When I was completing the master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and finding no opportunity for ministry, one day our next-door neighbor, James Shuler, knocked on our door. At that time my family and I were living in Waco, Texas, and Shuler was district superintendent of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. He had come to tell me I had been recommended for a position as associate pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Waco and to ask if I would be open to an interview.
After a long pause, I said, “Thank you. I’m looking for a place to fulfill my call to pastoral ministry, but you must have the wrong person. You see, I’m Baptist. I’m about to graduate from Southwestern Baptist Seminary.”
“That’s all right,” he replied. “We don’t have anything against Baptists.”
Since I had never known a Baptist church to seek a Methodist minister, this invitation came as a complete surprise. When I interviewed with pastor Jay Beavers and then the church’s pastor-parish relations committee, I knew that God was calling me to this congregation.
After challenging me all my life to follow God’s call wherever it might lead, Southern Baptists gave me nowhere to fulfill my call. But Methodists welcomed me and affirmed my pastoral gifts.
So I was dismayed when I heard about the recent vote of the United Methodist General Conference to maintain exclusion of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. That monumental decision does not reflect the kind of Methodists I experienced decades ago.
“These Methodists opened their minds and hearts to step outside tradition to affirm my pastoral call.”
When my own Baptist tradition excluded me, Methodists opened wide their arms to welcome my pastoral ministry. Methodists could apply the liberating message of Jesus to me and other women barred from ministry by traditional biblical misinterpretations, so why would they not apply this same liberating message to LGBTQ people?
Millions of United Methodists worldwide, however, do support full inclusion of LGBTQ people, and many have written powerful statements based on the Bible. Many others continue to take biblical passages out of context, instead of using established hermeneutical principles they apply to other parts of Scripture, to back the “Traditional Plan” the General Conference adopted to reinforce the ban on LBGTQ clergy ordination and same-sex marriage.
I have never experienced that exclusive kind of Methodist, only the inclusive kind. The Methodists I have known have always been welcoming, affirming and liberating.
The pastor and members of St. John’s and the district superintendent were willing to include even a minister from another denomination as associate pastor. They did not make changing denominations a condition for my serving in a pastoral position. After I preached my first sermon, one longtime member told me, “You did a great job. It doesn’t matter that you’re a Baptist because labels don’t matter anyway.”
Methodists not only accepted me as a Baptist minister, but also participated in my ordination at Waco’s Seventh and James Baptist Church, one of a small number of Baptist churches at that time open to ordaining women. Beavers took part in the worship service along with Dan Bagby, pastor of Seventh and James. St. John’s members also participated in the ritual of laying on of hands. In Methodist tradition only district superintendents and bishops perform this ritual, but these Methodists opened their minds and hearts to step outside tradition to affirm my pastoral call.
These inclusive Methodists appreciated my referring at times to myself as a “Methobaptist.” They affirmed what I came to view as part of my calling: building bridges to bring together people of various denominations and faith traditions.
“These open-minded Methodists also gave me opportunities to test my budding feminist theology.”
Liberating Methodists played a large role in my growth as a minister. When I became the associate pastor, I had little preaching experience beyond my homiletics class in seminary. I was one of only two women in the class, and some of the male students criticized my delivery as “unnatural.” So I felt anxious and insecure when I began to preach at St. John’s. But the gracious people at this Methodist church liberated and encouraged me to develop my preaching gifts. They gave me abundant affirmation and opportunities not only to preach, but also to conduct funerals, to perform weddings, to lead worship, to teach and to develop non-traditional urban ministry programs.
These open-minded Methodists also gave me opportunities to test my budding feminist theology. They helped liberate me to write, preach and speak on gender justice and equality. After I had been serving at St. John’s for a few years, I led a Sunday night series on expanding worship language to include biblical female names and images of God. Pat McClatchy, pastor of St. John’s at that time, wholeheartedly supported my presentations on this topic. One Sunday night he said, “If I, a West Texas-cowboy-rancher preacher, can understand what you’ve been saying about new ways to talk about God, then I don’t see why everybody else can’t.”
Church members also welcomed discussions of a topic that most of them had never thought about. Many expressed gratitude for the deepening of their spiritual experience through a new naming of the Divine. These discussions contributed to my development of the Sunday night presentations into a book, In Whose Image? God and Gender.
My sojourn with liberating, inclusive, welcoming and affirming Methodists did not end when I left the dear people at St. John’s. Although I remained a Baptist minister and served as a chaplain in two Baptist medical centers, I have continued to work with this kind of Methodist through ecumenical clergywomen’s groups and social justice organizations. I serve on the ecumenical board of Equity for Women in the Church with several United Methodist clergypersons. Through their prophetic words and actions, these ministry colleagues have recently stood for inclusion of LGBTQ people.
The General Conference vote for the “Traditional Plan” is hard for me to understand. The Methodists I have experienced are not the kind who could refuse to affirm any person’s call to ministry or desire to be in a loving marriage relationship.
My experience of the power of the liberating Spirit in Methodists gives me hope that change will come so that all Methodists will welcome and affirm LBGTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. I will continue my sojourn with inclusive Methodists, working in solidarity with them toward the realization of their vision that all Methodists and people of all other denominations will open their minds and hearts to the liberating Gospel.