Connections empower local churches
By Mary Stamp
For United Methodist Church (UMC) District Superintendent Daniel Miranda, the daily grind of paperwork, conversations, emails and meetings includes love and grace, prayers and blessings related to pastoral transitions, missional work and guiding a few congregations that are choosing to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church.
Since becoming district superintendent of the Seven Rivers and Inland Districts 15 months ago, Daniel has been learning about the 75 churches in the district.
"The biggest role is to figure out how to have more conversations about how to do missional work together," he said. "It's easy to focus on local churches, but there is a reason we are connected in sharing resources, having colleagues, having encouragement, knowing what other churches are doing and supporting one another."
Daniel and his wife, Sheila, who is the connectional minister working with lay education in the district and works as assistant superintendent, live in Spokane.
For missional groups, he is linking groups based on geography, size and like-mindedness to start conversations on missional needs.
"Missional needs of one church are easy, compared with four or five churches, which can agree to cooperate on something bigger that takes the church into the community," he said.
The start of the process was slowed by COVID.
"I first thought we could do more in person, but with continued COVID infection rates and people not ready to come together because of health concerns, we have been able to do much through Zoom out of necessity," said Daniel, who is now doing about 20 percent of his work in person.
"There are some things I can't do on Zoom, but Zoom has made meetings easier and more cost-effective," he said. "Zoom is valuable for connecting five people from around the state without driving, using gas or spending time on the road. It helps us be stewards of our funds and the environment."
Sitting in person across a table in the same room, however, is important in transitions of leadership and congregations, and when there is a crisis.
Ten churches in the Pacific Northwest are in the process of considering or choosing to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.
Some start the process and are unable to complete it, and some are unsure because there are steps they need to take: a two-thirds vote of church members, paying two years of its apportionment and paying a prorated share of the conference's pension liability, Daniel said.
"Some want to disaffiliate because the Pacific Northwest Conference is more inclusive of the LGBTQ members and clergy than their church," he said.
Disaffiliation of a church is a way to exit and not live with the conflict. Around the U.S. the number of churches that are disaffiliating varies from place to place, Daniel said.
He has read some articles that speak of the UMC "splitting," but just five percent of churches in the PNWUMC Conference are considering disaffiliating.
"I would not call that a split," he said.
There are options for them to join other Wesleyan-minded denominations, like the Church of the Nazarene, Free Methodists and the newly created Global Methodist Church, formed for more conservative churches.
"United Methodist Church" is the name of the UMC around the world.
Around the world, Daniel said, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, American Baptists, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ and Church of England have all been engaged in similar decisions and conversations.
"For me, it's about being inclusive because there is room for all people in God's kingdom. The Church will be better if we are more inclusive and accepting, kinder to one another and learn from each other, but it takes work," Daniel said.
"Part of living in the modern world is awareness that the world has shrunk. God calls us to see differences less than what we have in common," he explained. "In these times, it's hard to say a person is not good enough for church. We try not to have the church be just for people who are from a similar culture, are like-minded or watch the same news.
"The church would lose if all were conservative or liberal," he said. "We need to learn to live with one another. There is deep spiritual value in that."
Daniel is sad that some churches are exiting, but believes it is important to provide for a gracious exit strategy to avoid conflict.
"We also need to accept gracefully and with kindness the conservative churches that decide to stay," he said. "I'm grateful to have churches, even if they disagree, stay and live together."
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, said that "though we may not all think alike, we may all love alike."
Even in early years, he said, Wesleyan churches were not in complete agreement on everything but found it worthwhile to be in community, honoring and respecting each other, and moving forward as family, he explained.
"I have family I do not agree with, but we still live and celebrate together," Daniel said. "Our different lived experiences shape how we see the world."
Daniel also works in partnership with other denominational leaders in the regional Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic, Disciples, United Church of Christ and American Baptist churches.
"We meet as regularly as we can each month," he said. "I value the denominational partners helping each other and cooperating to share pastoral leadership."
One example of working together was at the end of September, when regional faith leaders collaborated to speak out about the "Reawaken America" Christian nationalism rally in Post Falls with vigils at Episcopal churches.
"We cooperate to have a voice to remind people that God is not just the God in or of America, but the God of all people," said Daniel, who participated in training that the Episcopal Diocese offered and who encouraged members to participate in vigils. "We need to keep in mind that Christians in the U.S. do not have sole sovereignty over God's name."
Daniel, who was born in Colombia, invites people to remember a scripture he read as a child growing up in New Jersey, John 3:16, which says that "God so loved the world…"
"God's greatness is shown in being inclusive of women and men, all colors and all races," he said.
His family moved to the U.S. when Daniel was eight and his father had an opportunity to do carpentry in Plainfield, N.J., a diverse community.
"I attended a high school that included students from 12 cultures. I learned how to live in community with people who are different, sharing our lives and food. I learned there is more than one way to do things," said Daniel, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in the mid-1980s.
He considers that "training" vital for living and working in diverse settings.
While there are few racial or ethnic churches in Eastern Washington, the district is in conversations with two communities about starting Spanish-speaking United Methodist Churches. It's helpful that Daniel speaks Spanish. Diverse churches on the West Side include Tongan, Japanese and Latinx.
"We have to live into inclusive worship, too," he said of worship opportunities that gather "people who speak every tongue and gather people of every color to raise a cacophony of voices."
Daniel's ministry since graduating from seminary in 1987 has included serving congregations in Wisconsin and serving as a missionary in Japan and the Philippines. After coming to Washington in 2003, he served churches in Waterville, Pateros and Auburn before coming to Spokane in 2021.
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