An Interview with Bishop Tracy Smith Malone on the One Church Plan Podcast
The following is a transcript from a podcast/interview with Bishop Malone. Bishop Tracy Smith Malone is the episcopal leader of the Ohio East Annual Conference. She was elected to the episcopacy in 2016 by the North Central jurisdiction. Well versed in general conference, Bishop Malone was elected to represent the Northern Illinois conference as a delegate to General Conference in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.
During our interview Bishop Malone reflected on the theology of unity and our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. She shared that the Council of Bishops resolved together that the mission of God through Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit is the foundation to this work, and guides every part of this process. She continued by saying, we underscored the values of unity and contextualization for the sake of the mission as we continue to listen, share, and lead.
Bishop Malone, how are you explaining the One Church Plan in your area?
My understanding, and the way in which I teach around the One Church Plan is that I personally feel, and the Council of Bishops wrestle with the notion that part of our work, the commission’s work, and our work within the council, as a result of the big ask, and prayerful and discerning ask of the 2016 General Conference, Bishops help us find a way forward. Help us think about what that might look like. Help us to imagine what that might look like. And as we began that work, trying to find a way that would maximize the unity of the church, and strengthening the unity of the church, but also come up with a way that would allow for and provide for as much contextual differentiation, and that would allow for us to be able to reach as many people as we can, particularly as many diverse people as we can, as we seek to fulfill the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And that the One Church Plan, and all of the work and the discerning that has been done meets that mission and that task.
Do you see this as the best opportunity to move the church forward, and at the same time keep us focused on our mission?
I really do see this as God’s gift to us for a moment in time when we can really be bold enough, and courageous enough, and loving and grace filled enough to truly embody what it means to be the body of Christ. I see this as a moment in time that we will probably never, ever get again. And that through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we’ve been equipped, and that space has been given, an opportunity given for us to try to get this right.
The Council of Bishops have been prayerfully doing this work. Some of the meetings have been prayer filled meetings, praying for a way forward. How intentional has the Council of Bishops been about this particular work?
Being one who was newly elected, having just come into the council in the Fall of 2016, from my own personal experience we’ve been very intentional. Every meeting, and all the preparation for the meeting, during the meeting, very intentional and building in time for deeper conversations, theological conversations, ecclesiology conversations, missional conversations. Really praying for one another, praying with one another, asking hard questions. Even encouraging us to be in conversation beyond the organized time together. Raising questions that we would normally not be asking, and I’m told by my colleagues that really prior to this quadrennium, prior to this ask of the Bishops to lead us, that while there had been conversations, not at this deep level and intentional level.
So we’ve been very intentional since the call, and since the commitment, and since the formation of that commission to do this work. We’ve been working alongside of the commission and doing our work internally here in the council. And the same thing we’ve been asking for our churches, and our clergy, and our delegations to have, we’ve been intentional of having our conversations as well.
You mentioned contextual – when you think of contextualization, I’ve heard some people say, and describe it in such a way that you’re not forced to do anything. You’re not forced to preside over a gay wedding if you don’t want to. You’re not forced to open your church for gay weddings. And yet at the same time, you do have the freedom to do such. What are some concerns that you might have that some of those decisions that on a denominational level have been fought over for 40 or 50 years, are now not necessarily having to be had at the local level, but some of those difficult conversations will be had at the local level. Do you think that the churches are equipped to do that?
I think that’s part of the work and the role of the Bishop is to help resource and equip for that to happen. I think that for these last two years, because we have all been charged and covenanted to lead conversations that we have been modeling what that looks like on the conference level, and in so doing persons who have come are learning and being equipped with the tools as to how to do that more on the local level. I think the best work of this, no matter what the outcome is of 2019, and even while we’re still preparing to go into 2019, the real work of this holy and sacred work of how to remain unified is to strengthen that unity, needs to happen at the local level. But it is our responsibility, I feel, as a Bishop to be the chief teacher, and leader, and modeler of what that looks like on the local level. But we have to provide resources and tools to do the equipping for that. But I think our local churches can handle it.
And wouldn’t it be a gift to humanity if we could all learn to get along. If we can agree to disagree, but holding nothing sacred but the mission.
I think that will be a miracle. And I think that miracles are still possible. But it doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it. And I think are working at it is, again, modeling what that looks like from the council to conference level conversations. Even jurisdictional level conversations. We just had, in the North Central jurisdiction, a delegation gathering where we were intentional to building a mechanism where there will be cross conference conversation sharing, not just to network and to organize, but to really do some deep listening, to learn how to be in a conversation where you mutually invite each other into that conversation, because as you invite what you’re saying is, I want to listen and hear what you have to say. It’s that convicted humility that I may have my own convictions, but I’m humble enough to know that –
But, I might be wrong.
I might be wrong, and there are others who think differently than me, and I can learn something from them, and they can also learn something from me. And through that mutual learning, the Holy Spirit can move and transform the hearts of those engaged in the conversation, and something miraculous can happen as a result of that.
I’ve asked some Bishops if they think that this issue is more about biblical interpretation than it is about human sexuality, but I’ll tweak that question to say, maybe this issue about human sexuality is really an issue about how we speak, and love, and live with our neighbors who we may disagree with.
I would agree with that. And I also think that it’s about guarding and feeling the need to preserve our convictions. That because that’s what we’ve been taught, and that’s what we know-
And anything counter to that, that it shakes the very foundation of our thoughts and our convictions and that makes one very vulnerable. And it leaves one in a place of really feeling naked, in their theology, and in their philosophy, and their way of thinking and believing. I mean, to have your very foundation shaken by something that’s causing pause, that it becomes easier to rest in protecting the conviction then it would be to be vulnerable enough to say, could it possibly be that I’m so bent on being so right and discover, oh my gosh, maybe I’m wrong.
What is your hope for St. Louis, and more specifically, what is your hope for the local church as they will be besieged with noise? And I have said that I think the enemy has us right where the enemy wants us distracted, fighting. Our eyes are off the ball. What is your message to the local church? What is your message to a local United Methodist from Ohio who may be listening to this podcast, who may be distracted by this issue? As important as it is.
I often say that finding a way forward, keeping the unity of the church, keeping our eye toward mission is all of our work to do, and all of our conversations to have. It’s my hope that we will keep our eye on the mission. And the mission is making disciples of all nations. Reaching all people. Younger people, a more diverse people. Stay focused on the mission, while at the same time come to these conversations with a heart of peace, not a heart of war. Knowing that this is God’s church, and it’s not ours. And the mission of God’s church is yet alive. And even after February, no matter what comes out of the February special called general session, there will still be God’s church. People will still be hungry. There will still be those who are without work. There will still be those who are ostracized, marginalized, and that’s the work of the church, is to share the gospel of Christ, to preach good news to the poor, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked. That’s the church.
We’ve spent a lot of money trying to figure out, how do we get more people into the church? Do you think that the passing of the One Church Plan may actually be, the result may be greater evangelism to the rest of the world?
I am a firm believer, and I believe with all my heart, and all my soul, all my mind, that passing the One Church Plan will be such a powerful witness to the world, and that others would not only just look to the United Methodist Church for being the great missional institution and global institution that we are. But that they will see that there a people called United Methodist that have so many different theological understandings, and biblical understanding of scripture, but so committed to the mission that this is a place where all of God’s people can belong. No matter your color. No matter your gender. No matter your theology. That this is a place where everybody belongs at the seat at the table, where God’s grace is sufficient for each one. That that’s the United Methodist Church. I see this as a way to really grow the church.
If we pass the One Church Plan, I’m very much aware that there will be some who will find or feel that they have no place, or they can’t find their place in that decision, but I also believe that it will be a powerful evangelistic tool and way in witness to draw others to the United Methodist Church.
What would you say to someone who is perhaps more traditional in thinking, and they may have some serious concerns about the One Church Plan, serious concerns about their particular issues on gay marriage, but they don’t want to break up the church over the issue. They do want to find a way forward, but they just can’t in good conscience vote for the One Church Plan. What would you say to them, and specifically I’d like to ask, what would you say to them, maybe using some theological language to someone who may say, it says in the Bible, what would you say to that person?
I would say to that person that in Jesus Christ, the word of God reminds us that there is no male nor female. In Christ there is no difference. That we’re all children of God. We’re all sinners saved by the grace of God. And that there is a place for all people. The word of God reminds us that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, and not to point God’s finger at the world. As Eugene Peterson puts it in the message, to tell the world how bad the world is, but that people will know that God loves them. He sent his son into the world so that the world can be put right again.
. . .
Bishop Tracy Smith Malone reminds us that God sent his son to the world not to point his finger at the world. In her passionate plea for the One Church Plan, describing it as an option that will lead to tremendous growth for the church, and describing it as a powerful tool for evangelism.
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