Bishop James Swanson is in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., this week, attending a meeting with the Southeastern Jurisdictional College of Bishops. He stopped during his lunch break on Thursday, Jan. 5, to answer these New Year's questions for The Call.
Q. Much of the world and national news in 2011 was disheartening. What event or accomplishment of the past year gives you hope for 2012?
Bishop Swanson: When most people think about the news, they think of the economy. The truth is, we're spoiled here in the United States. God has immensely blessed us as a nation, and what we consider to be hard times would be great times for the rest of the world. When I think of the ongoing depression and indignation that people have suffered all over the world -- not just now, but for many, many years -- I know we should rejoice, because we have never had prolonged, sustained misery or depression in our national history.
In fact, when I look at actual total giving in our conference, we have not suffered losses as much as we might think. People have been immensely benevolent in responding to God's love in Holston. Yes, it could be better. We have never reached God's minimum in giving to the church, which is 10 percent. Statistics consistently show that Americans on average give 2 percent of disposable personal income to charitable causes -- and we've done well with that. But if we upped the ante and gave God's minimum, how much more could we do?
There are other things to celebrate. Tornadoes caused people in our region to lose property and even their lives, yet the response from our annual conference and other annual conferences has been tremendous. We've seen great growth in our new churches in Hillsville and Hardin Valley. Many of our small churches are also experiencing growth and embracing the Vital Congregations program.
We have churches who are reaching out to their communities with food pantries and clothing banks and through paying utility bills. Our conference leads others in giving to people suffering from HIV, and our youth lead the denomination in giving to Youth Service Fund. In Africa, the United Methodist Church is using its connections to make a huge impact in global health with the Imagine No Malaria campaign.
So you see, there are many, many bright spots that give me hope for the new year. When you look at our big picture, we need to stop focusing on how awful it is and start realizing that God has been very good to us.
Q. This is a General Conference year, but most United Methodists will not attend the conference in Tampa, April 12-May 4. What do you want these people to know about this upcoming General Conference?
Bishop Swanson: General Conference is an expression of the hearts' desires of congregations that make up the United Methodist Church. It's important to know what we've done in the last four years and to envision what we will do in the next four years.
However, we shouldn't get too caught up in the legislation of the church instead of the work and ministry of the church. A lot of this General Conference will focus on the Call to Action, which has the possibility of helping us reform the ministries of the church. It will involve some legislation, but it's more about the spirit of what it means to be the church. Our hearts are saying we've to get more emphasis on fulfilling the mission of the church without getting caught up in the byproducts of the church.
The legislation is not so important to me. What's important is that we are intentional about making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Q. This is also the year for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, when you may be assigned to a new annual conference after eight years of leading Holston as resident bishop. What is one thing you hope to accomplish between now and the SEJ Conference in July?
Bishop Swanson: I want to leave Holston with a positive outlook on the future. So I've assembled a Blue Ribbon Team to help us change from a culture of defeat to a church that knows it will ultimately be victorious because we are the church of Jesus Christ. I know Holston Conference can accomplish anything once the people set their minds to it. I know because I've seen it happen.
If you want specifics, we're trying to set up a budget that reflects our hearts' desire. We want people to think differently about apportionments -- not as taxes, but as opportunities to change the world the way God wants. This means giving not to build a building, not for something tangible, but in joyful response for all that God has done for us. In addition to giving, we're also focusing on new leader development and pastoral effectiveness.
I don't want this positive new outlook on the future to be my property, but the property of Holston Conference. I hope that's what I can accomplish and how I'll be remembered.
Q. This year as in years past, you asked your staff and the district offices to distribute the "Season of Prayer" devotional to begin on Epiphany, Jan. 6. What are we praying for?
Bishop Swanson: You're praying for the Bishop and Cabinet, as we begin to make pastoral appointments for the coming year, to hear the very voice of God. In asking our members to pray, we're acknowledging that it's our hope and desire to work in partnership with God. We can't do that unless people pray for us.
It really works. Several times in the past, the Cabinet and I have gotten stuck and couldn't figure out where a pastor should go. Normally what we'll do is stop and pray, take a break, and individually take a walk or pray some more. When we come back to the table, it's like a door has opened. It's amazing how our hearts and minds will then open as we work together in making those decisions.
The appointments are not about salaries or names on a paper. They're about what God desires for these people. So it's true when we say, we need and can actually feel your prayers. (See video with Rev. Randy Frye.)
Q. Finally, what is your personal New Year's resolution for 2012?
Bishop Swanson: I need to lose some weight -- and this time, it's for my long-term health. I like food, and it's sometimes a comfort for me. I realize it's a battle I can't win myself, so I really need the whole conference to lift me up in prayer to love myself and love God more than food. I would like to report, if I leave here next summer, that I've lost 25 to 30 pounds.
I also ask that you pray for my wife, Delphine, who is trying to adjust to losing her mother last August. And I ask that you pray for my daughter, JaNae', who's still hurting and missing her grandmother, too.
- Download Season of Prayer devotional.