I wasn’t raised in The United Methodist church. My family is Mennonite. While growing up, the church was the center of our lives. Through the church, I was given many opportunities for leadership (usually breaking the gender bar along the way) and mission. The church shaped me in many ways.
When I went to college as a nursing major, I encountered a female chaplain, Dr. Sharon Parks. It took me a while to realize that she was clergy! As I did, I knew that ministry was my calling and not nursing. Later I finished college at Boston University and applied to go to Boston University School of Theology (a United Methodist-related seminary). There I encountered United Methodism and with it, my future husband, Ken Ehrman. There was little room for women in ministry in the Mennonite church and so as I learned more about United Methodism, I joined the church.
The one thing I struggled with in the UMC was baptizing infants (Mennonites baptize believers). But as I studied and learned more about United Methodist’s understanding of grace and how it relates to baptism, including babies, grace became a central part of my faith. Like Eskimos who have many words for snow, it seemed like United Methodists had many words for grace: prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace! Grace abounds!
As I had grown into adolescence and young adulthood in the Mennonite church, relating faith and justice was important to me. So when I encountered United Methodism, social holiness along with personal holiness was very attractive to me. It put together the love of God and love of neighbor that is essential in living out our Christian faith. This has been a fundamental component of United Methodism for me.
The connectionalism within United Methodism is also important to me. In the Mennonite church, we would play (and I still can) “the Mennonite game.” Within about three questions of someone who is (or was) Mennonite, we can establish a connection or relationship, even blood relationship, with each other. We know similar people, have done similar things, and have commonalities with each other.
In United Methodism, connectionalism is meant to be relational, not just organizational or structural. The organization or structure of our connection (districts, conferences, jurisdiction and general conference) provides the opportunity for relationships with others. Local churches can relate to one another because of clusters or districts. We can do more together through our districts and annual conference than we can alone. And truly, we have the ability to do far more than we can imagine as a connectional church than as gaggle of independent congregations.
Of course, with connectionalism and relationships with others who are different from each other come challenges. Someone (and I can’t remember who) recently said that blessings come when we are outside our comfort zone. As I reflect on the best of connectionalism and its challenges, that is true. Connectionalism and the relationships it has produced have enriched my life but has also caused me to grow in understanding of God, the church and the world.
The Mennonite USA church is small; less than 100,000 adult members. It does wonderful things in mission, outreach, evangelism (its growth is largely in non-ethnic Mennonites), and social action. But it doesn’t have the scope and scale that United Methodism has in our communities, nation and world over our historical span. The impact of The United Methodist church over the centuries in the U.S. and around the world has been tremendous. I want to be a part of something that is big enough to make a difference.
One of the best ways to describe the impact of our scope and scale has been through our work in eliminating deaths by malaria—Imagine No Malaria. It all began because everywhere the United Nations Foundation went in Africa to address malaria, they encountered a United Methodist church, school, clinic or hospital. We were where they wanted to distribute (initially just) bed nets. They called us! And we responded.
Since 2006, we have raised $72 million. With our partners in the effort, we have reduced mortality rates by 60%, having gone from a child in Africa dying from malaria every 30 seconds to every 2 minutes; no child should die but at least this is progress. We’ve provided over 4 million bed nets, treated over 2. 7 million people for malaria, and trained thousands of local health care workers and volunteers. The training of local health care workers was instrumental in addressing the Ebola crisis more effectively. Imagine No Malaria is just one way that we as United Methodists have impacted the world to make a difference.
I encourage you to think about why you are United Methodist and to talk about it with others. Your district superintendent will lead you in conversation through some questions at your church conference that may help you articulate why you’re United Methodist and for you to hear from others. Conference Leaders and others will also be sharing why they’re United Methodist over the next several months in the pages of the Reporter.
Also, on September 16, we will have conversations about how it is we can be united as a denomination around our mission rather than fragmented by our differences. Again, a focus on what it means to be United Methodist.
So why are you a United Methodist?
~Bishop Sally Dyck