CHICAGO, IL (January 27, 2016) – Unity through changing times and a changing denomination was a theme that ran throughout president Gary Walter’s remarks to a general gathering of ministers to the Midwinter Conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Cohesion, multiethnicity, and human sexuality are three issues that are “on my heart,” Walter said.
Developing and maintaining cohesion in the denomination, which has grown from roughly 90,000 attendees in the 1990s to 230,000 today, must become more intentional, Walter said.
When the denomination was smaller, it was likely that the ministers would know one another by name and have more historical connection with each other. Those connections grew naturally, and there was “inevitable stickiness” that enabled the denomination to work through challenges.
Because 60 percent of the people attending Covenant congregations today are new to the denomination in the past 10 years, natural connections are no longer “inevitable,” he said. “When some of that inevitable stickiness is not as readily in place, that means when stress comes, it is easier to pull away from each other because the relational glue might not be as sticky.”
He continued, “So here’s my challenge to each of you. I want each and every one of you to ask yourself and come before God and ponder, ‘Lord, I am part of this body…what can I do to engage with, get to know, and support others? What am I contributing to the relational glue?’ ”
The second issue he noted is the growing multiethnic ministry and the desire throughout the Covenant to seek justice for people.
Walter acknowledged that racial injustice occurs in Canada, but said he wanted to pay special attention during his talk to the United States.
In a dramatic moment, he said, “Our country is in a woeful spot right now. In too many ways it feels like we as a country are regressing and polarizing. A broken and fractured world just keeps right on breaking and fracturing, and breaking people and fracturing people over and over again.”
In our cultural landscape, we are only going to encounter new situations we never anticipated, find new complexities we never envisioned, and discover new insights from new interactions.
He called on the church to break down divides and to reflect the very image of a community “that the world longs for but the world is increasingly pessimistic is even possible.”
Walter also took a moment to speak directly to African American brothers and sisters. “Yes, all lives matter, of course they do,” he said, “and there is pain of different sorts in many communities of color. But we do hear a particular voice and a particular pain of you our African American brothers and sisters in Christ and we stand unequivocally together with you because your lives matter.”
The words drew extended standing applause from the audience.
He choked up as he told of seeing the tears of friends and colleagues who are trying to make sense of the hateful rhetoric that impacts their children and communities.
He noted that Acts 2 recounts the unity of the first disciples and how Jesus’s followers were sharing all things and caring for one another. But that good work had already ended by chapter 6, when Hebraic widows were being taken care of but Hellenistic widows were not.
Walter said, “The Hellenistic Christians said, ‘Something is not right here: Hellenistic widows are being overlooked. Hellenistic widows matter.’ And the response of the Hebraic Christians was not a dismissive, ‘All widows matter.’ No, the response was, ‘Wait, let’s really hear and understand what’s going on and get after it.’ ”
The third major issue he identified as being on his heart is human sexuality. He recalled that at the Midwinter Conference in 2015, he had promised the ministers that more resources would be developed.
Since that time, he said, guidelines had been updated and there had been 47 events held in the conferences that had an overall attendance of around 1,000 ministers to talk about guidelines.
Walter said, “Our posture is not a retreat from ministry but a context for ministry.” And because of Christ’s redeeming work, “we offer pastoral care to anyone regardless of race, gender, creed, ethnic origin, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation.”
He said that resources for ministry were needed because “when we don’t do enough to equip and resource one another for meaningful ministry with real people who have real stories, that has real consequences.”
In his prepared remarks, Walter said, “I don’t doubt, whether intended or not, there are times Covenant churches, as others, may not have always been a safe place to ask questions and seek counsel and find support for any manner of sexual concern. I don’t doubt that many have silently tolerated gay bashing or snide remarks. I don’t doubt that we have not known how to create genuine welcome and intimate community and friendship for single people. I don’t doubt we have too easily devalued marriage. I don’t doubt that we have not dealt sensitively and lovingly with young people in our churches struggling with their sexual practice. For all this I grieve. You see, we know that in the church, nothing stays theoretical. People approach the church wondering ‘Does God love me? How will God’s people treat me?’ ”
He said that in addition to the meetings about the guidelines, conferences had sponsored resourcing events that also had been attended by nearly 1,000 ministers.
He noted that the plenary session on Wednesday morning would focus on stopping bullying and suicide of LGBTQ youth and that an afternoon workshop session would address ministry engagement.
Walter said, “We’ll keep at it. And let’s keep at it together. People in our homes and churches and neighborhoods, even friends in this room, wrestle with honest questions. In our cultural landscape, we are only going to encounter new situations we never anticipated, find new complexities we never envisioned, and discover new insights from new interactions.
“And so we will keep learning and sharing and seeking fruitful interchange to help us all hone better practices and faithful attitudes. Friends, let’s really be in it together.”