Holston Annual Conference State of the Church Address | Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett

Holston Annual Conference State of the Church Address | Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett

Delivered to the Holston Annual Conference
Monday, June 6, 2022

Good morning, friends. Didn’t we have a great worship experience yesterday evening? I am thankful for the newly consecrated, licensed, commissioned and ordained leaders among us. And for each of you and your ministry in the church and community. 
What a joy it has been since my arrival in Holston this past September to meet many of you. District days, get-acquainted onboarding experiences, meetings with various conference boards and teams, local church preaching engagements, monthly 8-hour spiritual leadership meetings with extended cabinet and regular days with the appointive cabinet have helped me to become acquainted with Holston. 
Here is what I have learned through my listening. You are an amazing, resilient, highly relational people who deeply love God and others. You are fun, witty, generous and service-oriented. You treasure the Bible, live within the boundaries of The Book of Discipline and seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. You are mission-oriented, not only within Holston, but also globally. You have quality conference and district leaders as well as excellent local church clergy and lay leadership. You are inspiring in your commitment, warm in your welcome and strong in your witness.
Thank you for who you are. Thank you for being you. Thank you for opening your hearts to my husband Lee and me.
There is another reality I referenced yesterday evening which co-exists in Holston. It is not unique to us - but is found throughout The United Methodist Church. Our beloved United Methodist Church is in a challenging, ever-changing, stormy, tumultuous, uncertain and difficult season. 
You know what, though? The environment in which we find ourselves does not change one iota our mission as individuals and a church. We are called by the God of the Universe, the Savior of the world, the Omnipresent Holy Spirit - to stay focused on disciple-making. This is what the church does in every season, after all. We make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  
On one hand this is a difficult time to make disciples as our internal conflicts are not particularly appealing to those outside of the church. On the other hand, this challenging season provides a great opportunity for us to increase in our faith and witness. Indeed, it is a time for those of us within the church to show the quality of our character and to exhibit deep spiritual maturity. After all, the way we navigate difficulties speaks volumes about who we are.
A few weeks ago, those who attended Jubilation, a.k.a. Holston’s annual spring retreat for older adults, were reminded that how one responds to hard moments in life is a witness to God’s grace and love at work in us. The keynote speaker was Cathy Lee Phillips whose life and ministry stories touched our hearts.
My husband Lee and I knew and appreciated Cathy when we were in graduate school with her decades ago. That appreciation grew tenfold during Jubilation as we learned how she has navigated some difficult curves of life. Like healing from the wounds caused by living in a dysfunctional family of origin. And processing the early death of her beloved husband, Jerry, leaving her a widow at the age of 35. And more recently dealing with some health issues that prevented her from working for several years. Thankfully Kathy is speaking, writing and singing again. And her faith is as strong as ever.
In a similar way, how we respond to the challenges of our United Methodist Church is an opportunity to be a witness of God’s grace and love at work within us. You will hear me say this again and again in my tenure as your bishop. “What we do is of critical importance. How we do it is of equal importance.” When we have the how right, we increase the likelihood that we are positive Christian witnesses, whatever the situation we are navigating.
I am deeply saddened that some churches and clergy will be leaving our denomination. I have literally cried tears over this because I believe with every fiber of my being that we are more together than we are separate. Traditionalists sharpen progressives and vice-versa. Centrists refine progressives and traditionalists while simultaneously learning from both.
Yet here we are at this moment in a time when separation is pending with some churches in our Annual Conference. What are we to do in the face of this? We are to keep faithfully being the church. 
Who will we be moving forward? On Thursday you received a brief video from our Conference Lay Leader, Becky Hall and upcoming Cabinet Dean, Rev. Kim Goddard.  They described a team convened to envision Holston’s future. What a great group of Holston leaders! We have had one retreat and plan to meet monthly for the next year.  We are envisioning who Holston is and will be.You know what we spent most of our time talking about? An increased commitment to being and making disciples. 
Here is a glimpse of how we envision the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church will look moving into the future. Though some of our clergy and churches will withdraw from United Methodism to become independent or to join the Global Methodist Church or another denomination, we hope that the majority of Holston will continue on the journey together.
We will bless those who discern to disaffiliate. We hope and pray that they will bless us in return.  
As the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church continues into the future together, we envision a place, streams so to speak, for traditionalists, centrists and progressives. These have already existed informally here in Holston for years. The perspectives of each of these groups will be valued, not only with those who have similar theological perspectives, but throughout the entire Annual Conference.
As we have from our inception, we will continue to honor our church’s polity as discerned by the General Conference. Also, we will keep offering amazing ministries like Resurrection, Jubilation, camping opportunities through our vital camp system, Wesley Foundations and colleges, clergy convocation, lay servant ministry training, mission opportunities within and beyond our communities, children’s ministry resources like Cultivate Faith and so much more. 
Our laser focus will be on discipleship, not programs. After all, that describes what we do as a church, yes? And though in the United States, including in Holston, our beloved church has not made disciples at an optimal pace for many years now, we know how to do so.  And here in Holston we will - in increasing measures.
We will also emphasize what we have in common instead of our differences, because we all know we have way more commonality than dissimilarity. Think the Apostles Creed.  Let’s affirm the faith we share together. 

(In Unison) “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;                                                                                                      
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”

I shared in the beginning of this State of the Church presentation that two realities co-exist in Holston. On one hand, Holston consists of amazing people. Simultaneously, we are in a challenging, ever-changing, stormy, tumultuous, uncertain and difficult season.
Might I suggest in this time of tension we all continue to remain connected to each other even in our differences? Sometimes we all feel a need to be correct more than to be connected. As the body of Christ we have the capacity to model even in the midst of differences what it looks and feels like to be charitable, not vitriolic, compassionate instead of cold, and honest without deceit. These are difficult times, indeed, but they are the moments that our maturity, and our unity in the midst of diversity, must shine. May I ask us all to remain as connected as possible?
After all, we serve the One who stills the waters and calms the seas . . . who is the same yesterday, today and forever . . . who guides us when we are not sure which way to go . . . and who carries us when we no longer have the strength to go on our own. Jesus is our leader and we are his disciples. As our discipleship deepens, we become more and more like him. And others are inspired to be his disciples as well.
My hope, prayer and anticipation is that the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church will move through the current time into a new reality where we are known for our discipleship. This will be a great way to respond to the season we are in now.
Thank you for being who you are.  It is a joy to serve as your bishop. 


Debra Wallace-Padgett

The Reverend Dr. Debra Wallace-Padgett was elected a Bishop of the United Methodist Church at the 2012 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. At the time of her election, she was the lead pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Lexington, ...