SYRACUSE — Issues confronting mainline churches — caring for graying congregations while reaching out to the unchurched — await Bishop Mark J. Webb, the newly elected Methodist leader of the Upper New York Annual Conference.
In high school, his goal was to become the governor of Pennsylvania.
“God changed my mind,” Webb said.
The Williamsport, Pa., native holds a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree from Shippensburg University. He was elected bishop on July 19, 2012, at the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference held in Charleston, W.Va.
“The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Webb said. “To me, making disciples is two-fold. It’s helping those who are already in the church go deeper into that relationship, and it also is doing whatever it takes to invite folks who are not yet part of the church or in relationship to God to experience that.
”We care for those who are already a part of the church and help them to continue to grow and develop. We also reach out beyond the walls of the church. We have folks in our congregation who are willing and are reaching new people. Our challenge is to continue to find the ways so we can be more relevant to the community around us and be places of hospitality for folks who might come.”
Helping churches retool and relearn how to do church in the 21st century is part of his role as bishop and formerly as district superintendent of the York District of the Susquehanna Conference.
“One of the great pieces of the United Methodist Church, we are in a unique position to offer the good news of Jesus Christ because of our deep history and balance between personal holiness and social holiness. And our willingness to recognize it’s about individual and corporal relationships with God, but it is also about meeting the world where the world is and meeting needs and walking alongside people in communities.”
The Upper New York Annual Conference encompasses 48,000 square miles. It’s approximately everything but New York City. Webb owns a Honda. It’s pretty good on gas, he said, but he’s pondering four-wheel drive.
“We have 49 of the 62 counties in New York state. We have 937 churches, 182,000 members. Our conference is divided in 12 districts,” he said.
His transition from district superintendent to bishop is a work in progress.
“There are a lot of similarities between the work of a district superintendent and bishop. As superintendent, you still have the bishop. He’s the one who makes the final call on things. The rhythm of the work and the relationships you have, the primary focus is similar.”
For him, it’s been a smooth transition.
“The folks in the Upper New York area have been very gracious because of their willingness to partner with me, accept me and work with me,” he said.
He’s a new bishop in a two-year-old conference created from four former conferences — North Central New York, Troy, Western New York and Wyoming Conference.
“We’re all learning together how to do a new thing in the midst of celebrating past experiences and make room for new ways and new opportunities,” Webb said.
Part of the church’s outreach is to former members, some raised as children in the faith who have wandered away. To attract them back, it’s about relationship and relevance in Webb’s estimation.
“To me, the church that is going to engage the world is called to engage the word. We have to make those two things priority. First is relationship, that the church is relevant and speaking the language but not compromising the message, but speaking the message in a way the world understands is relevant,” Webb said.
”There are a lot of people who used to be in church and are not in the church, and behavior in the church caused the damage. We in the church have to recognize that and address that. To me, that’s why hospitality is a huge part of the church’s mission. So when people come, they know they are welcomed, but they are accepted.”
John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican cleric and Christian theologian credited with founding Methodism with his brother Charles Wesley, gathered small clusters of women and men who studied together and were spiritually accountable to each other.
“Most churches, mainline or independent, growing numerically and spiritually have within their strategy for ministry small groups,” Webb said.
“John Wesley was the guru of small-group ministry. What those class meetings and societies were were small groups of people having relationship with one another and desiring to have a relationship with God. They were there to help each other move forward. People are looking for relationship.
”Most people say they’re a friendly church. People aren’t looking for a friendly church. They go to church looking for friends. There is a difference. People are looking for significant relationships. First, they are looking for a significant relationship with God but also a significant relationship with other people. Church is a primary place to provide those significant relationships.”
A bishop is elected for life unless excommunicated. Webb juggles his official duties while a husband and father of two sons.
“I’m still learning and will be as long as I’m in this role. I try to be pretty intentional and have a day of Sabbath every week. Especially with our child that is home. His activities get put on my calendar. He plays basketball. All his basketball games are on my calendar. Those are appointments. I try to make sure those things are on my schedule,” Webb said.
The Upper New York Annual Conference’s mission statement is to live the gospel of Jesus Christ and be God’s love with our neighbors in all places.
“We can disagree on some issues, but we have to continue to be open to have conversations with one another. Even in the disagreement, we can still live that mission,” he said. “I see my roles as keeping us focused on living that mission.”
The United Methodist Church’s stance officially does not recognize marriage equality. Clergy are not permitted to conduct same-sex unions.
“We’re working really hard, in the midst of honoring our United Methodist Church policy, to help people understand that God’s grace is available to all, and the church is a place that must be inclusive and open to all,” Webb said.
Methodists vote on this nationally divisive issue at General Conference, and the vote there remains the same. He doesn’t know if the church’s stance will ever change.
“I think the important piece of this is that we are open with one another to have conversations,” Webb said. “Even if we disagree on an issue, we can find ways to do that and have those conversations in a spirit of love in ways that don’t distract, divide and prevent us from being about the mission of the church, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
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