Methodist bishop for Dakotas-Minnesota confronts a changing worldIn a global denomination, bishops have a difficult task of overseeing hundreds of congregations in a changing world.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
In a global denomination, bishops have a difficult task of overseeing hundreds of congregations in a changing world.
The United Methodist Church has always had a dual mission of being committed to a personal relationship with Jesus, but also being committed to living out the faith in a social context.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough (pronounced “O”) is the newly appointed bishop for the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area.
Ough started his religious service years ago in Mitchell at the Parker United Methodist Conference Center on Dakota Wesleyan University campus. He was on the Dakotas Conference area program staff and helped churches in both North and South Dakota.
“In many respects, I’m coming home,” he said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic. “I started a bit unusually.”
Most pastors ordained into the Methodist Church start as a local church pastor and move up through the ranks. But Ough next became a director of a retreat center in Indiana, a Methodist Church district superintendent in Iowa and a local church pastor, among other roles, before becoming a bishop.
The Parker United Methodist Conference Center was once the center for the South Dakota Episcopal Conference. When the Dakotas joined together, the episcopal office moved to Fargo, but in 2008, the office for the Dakotas Conference moved back to Mitchell.
There has always been a strong partnership between the Dakotas Conference and the university, Ough said.
“It is the only United Methodist Church higher learning establishment directly related to the church in the Dakotas,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride in that.”
Ough was elected as a bishop in 2000, a position to which clergy are elected for life. He and his wife, Charlene, will live in Minneapolis as the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area is based there, but Ough will travel a lot, having three states with about 650 congregations to oversee.
Although the number of congregations is a downgrade for him — he oversaw 1,200 congregations in Ohio — it is a major upgrade spatially.
“It was much more compact in Ohio, a smaller geographic area,” he said.
While The United Methodist Church is dominant in Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, Ough has the challenge of being in a predominantly Lutheran and Catholic culture in the Dakotas and Minnesota.
In the Methodist Church, there are area superintendents who visit congregations on a regular basis. Ough hopes to visit each church at least once per year, which is what many bishops do.
Challenges in the church
He said the Methodist Church faces many challenges as millions of people in the world move forward without a faith-base.
“The greatest challenge we face is providing really a quality leadership in places that have been declining and, more difficult, providing adequate support packages,” he said.
Ough intertwines the “twin spires” of faith, which he describes as personal and social holiness. He said Methodists embrace change in the world, which is shown by the church having allowed female pastors for decades. Although it may have been a difficult transition at first, Ough said Methodists adapted to it quickly, and some are still adapting.
“When a church works with a bishop to appoint a woman pastor and it’s a first time for that congregation, by the time that woman leaves, the congregation almost always asks for another woman,” Ough said.
One issue the Methodist church will not budge on is gay marriage and ordaining gay pastors.
While the Methodist Church welcomes all people, it will not condone same-sex marriage, but that’s not to say all Methodists feel that way, Ough said. Nor do all Methodists agree gay people shouldn’t be allowed ordination.
“Not all agree on gay clergy or marriage, but that hasn’t prevented the Methodist Church from taking a position,” he said. “The church views the issue of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching. However, we are equally strong in saying we do not believe we should deny civil rights to anybody, including gay and lesbian folks, and that every person is of sacred worth.”
The Methodist Church also views marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He acknowledged that some Methodists view it as a civil rights issue and think anti-gay marriage laws deny homosexual couples the right to fully participate in society.
“Some would say the Methodist Church speaks out both sides of its mouth and to an outsider, it would appear that way,” he said. “But really we have embraced both spires of faith, both themes.”
As for gay pastors, the church cannot ordain them, Ough said. If a self-avowed gay man or woman sought ordination, they would be denied. In fact, Ough said there have been gay individuals who have entered the process of ordination and have been turned down due to their sexual orientation.
Despite women breaking the barrier of becoming accepted as ordained ministers, Ough doesn’t think homosexuals will ever be able to achieve that within the Methodist Church. The global ministry plays a big role in that denial, Ough said.
Ough said many countries that are a part of the Methodist Church’s general conference have strong anti-homosexual cultures, which impacts how doctrine and law of the church is set.
“It’s complicated. We’re different from the ELCA, which is a North American Church, not global,” he said. “As long as we place high value on being a global church, we’ll continue to function as such. I think it will be very difficult and a long time for that position to be changed in the church.”
‘Fusion’ and the future
In the massive rural areas of North and South Dakota, Ough foresees many challenges of reaching not only small congregations with much-needed support, but also staying relevant in an ever-changing culture.
The Methodist Church’s original mission in the Dakotas in the 1800s was to deploy pastors on horseback to areas where the people were settling to help them create congregations and churches.
“Because we were committed to going where people are, the challenge is, how do we continue to go where people are?” Ough said.
In the last 10 years, the United Methodist Church in South Dakota lost 15 congregations and 1,260 members — a decline of 3.4 percent, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives website. In the last 30 years, there are 31 fewer United Methodist churches and 10,214 fewer members — a decline of 22.1 percent.
Across the U.S., between 1967 and 2007, The United Methodist Church lost 3,172,989 members and 7,857 churches, according to the ARDA.
To combat the loss of churches and to draw in the “huge amount of unchurched people,” Ough said the Methodist Church must help churches learn to adapt to new kinds of worship, programming and ministry to attract new parishioners.
The First United Methodist Church in Mitchell has partnered with DWU to offer such a service. Brandon Vetter, DWU campus pastor, helped start the Fusion service in 2011 by doing a monthly alternative worship service with contemporary music. In August, the service went weekly and, through a $90,000 grant, added a second pastor in Brian Anderberg, who also is a pastor for the DWU campus.
The Fusion service has now attracted an average of 95 people per service with people visiting from all over — Artesian, Colome, Tripp and Mitchell, to name a few. Of those attending, about one-third are affiliated with DWU, one-third are members of The First United Methodist Church in downtown Mitchell, and one-third are new visitors, Vetter said.
“We’ve gotten great feedback,” Vetter said. “We’ve built a modern service, the music is up-to-date, we do a modern way to connect with people through the message. They like the style of asking tough questions — ‘Does everything really happen for a reason?’ ‘Why doesn’t God answer my prayer?’ ‘What is God’s will for my life and why don’t I see it?’ ”
Ough said services like Fusion are a great way to reach the “hardcore unchurched,” particularly young people who may question everything about the Christian faith.
The Fusion service has reached that demographic, said Anderberg.
“It’s just been cool to hear stories of people who haven’t gone to other churches or who haven’t connected with other churches,” Anderberg said. “There’s an ownership that seems to be happening.”
While the Fusion service has helped renew a church-going spirit and appears to be innovative here, Ough said the Methodist Church has been innovating services like Fusion for years.
“As I re-familiarize myself with the Dakotas, and Minnesota is completely new, I see a lot of this innovation across the Dakotas and Minnesota,” Ough said. “New churches emerging, churches connecting better with the community, starting new worship communities — more need to be doing it.”
The challenge of rural churches
For rural churches on the Dakota plains, this may be a more difficult task.
Ough said rural churches, many of which are isolated from larger pockets of civilization, have experienced loss of young people, schools and control.
“How do we help people in those communities see God calling to start something new?” he said. “Maybe the answer for the future lies in the past.”
Ough suggests the Methodist Church congregations in remote areas look at what is most important — maintaining a physical structure with limited funding, or maintain a “viable faith community that nurtures one another to become more committed disciples.”
He said rural churches should focus more on the Methodist tradition of being engaged in the community.
He also suggested rural areas need better leadership. Laypeople trained to deliver the message on Sundays and lead a congregation would be a place to start, he said. That person would provide not only leadership, but a place to worship if a physical building isn’t possible.
“I have great admiration for pastors. It is more difficult to serve and lead a church today than it ever has been,” Ough said.
He added that not only do pastors have to open to the changing times, but so do their flocks. Church-goers must be open to adjusting to changing culture, demographics and the economic environment, Ough said. They must be willing to ask hard questions and be open to innovative models for change in a church body like partnering with a neighboring church.
“Obviously we have to change,” he said. “What does it mean to be adaptive learners and leaders? How do we begin to look at where we need to go when we don’t know the answers?”
During his tenure as bishop in the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area, Ough has four priorities on which he plans to focus.
“As I come here, I plan to pay considerable attention to developing missional leaders in clergy and lay leadership,” he said.
According to The United Methodist Church’s website, its “mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
He hopes to find people with the skills and passion to help congregations become more able to fulfill the denominational mission of helping the local and global communities. He said churches need to focus on reaching out to new people and minister to the community, rather than looking inward and focusing on survival.
Second, he hopes to help more congregations develop systems of discipleship to bring more people to faith. In conjunction with that, the congregations must also equip new people with the ability to faithfully spread the church’s mission in the world.
Staring new faith communities, like Mitchell’s Fusion service, is a third priority. Giving people the option of attending a different, less traditional service is rewarding because it’s encouraging to watch a new congregation blossom and renew or create new faith, he said.
Ough’s greatest hope for his time in the Dakotas and Minnesota is to help churches become more engaged in missions — global and local — whether it’s helping out in a local event or raising money to help fight malaria overseas.
“Missions in our own communities and neighborhoods — it’s where we invest time and energy in helping to develop missional leadership and congregations,” Ough said.