An interview with Bishop Bruce Ough for the One Church Plan Podcast
Why do you feel that the One Church Plan, is the best plan to move the church forward?
I have been in ministry for almost 45 years and throughout that time, one of the things that I have learned is that ministry is so contextual. I work now in the Dakotas in Minnesota with congregations that are attempting to reach out to the Native American community because they find themselves close to those communities. I have other congregations that are reaching out to persons who are living on the margins, homeless people, because they find themselves in places where that is called for. I have other congregations that are reaching out to folks in the LBGTQ community because that’s who their neighbors are.
Ministry is so contextual I think that the One Church Plan makes it easier for congregations to feel like they can embrace whatever the opportunities and needs for ministry are without undue restrictions and regulations.
What do you feel is the biggest hurdle, right now, for delegates as they ponder the One Church Plan?
I think it’s such a radical shift from where we had been for so long that I think many delegates are really struggling with ‘can we make this kind of shift and still maintain the unity of the church’ and so I think many of them are really struggling with ‘is it time to make this radical shift or do we need to be thinking about it, continue to think about it more incrementally?’
One of the other things that I hear are the concerns that we may find ourselves in legislative deadlock and we make no changes and find ourselves remaining exactly where we are now. I hear a great deal of anxiety about that. I think that grows out of the fact that we’ve been in the midst of this debate, some would say impasse, for 45 years and folks really do want to set the church on a course for embracing a new day, a new creation, a new way of being together in ministry that is less regulatory in nature and more open to allowing churches to extend God’s grace in ways that seem appropriate to their context.
Can you provide me with an idea, or a sense of how you explain the One Church Plan from a theological perspective.
I’ve been reminding folks, when I’ve had opportunities, that first of all; this is not the first time that the church has found itself needing to make crucial decisions about whether it will be missional. In other words, will it expand the mission of God? And you can go all the way back to the Jerusalem Council recounted for us in Acts Chapters 10 through 15 and that was essentially a missional decision.
I try to explain this in terms that this is primarily a decision about the mission of God. Will we continue to move in the direction of expanding God’s grace, extending the mission of God to more and more people? I think that’s the history of the United Methodist church or the Methodist movement. I think the history of Christendom has always been one to continually wrestle with these difficult issues about who’s in and who’s out, but it’s always made faithful decisions over time to expand the mission.
What about the One Church Plan is Wesleyan?
Our movement has always been a movement that has embraced polarities. Two equal truths that cannot always be held together very easily, and some of those polarities are historic. They flow right out of the scriptures. That polarity between law and grace and so forth.
But in a Wesleyan movement, you know John Wesley lifted up these two really important pillars of the faith, personal holiness and social holiness. He said they’re really two equal truths that must be held together in order to be formed into the image of Christ for the sake of the world from our Wesleyan perspective.
I think that the One Church Plan is putting forth the possibility that there might be more than one truth here as it relates to human sexuality. I think that flows out of our tradition. I think we’re also a tradition that has embraced the concept of extending God’s grace to everybody and when you do that, you create a more diverse body. Just by definition.
We’re not a confessional church. We’re not saying sign on the line, this is the only way you can believe, and the only thing you can believe. We’ve always been a church that says God’s grace is available to all. That has welcomed a lot of diverse people into the journey of becoming formed in the image of Christ and I think the One Church Plan is a way to affirm that we are a church that is expansive, has always been expansive, has always welcomed everybody, even when it’s created the diversity that often leads to disagreement.
Some folks will say that the mission of the United Methodist Church, something that is the pillar of the United Methodist Church if I could classify it that way, is at stake with the One Church Plan not being voted in favor. Some who’d say if the One Church Plan is not adopted that the mission of the church will continue, that we will continue to be the church if the One Church Plan is not adopted. What do you think is at risk if the One Church Plan is not passed in St. Louis?
I think that the way for the mission of the United Methodist church to make disciples for the transformation of the world will be enhanced by the One Church Plan.
I think if the One Church Plan is not approved, what will happen is we will continue in this bitter disagreement and this sort of contentious season of life that we’ve been in for so long, which quite frankly diminishes both our attention and our energy and our resources for living fully into our mission.
It becomes toxic. It becomes a huge distraction. Now, I’m under no illusions. I think that whatever is decided in St. Louis is likely to create some dissidence, some season of adjustment and we may see individual members in churches that feel like they cannot continue. I think there will continue to be some period of distraction, but I think in the long run the One Church Plan gives us the best opportunity to position ourselves for a bright and hopeful future that frees up resources and frees up our attention to focus on our mission.
You did not serve as a moderator on the Commission on a Way Forward, but you have been in deep discussion over at least the last two years as past president on the Council of Bishops. How have you been able to see people have difficult conversations and where God has been working through some of those difficult conversations?
I was not a moderator of the commission, but I, as President of the Council of Bishops, as you noted, I was in close proximity to the discussions, and I was in regular consultation with the moderators as we were working on how to best form a collaborative relationship between the Commission and the Council of Bishops.
I think one of the things we saw in the Commission, that I wish we could claim for other deliberative bodies such as the General Conference, is that they were able to spend a significant amount of time together building trust, hearing one another’s stories, coming to truly respect the fact that God was in each of these individuals. We say that sort of casually all the time, ‘I see Christ in you.’ But I think the commission members had a chance to really, truly see that every person in that room was on a journey with Christ and that Christ truly was dwelling within them through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I just wish we were able to spend that kind of time and build those kind of relationships in the bodies that ultimately then get charged with making decisions, in this case our General Conference.
One of the things I’ve heard as I’ve talked to some members of the commission, a couple of things really sort of capture my attention and my interest, one thing they said in many cases it’s the first time they truly experienced what John Wesley spoke about when he talked about Holy Conferencing. We use that term to describe our Annual Conference sessions, our General Conference sessions and I think there are moments when we do have Holy Conferencing even in those settings, but it’s not what Wesley was talking about when he talked about being in the relationship where there was loving support and accountability and trust could be developed so you could help one another grow in their faith and grow in their walk with Jesus.
The other thing I’ve heard is that for many persons on the Commission it was the first time they’d been in a group that diverse. It seems to me that’s really a statement about relationships, that until you have relationships with people that are different from yourself, including relationships with folks from the LBGTQ community, you can’t really, fully enter into a meaningful conversation about these difficult matters or other difficult matters. The same could be said about race. Unless you have relationships with persons and build those relationships, it’s very difficult to truly understand the position that a particular position a person’s in or their perspective.
What do you think will happen when the delegates arrive in St. Louis?
I wish I knew what would happen. I think we all wish we had a crystal ball, don’t we and knew what would happen? But you’re really asking what I think will happen.
Let me start with what I hope will happen. I believe that if we could come to St. Louis and truly open ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit, that there could be a breakthrough. When I talk about a Holy Spirit breakthrough what I’m talking about is that there would be this moment much like there was in the Jerusalem Council when the body with one voice would say, “It seems good to us and the Holy Spirit.” That this is the way to go.
I think if there’s a breakthrough, it may not look exactly like what’s being proposed. There may be some new element, or some new configuration of some of the petitions that would emerge that would say this really is the way forward for all of us. It is a vote for mission, for the future mission of the church, for expanding the mission of the church.
What do I think will happen? I think that it’s quite likely folks will come so anxious, so pre-positioned, that at least in the early hours, there will be much of this kind of maneuvering that we’ve often seen in other legislative bodies within the United Methodist Church.
Do I still believe and hope that the Holy Spirit that’s hovering over the denomination, hovering over the General Conference, looking for a moment to break in, do I still hope that that will happen? I absolutely do. That’s my prayer.