What's a Methodist?
The term "Methodist" was originally meant as an insult. John Wesley (pictured below) and a group of other earnest young Christians established a group they called the Holy Club while they were students at Oxford University in England.
They were so disciplined and methodical in their religious practices that less pious students called them "Method-ists" as a way of mocking their discipline. But, Wesley decided that the name fit and adopted it.
Methodists are followers of Wesley's teachings. In addition to the United Methodist Church, many other Methodist denominations which have spun off over the centuries for various reasons. Other Wesleyan rooted churches are the Salvation Army, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Church of God.
John Benjamin Wesley was born in Epworth, England in 1703, the fifteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Samuel was a priest in the Church of England (Anglican). Susanna came from a Puritan family. The Puritans felt that the Anglican Church had grown corrupt, and Samuel and Susanna often have stormy arguments about theological matters.
Samuel was disliked by many people in Epworth because he supported the king, who was not popular in that area. Some of his foes may have set fire to the Epworth parsonage when John was just five. He was nearly engulfed by the flames when several men formed a human ladder to save him at the last moment. From that point on, he felt that he owed God a special debt.
Susanna was an unusually well-educated woman and she taught all of her children to read and write at an early age. John proved especially gifted and went on to become a student at Oxford University. While there, he also became and Anglican priest and with his brother Charles, led the Holy Club which detractors labeled as "Methodists."
Unfortunately, John was a perfectionist, and he fell into the trap that awaits all such folk. No matter how hard he worked, he never felt he had done enough to merit God's grace for himself. Ironically, the harder he worked, the more he felt a failure.
In an effort to commit himself totally to God, and thus win divine favor, he signed on to be a missionary in the Georgia colony and was assigned to a church in Savannah, from which he hoped to base a mission to the Indians. During a storm on the voyage to Georgia, Wesley was moved by the courage and calm of a group of German Christians known as the Moravians. They possessed the deep peace with God which he lacked. He stayed in touch with them after landing in Savannah.
The mission to Savannah was a disaster. There was a failed love affair, and he never made contact with the Indians. People found him demanding and difficult and he was forced to return to England in disgrace, making him feel even more of a failure. He became even more convinced that he was a hopeles cause and the God could not possibly love him.
In London, he found a Moravian congregation with whom he sometimes worshipped. Still deeply depressed, he attended a Moravian meeting on Aldersgate Street in London May 24, 1738. Listening to the message he felt his heart "strangely warmed" and finally realized that the message of the Gospel is NOT that if you're good enough, God will love you, but that God loves us ALL, even though we can never be good enough to truly deserve it. We are loved perfectly, even though we are not perfect. In fact, that is what makes it a perfect love!
Wesley realized that there were millions in England who also felt hopeless and unworthy and who needed to hear the Good News. It was the time of the Industrial Revolution and millions were living and working in squalid conditions that crushed hope and dignity.
To reach them, Wesley would have to leave the confines of the church, which was controlled by the aristocracy and did not welcome or care for the poor. So, he went to the mines, factories, and streets and began to preach there. The initial response he got was hostile. People were used to being dismissed by the church and they thought he must be some kind of con man. He was often cursed and beaten up by the people he came to save.
But Wesley kept coming back until people began to take him seriously. They heard a message of hope that the lowliest laborer and the dirtiest miner were passionately loved by God. Wesley gathered his followers into "Methodist societies" who gathered for worship, study, and mutual support during the week. Over the years, hundreds of Methodist societies were formed across England, Scotland, and Wales.
Wesley also taught that Christians must be involved in social reform. He adamantly opposed the slave trade and Methodists were strong abolitionists. Methodists built hospitals, homes, and schools to care for the poor.
Yet, despite all this, they were still cold-shouldered by the Anglican establishment, who considered them religious fanatics or "enthusiasts."
Wesley constantly urged his followers not to see their Methodist Societies as a replacement for the Anglican Church. He held out hope to his dying day that the Church of England would eventually welcome his enthusiastic disciples. But it didn't happen.
The Americans formed the Methodist Episcopal Church after the Revolution on Christmas Day 1784. Their British counterparts, out of respect for Father John, did not form their own church until after he died in 1791.
British Methodists began emigrating to America durng the colonial days, but they were not well organized. As in Britain, they were largely rejected by Anglican congregations, so they created their own. The leaders of some of the congregations asked Wesley to send someone to better organize them. He sent Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke in 1771.
When the Revolution broke out, Asbury sided with the revolutionaries, but his loyalty was doubted because John Wesley a criticized the uprising. (Wesley also criticized the English government for being unfair to the Americans, but didn't help Asbury, who had to go into hiding for much of the war.)
After America became independent, all of the Church of England's priests left the new nation, which left the Methodists with no church to even try to relate themselves to. So, they petitioned Wesley for permission to create their own denomination, which he reluctantly gave. On Christmas day 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was created at a conference in Baltimore, where Asbury and Coke were also consecrated as its first bishops. So, although Methodism was born in the UK, it first took the form of a church in the US.
Using a system of traveling preachers known as circuit riders, the church grew by leaps and bounds. It was very popular among African Americans, both free and slave, because of Wesley's adamant anti-slavery position. Among others, this attracted a slave named Richard Allen, who eventually bought his freedom and became a Methodist preacher.
Allen brought many more blacks to the faith, which soon made the members of the church in Philadelphia where he brought them uncomfortable. Methodism may have been anti-slavery, but Methodists were stained by the racism which was pretty much universal in that era. After bearing many insults, both petty and gross, from the white members of the church, Allen led the black members out to form their own congregation...and in 1816, their own denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME Church is the oldest black owned and led institution in America.
Racism would continue to plague the Methodist Episcopal Church. In the South, Methodists began to accommodate and accept slavery. In the North, abolitionist sentiment continued to run strong and there repeated clashes over the issue at the quadrennial meetings of the national church leadership, called the General Conference. In 1844, matters came to a head and the church split, with the pro-slavery forces forming the Methodist Episcopal Church-South, which was identical in most ways to its northern counterpart, but for it acceptance of slavery. This was the first major split of a national institution along the very lines which would later form the Union and the Confederacy.
The Civil War settled the matter of slavery, but the lingering resentment in the South made any reconciliation with their northern counterparts impossible for over two generations. But, in 1939, the two denominations reunited to form the Methodist Church. Tragically, this was accomplished by bowing to a southern demand that all African American congregations be segregated from contact with the white ones. Thus a black congregation that might have been two blocks from a white one could have no direct contact with it. Slavery was gone, but the sinful racism which fueled it still deeply infected the church.
Another form of prejudice had kept another group out of the Methodist movement for over a century. Francis Asbury had been contacted by a group of German immigrants, largely centered in Pennsylvania, about the possibility of merging their churches into the new Methodist Episcopal Church. The German Americans pointed out that their beliefs and church structures were virtually identical to that of the Methodists and they would be glad to join with them.
But Asbury cold-shouldered them by pointing out that they used German in their worship services. He demanded they use English. The immigrants said that it would be impossible to get all their people...most of whom were first-generation immigrants...to learn English. For this reason, Asbury turned them away.
As the generations passed, the descendants of those immigrants became English speakers. And, ironically, a number of German speaking Methodist congregations did form across the country. One formed right here in Quincy and a couple generations later, joined with another congregation to become Union church!
The descendants of the German Americans whom Asbury turned away, created a number of denominations which eventually coalesced into the Evangelical United Brethren, which by the 20th century was entirely English speaking.
The EUBs again approached the Methodist Church in the 1960's to propose merger. The Methodists were more welcoming this time. But the EUBs demanded that the Methodists do away with the abomination of institutional segregation which had been established in 1939 as a condition for the merger. The Methodists had grown increasingly embarrassed by this fossil from the past and agreed to finally eradicate it.
Shucking off the fetters of institutionalized racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, the United Methodist Church was born in 1968.
Methodism stands within the Protestant tradition of Christianity.
A full exposition of those beliefs can be found here: http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.1707359/k.BE59/Beliefs.htm
For convenience's sake, we will focus on some of the more unique Methodist Doctrines here.
Methodism emphasizes grace in all its forms. Prevenient Grace is God's love for us, even before we are able to recognize or respond to it. We hold that God's love is not a reward for our belief. Rather, our belief opens us to a full awareness of that love, which has always been there for us. It is prevenient grace which leads us to the point where we recognize both our need for God's love and the reality of it.
This leads us to Justifying Grace, which is the term we use to describe the way in which God's love helps us to achieve forgiveness for our sins and reconciliation with God, whom we have ignored or actively disobeyed.
But conversion is not enough. It must be followed by a continuing effort to grow closer to God throughout our lives. This aspect is called Sanctifying Grace. Unless there is continuing growth in our relationship with God, then there is little evidence that we have actually been transformed.Our good works do not earn God's grace. That is a free gift. But, our good works are the fruit of our relationship with God, and if that relationship is essentially "fruitless" then no real conversion has transpired. The Christian faith is not simply about feeling good it is about doing good because we are inspired to share the love we have been shown by a gracious God. Our good works are what we gratefully give God in return for divine grace.
Wesley said that our goal as Christians should be to seek and achieve Christian Perfection in this life. He did not believe that we are capable of total perfection in every respect, but he did believe that it is possible for Christian to become perfect in love. This perfection is difficult and elusive. He once said that is you claim to have it, that's evidence that you don't! (Kind of like bragging about your humility.) But, he did believe that people are capable of genuinely selfless, noble, courageous love which reflects the love which Christ has shown for us.
We have seen people act with astounding valor, compassion, and selflessness. These could be considered moments of perfection. They may not last long. But they point to our capacity for perfection and Wesley held that this should always be our goal in life.
God does not demand that we achieve perfection as a condition for salvation. Grace is forgiving. But we are called to strive for perfection. Jesus himself declared, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." He was not expecting us to be perfect in every aspect. But, he was calling us to love one another as God loves us.
Wesley also understood that the world was changing, and that we would encounter problems which the people of the biblical era could not have even imagined. Abraham knew nothing of stems cells, for instance. So, Christians needed guidance on how to address vexing problems when the Bible has nothing direct to say about them. He offered the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a tool to use in such instances. He lists four sources for guidance...Scripture,Tradition, Experience, Reason:
Scripture: Even if the Bible doesn't offer direct advice, it can often provide stories and advice about similar issues that faced the ancients. It sets an ethical and theological framework for Christian decision making.
Tradition: Over 20 centuries, the church has worked out solutions to numerous problems and we should look to what has been done in the past. Not with an uncritical notion that we should continue to do whatever has been done in the past, but with a due respect to the wisdom of our elders. It may not be necessary to "re-invent the wheel." Or a careful examination of tradition can also show why it is necessary to now seek a radically new approach to a problem.
Reason: Wesley was a very intellectual individual who did not see ignorance as a Christian virtue. He believed that Christians were obligated to be smart and to engage the world. What has your own contemporary experience, and the experiences of others, taught you? The old joke about the guy going to the doctor and saying, "It hurts when I do this" and the doc responding by saying, "Then don't do that!" comes to mind. What you have personally witnessed must be part of the equation.
Wesley saw the Scriptures as the paramount authority, but tradition, experience, and reason could be used to more carefully and helpfully understand and rightly apply biblical wisdom. He believed God is always right, but we are not always right in our understanding of God's will.
Some of the relatively unique aspects of Methodism are reflected in the way our church is structured and carries out its ministries. That leads us to our next section...
The United Methodist Church is a connectional church.
There are two basic types of structure for a denomination…connectional or congregational.
The congregational system is one in which the individual congregations are largely autonomous and loosely connected to each other. The connectional type of system binds congregations together in a much more comprehensive way.
We find the differences most prominently in the way we handle ministries beyond the local church and in the way that churches receive clergy leadership.
In a congregational system, the local churches contribute to missions whatever they wish. There is often no clearly defined obligation to support the work of the larger church. In a connectional system, such obligations are apportioned to all the congregations, using a formula which seeks to distribute those obligations fairly. Hence, they are usually referred to as “apportionments.”
Large churches, pay larger apportionments than small ones…but every church is expected to pay its fair share of the total burden.
These apportionments are established according to a formula which is devised by the Conference (we will get into what that is, a little later). They cannot be ignored by a local church, if it expects to remain part of the denomination. A local church may have difficulty meeting those apportionments at times, and if they fall short despite a sincere effort to meet them, that usually causes no serous problems. But, repeated or willful refusal to contribute their fair share can leads to a church losing its pastor and even its charter.
We will go into what sort of larger ministries the church has, later.
The deployment of pastors in a congregational church involves the local church calling a pastor from a pool of available ministers. This process usually takes months, and in some cases, it can take years. In the meantime they must find and work with interim leadership. The system is especially hard on small churches which cannot pay a great deal and which are often in small, relatively isolated areas that many pastors find less attractive.
In the connectional system of the United Methodist Church, pastors are appointed to churches by the Bishop. Each congregation has a Staff/Parish Relations Committee which consults with the Conference leadership on what they feel they need in the way of pastoral leadership. Each year, the committee is asked if they wish to retain their current pastor, or make a change. The pastor is asked the same thing. If both wish the current situation to continue, that is usually what happens.
The difference is that the Conference leadership, the District Superintendents and the Bishop, make the final decision. Sometimes, they may decide that a pastor needs to be sent to another church, because his or her abilities are more needed there. In that case, the pastor is obliged to move.
Pastor Morwell was moved in this manner once, when he was appointed to become the first white pastor of a predominantly black congregation. He had not requested a move, nor had the two small churches he was serving at that time. But the Bishop and Superintendents (called the Cabinet when they all meet together) determined he was the person for that post. The church to which he was sent was in a state of crisis and the Cabinet felt he was needed more there than in the church he had been serving. While the appointment was a surprise, it worked out well.
Pastors in the United Methodist Church enter into an agreement when they are ordained that they will go where they are sent. In return, the Conference agrees that so long as they are in good standing, they will be guaranteed an appointment. However, the pastor has only minimal say in where that appointment will be. In this respect, the United Methodist ministry is rather like the military.
Local churches, through their Staff/Parish Committees, have a say in what kind of pastor they want and need, and in whether they will accept the pastor offered by the Cabinet. However, they cannot reject a candidate simply on the basis or race or sex. It is for this reason that the United Methodist Church (UMC) has the highest percentage of women in ministry and the highest percentage of non-white clergy of any predominantly white denomination.
Congregational churches are essentially free to turn down candidates for such reasons, though they rarely do so in an open manner. They simply say that the white man they selected was the best candidate, even though they never really considered any other type of person.
In congregational systems, a pastor usually has a “ninety days and out” arrangement in which the congregation can give him or her ninety days notice and then they are without a job or home. The congregation can pretty much fire the pastor for any reason, without appeal. In the connectional system of the UMC, a church can ask for the removal of a pastor, but that request is reviewed by the Cabinet. If the Cabinet agrees, then the pastor can be removed, though this can take months if the situation is not dire and the pastor will be appointed elsewhere. But sometimes, the Cabinet will disagree, because they believe the pastor is saying or doing things the church needs, even if some powerful members don’t like it.
When it comes time to change pastors, in a UMC congregation, it is typical for the new pastor to be in the pulpit within one or two weeks of the previous one leaving. It is rare for there to be gaps between pastors lasting months…though it does happen under unusual circumstances sometimes.
Regular moves usually take place in June, when pastors who are moving play a massive version of “musical chairs” and make their moves. Moving companies love Methodists in June!
Structure of the Church
Here is a quick description of the structure of the United Methodist Church...
The local church is the foundation. Often, two or more smaller churches will be served by a single pastor. This is known as a multiple-point charge.
The next level is the District. Our church is part of the LaMoine River District which has about 90 local churches in it. The District office is located in Jacksonville and is overseen by the District Superintendent, Randy Robinson. Superintendents are appointed by the Bishop and normally serve a six year term. The web site for our District is here: http://www.gbgm-umc.org/lamoinedist/
The next level up is known as the Conference. We are part of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference. The offices are in Springfield and the Conference covers the lower three-quarters of Illinois. It is presided over by Bishop Greg Palmer. Bishops normally serve a maximum of two four-year terms in any one Conference. The Conference is comprised of ten districts. Each year, in June, representatives for all the churches in the Conference gather for the Annual Conference session in which policies and budgets for the Conference and its related agencies are set. You can find our Conference web site at http://www.igrc.org/
You can receive a free weekly newsletter from the Conference by going here: http://visitor.constantcontact.com/email.jsp?m=1101770231079 (Don't worry. They won't spam you.)
Conferences are grouped with several other Conferences in to form Jurisdictions. We are in the North Central Jurisdiction, and every four years, representatives from each Conference in the Jurisdiction come together to elect and assign Bishops to their Conferences. The last Jurisdictional Conference took place in the Summer of 2008.
Also, every four years, representatives from every Conference on earth, gather for a General Conference session in which they will set policies for the global church and its missions for the next four years.
The body of rule and regulations which the General Conference develops is called the Book of Discipline, and it is the law of the church for the next quadrennium.