By Stan Friedman
ESTES PARK, CO (June 29, 2011) – “You’re doing good, but you know, you can do a little better.”
Those words, spoken on multiple occasions by the late Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) pastor Willie B. Jemison to ECC President Gary Walter, framed Walter’s report to delegates during the 126th Annual Meeting business session this morning.
Walter noted the death of Jemison as part of recent seasons of mixed emotions. In the spring, Central Conference Superintendent Jerome Nelson received a life-saving kidney transplant from Debbie Griffiths-Samuels, who works for the conference.
In recent months, however, the denomination has lost “giants” of the church – Jerry Reed, Jim Hawkinson, and Jemison. All of them had given their lives to moving forward the church’s participation in the mission of God.
Walter’s report highlighted the accomplishments of the denomination, challenges, and efforts to meet those challenges around the world.
Over the past two decades, attendance at Covenant churches has nearly doubled, ministry resources for laity and pastors have multiplied, and the impact of compassion, mercy, and justice ministries have impacted lives globally.
The denomination currently has 72 church plants within their first three years of ministry – half are populations are of color. Vitalization programs and new ministry resources are helping existing congregations renew and strengthen their work. More than 1,000 of the 1,700 credentialed clergy have taken part in Sustaining Pastoral Excellence opportunities. The number of women in ministry over the past 10 years has increased from 76 to 385, a 505 percent increase.
Noting the Covenant Resource Paper on Compassion, Mercy, and Justice that will be put to the delegates for approval tomorrow, Walter stated, “We’re not looking to be politically correct: We’re looking to be biblically correct.”
The work is far from done, however, in a world of great need. “It is the very nature of the gospel to run to the need, not away from it,” Walter said. It is a fundamental truth of our faith. God did not leave us in our need, but in Jesus, came as Immanuel, God with us.”
The denomination is facing identity challenges as it grows more diverse and larger in size. More than 60 percent of the people attending Covenant churches were not in the denomination 10 years ago, Walter said. The structure of the Covenant, which served the denomination when it was smaller, is now strained due to the growth.
Walter acknowledged that most people are concerned more about whether services are rendered by an organization than they are about how it is structured. Structure, however, makes that ministry possible, however.
To address the challenges, the Covenant convened an Organizing for Mission process team, with the charge, “To advance the mission while bridging the future.”
The theological premise can be summed up in a quote by David Bosch, Walter said: “The church does not have a mission, the mission has a Church. There is a Church because there is a mission, not vice versa.” Historically, the church has organized for mission, Walter said. Also, the Covenant and its conferences exist to serve the local church.
The denomination is addressing three questions: “What are we trying to accomplish? What is the core mission? What is the best way to accomplish it?”
Walter recalled the apostle Paul’s encouragement to the church to be “stars shining in the night.”
“As we live authentically into that mission, then we are able to shine as the stars in the night,” Walter said.
Walter concluded by addressing two suffering areas in the world where that light is needed – the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Japan.
Congo is among the bottom three poorest nations in the world, Walter said. It is important for the Covenant to stand with the Covenant Church of Congo (CEUM), he added.
A small event that would go unnoticed to most of the world is emblematic of the Congo Church’s work, said Walter, who choked up as he told the story. He recalled how the church had given new life to a child who had been left to die and whose name when translated meant “discarded one.”
Sabuli Sanguma, wife of Congo Church President Mossai Sanguma, heard the baby crying and rescued the child. She said, “We will change his name to Precious.”
“The Gospel tells us we are not cast aside,” Walter said.
Walter also spoke of being overwhelmed by the destruction he encountered during his visit to Japan following the earthquake. That devastation extends for 400 miles. “The scale is overwhelming at times as you move from town to town,” Walter said.
The Covenant is expanding its work with partners, including the Covenant Church of Japan, to restore the lives of people in that nation, Walter said.
“I’m proud to be part of a denomination that never takes the easy way, but always runs to the need,” Walter said. But he cautioned against complacency, borrowing from Jemison’s quote: “You’re doing good, but you know, we can do a little better.”
Click here for video coverage of the President’s Report.