Tomorrow will be my seventh anniversary as your Conference Minister, and it hardly seems possible that I will begin my eighth year of ministry in the Illinois South Conference. As I take stock of our years together, I want to share one of my most essential learnings in our mutual ministry. And that is, there is no “us” or “them” in the ministry of Jesus Christ.
So, I often heard people refer to the “Conference” as if it were the other. The “Conference” did this, or the “Conference” did that. I was told as I started this work to prepare to encounter some resistance and to keep in mind that if some churches did not invite me to worship with them or voted to remove OCWM from their general budgets (Our Church’s Wider Mission, our main revenue stream for staffing and resourcing the ministry of the Illinois South Conference) was because they did not support the “work of the Conference.” I was told not to take it personally.
At first, I did encounter some who had an “us versus them” attitude. And spoiler alert, at first, I did take it personally; I was the Conference Minister and saw myself representing the Conference. But even that stance and thinking of taking it personally or digging in and trying to prove the value of the Conference further reinforced this attitude of “othering.”
I believe what you and I learned together, especially in the last couple of years, is that there is no place in the Church for “us versus them” posturing. The truth is Christ; there is only we. We are the Conference, and we are the Church together. We need each other. And when we convince ourselves that we can go it alone, we miss out on experiencing the power and beauty of the whole.
Recently in a sermon I preached for an installation service, I shared an experience that taught me the value of the whole. I played flute in high school and college and was part of marching and symphonic bands and orchestras. As a woodwind player, I had always played the melody and not paid attention to the parts of the music that “others” played, and I didn’t think they were necessary. It wasn’t until taking a required fine arts class and, during the section on music appreciation that I was taught how to listen and appreciate the sounds and gifts of all the instruments, that I heard music differently.
I heard the sweet--low and high sounds of the strings.
I heard the breadth of the melody in the beauty of the woodwinds.
I heard the crisp riffs of the brass.
I heard the smooth, rich harmonies of trombones and tubas, and
I heard the color and dramatics of the percussion section.
I realized that when I was willing to learn about all the different instruments and listen to what they contributed to the whole, I had a deeper appreciation for others, and the divisions also melted away. All that was left was an understanding of the “we.”
I believe this is precisely the message the apostle Paul was trying to convey by utilizing the metaphor of the human body being likened to the body of Christ. In the Church, ministry, and our Conference, when we do not view ourselves as one body, we essentially say that because you are not the same part of the body I am, I do not need you. We are local churches, pastors, delegates, church leaders, seminary students, volunteers, and staff members who work at the Conference office and DuBois Center that make up the body of the Illinois South Conference.
There is no us.
There is no them.
There is only we.
You and me.
All of us.
We are the Illinois South Conference.
And I believe that together we have learned and have begun to live out the truth that we are strongest when we remember we cannot fully and wholly exist and live into what God imagines for us without each other.
Today as I reflect on our shared ministry, I am deeply grateful for how we have made beautiful music together. I pray that we will continue to work and play together, learn from one another, and compose our unique unified symphony. For I believe our call as a Conference, as the Church, is to continue to offer the gift of love, grace, kindness, compassion, and justice to all people who need, see, and receive it.
For the world is listening and waiting…
In gratitude, Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister