On the road with Bishop Deb
As I sit down to write this it is October 1, 2012 and Bishop Kiesey has been in residence for one month. During that month she was in the Upper Peninsula, and on both sides of the Lower Peninsula, meeting with cabinets, Conference Leadership Teams and congregations. In the next 30 days she will meet and greet United Methodists in three separate locations across this great state and publically share her first sermons as our resident bishop. I believe that we are off to a great start for her 4 or 8 years in Michigan! But it is interesting to me that, wherever I go, people are still asking about her. There seems to be a great deal of interest, and not a few “burning questions,” about Bishop Deb as she likes to be called.
Yesterday Bishop Kiesey and I were at the installation for the Rev. Dr. Tara Sutton, and someone got me aside before the service to ask, “What have you learned in this first month that will help all of us going forward?” My answer to them was hasty because I had not had time to gather my thoughts. Now that I have had more time, my answer to their “burning question” comes in two parts, neither of which is about the Bishop so much as they are things I have learned or re-learned about us in the Michigan Area.
The first thing I have learned, as we have worked together in several worship settings, is how much we clergy take for granted in our worship planning, and how many assumptions we make. I know that I do this, and yet I am still surprised when it happens to me for the umpteenth time. As an example, I have conducted hundreds of services in which I have served the sacrament of Holy Communion to literally thousands of people. I have learned what works for me and what I need to do when in order for others to have the best experience possible of worship at the Lord’s Table. It is so engrained in me that I don’t even recognize when I am making assumptions.
But, when I am working with people who have not been part of the services I have led over the years, it is not fair or helpful to assume that they will do things the same way that I do. They will have their own ways and will likely be making their own assumptions. So the learning that I would share is the need to write everything down. The bonus to this learning is that a worship script – with stage directions and helpful hints – is not only a blessing for newcomers. It is a blessing for everyone who participates to be able to anticipate what their responsibilities will be and what they can look to others to perform. It will be a chance to make sure that nothing is left out or forgotten.
A sidebar conversation: I did not spend enough time rehearsing worship when I was the pastor of a local congregation and we were doing the same thing week after week. I have come to believe that I should be approaching every service as a new opportunity for members and visitors to experience the Holy Spirit and giving it the kind of attention that I traditionally reserved for something that I had never done before. I don’t mean for this to sound like a lecture or a scolding. It is offered as a confession and a public affirmation that, if I ever have the opportunity to do it again, it will be approached differently!
The second thing that I have learned is how little attention many of us pay to issues of accessibility when we are not differently abled than the majority of our congregations. Traveling with Bishop Kiesey and watching her make adjustments to enable her to participate fully in a worship service has gotten me to look more closely at our surroundings and how often good, loving people build walls that keep people out without ever intending to.
Permit me to give you a couple of examples from my own experience; I have no doubt that you will be able to supply examples from your own experience when you stop to think about it. Until last spring, and now again post-surgery, I have enjoyed good mobility and have had no difficulty getting into any pulpit that I wanted to. I did not usually take note of the number of steps which led up into the traditional preaching place (except at University United Methodist Church in East Lansing) and did not think about what I would do if I had more limited mobility. It never dawned on me that this practice of placing steps in between the preacher and the people could be seen by some as a statement that only fully abled people were welcome as the pastor/preacher in that place. Shame on me!
Walking and working beside Bishop Deb has opened my eyes to seeing myself and all of us in different ways. Not judgmental ways necessarily, but certainly more attentive ways. How many barriers do we put between people without thinking about it because “we have always done it that way?” How many times do we say, by our unspoken actions or physical spaces, that people are not welcome to worship with us?
So, as I think about my answer to this most recent “burning question,” I am thinking about how I will write my answer by my words and deeds going forward. I know that I will make mistakes and I am certain that I will not catch everything I do to build walls which keep people out. But I pray that I will become more aware with each passing day and I thank God that Bishop Deb has been sent to Michigan to help all of us become more hospitable – not just to a new bishop, but to all who have been waiting for us to make a way for them to join us fully in the worship and discipleship to which we have been called.
Next month’s “burning question” will be about the fallout from October’s Judicial Council decision about guaranteed appointments. I have received so many questions and comments (more comments than questions if the truth be told!) about this issue that I want to address this issue from the perspective of the Bishop’s office. Till then… Shalom!