: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” [Ps. 121: 1-2]. As we fix our gaze on God, passion for this ministry can be renewed within us. For it is God who re-lights our enthusiasm for His ways and Her justice.
Over the past year, whenever my enthusiasm has begun to wane, I have felt myself borne up by all those who kept me before God in prayer. Thank you to all those who have prayed for me. Truly, I have felt the power of those prayers every single day. I would like to thank the Secretary of Conference, Jonathan Hustler, who has enabled me to grow in the role by his confidence in me. Jonathan, you have shown, by your wisdom and your grace, that the British Methodist Church has a tireless and a faithful servant in you. I would also like to thank the Connexional Team who have provided excellent support to the Presidency particularly the Communications Team and our administrator, Rachel Tufnell. And my special thanks go to the Vice President, Mrs Barbara Easton. Barbara, you have been a true sister to me making sure I feel supported because you always had my back. It has been a great pleasure to fulfil this role, in the life of our Church, with you as my companion. Thank you, my sister.
A boy and his father were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. The boy said to his father, "Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move this rock?" His father answered, "If you use all your strength, I am sure you can do it." The boy began to push the rock. Exerting himself as much as he could, he pushed and pushed. The rock did not move. Discouraged, he said to his father, "You were wrong, I can't do it." The father placed his arm around the boy's shoulder and said, "No, son, you didn't use all your strength — you didn't ask me to help." There will be many occasions when, as the people of God, we will feel overwhelmed by the circumstances before us. Just as the disciples felt out of their depth time after time after time. We will continue to feel swamped and overwhelmed if we only focus on our own resources, on our own strength. But this is God’s calling, siblings, and God has already given us all that we need. Look at what we have in our hands: “...all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” [Matt. 14: 20] Siblings, we have treasure, spiritual treasure. For no one, nothing, can separate us from the love of God, as St. Paul reminds us: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” [Rom. 8: 35, 37] The presence of God is before us, behind us, beside us and within us. We serve the God who delights in making the ‘impossible’ possible. Today and always. AMEN