Congregation in Nepal Thrives Despite Religious Restrictions

Congregation in Nepal Thrives Despite Religious Restrictions

Congregation in Nepal Thrives Despite Religious Restrictions

By Paul Jeffrey (UM News)


Although official restrictions on religious work create challenges for church leaders in Nepal, migrant workers are returning from abroad with a robust faith that invigorates the small Christian community there, according to a United Methodist pastor in the mountainous country.

The Rev. Jeewan Lama is pastor of Hebron United Methodist Church in Lalitpur, a city in the Kathmandu Valley. The growing congregation currently has a fluctuating membership of about 100. Though it’s constantly losing members who leave the mostly Hindu nation in search of work elsewhere, it regains members when other migrants return having come to know Christianity in foreign lands.

Nepal is a poor country with few work opportunities, Lama said, so people go elsewhere – especially to the Gulf states and Malaysia.

“They often grow discouraged there. They are overworked, underpaid, isolated and sometimes put in prison, and it’s often Christians in those places who provide them with help and shelter,” he said.

“As a result, many come to know the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They convert to Christianity. When they come home, they want to share their new faith.”

Christians comprise only about 1.4 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people. Over 80 percent of the population is Hindu; the remainder are mostly Buddhist and Muslim.

The United Methodist congregation rents a small plot of land tucked into a residential neighborhood, and constructed a building where it hosts Saturday morning worship services. Because Sunday is a work day in Nepal, most Christian churches gather for worship on Saturday.

It’s a tough neighborhood for the evangelically oriented congregation.

“We live in an area dominated by Brahmins,” Lama said, referring to an orthodox Hindu class and caste. “In our 17 years here, no family has come to know Christ, despite our knocking on their doors. The believers in our congregation all come from other communities.”

Lama and his family also live in the neighborhood, and he said they’ve at least earned grudging respect from their neighbors. But if they go to other neighborhoods, he said, they may have stones or bottles thrown at them.

“The elites will have no contact with us. They hate us,” he said. “But when they are sick and there is no other option, they come to us secretly and ask us to pray for them. And once they are healed, they don’t talk to us again.”

Lama and his wife, Sabina, founded the congregation in 2005, one of several that emerged from a short-lived mission initiative of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. It’s the only one that remains United Methodist today.

Lama said evangelism got tougher in Nepal when the country adopted a new Constitution in 2015. Reflecting rising Hindu nationalism both in Nepal and neighboring India, the Constitution proclaimed that no one was allowed “to convert another person from one religion to another and shall not take actions or behave in a way that would create disturbance in another’s religion.”

Laws passed in 2017 tightened the restrictions, declaring that any Nepalese who encourages or is involved in religious conversion can face five years in prison. Foreigners guilty of such activity can be deported.

Lama said the restrictions changed how he and his congregation approached their neighbors.

“We stopped public evangelism. We share in church, or one by one when we meet people personally. And, of course, anyone can come to the church,” he said.

Lama said Christianity spreads more easily among the poor, who find acceptance in the church that isn’t offered them in larger Nepalese society, with its strict stratification based on caste and class.

“It’s mostly the poor who convert,” he said.

For the same reason, he said, Christianity has special appeal to marginalized women, even though few churches welcome women leaders.

“Nepali society is male-dominated and, even in the churches, women find it difficult to take leadership roles or even to express themselves in front of men. But our church is not like that. Women take responsibility and leadership, and they teach and preach. We are trying to empower women to come out of their cages,” Lama said.

Meena Moktan coordinates the women’s program of Lama’s congregation. In May, she received her Doctor of Ministry from Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Her dissertation focused on obstacles to women’s leadership in churches across Nepal. She and Sabina and Jeewan Lama have traveled as a team to several communities around the country to help churches encourage a greater role for women.

“There are women who are left out, who aren’t given opportunities, and I want to reach out to them to let them know they are special, to help them understand that although their society may not appreciate who they are, although they may think they are good for nothing, I want to raise them up with the love of God,” Moktan said.

The congregation calls itself United Methodist and has a cross and flame on the front of the pulpit. It has been considered to be the Nepal District of the Baguio, Philippines, episcopal area. Lama has received support for his ministry from several United Methodist agencies, including funding from Discipleship Ministries for outreach to youth during the pandemic. United Women in Faith – formerly United Methodist Women – recently supported an ecumenical workshop for women held at the Lalitpur church.

Yet since the retirement last year of Bishop Pedro M. Torio Jr., Lama said he has had no contact with denominational officials.

“No one has contacted us to tell us about our new bishop,” he said.

Bishop Rodel M. Acdal, the new bishop of the Baguio Episcopal Area, told UM News in an email that he has so far had no communication with Nepal.

“We are willing to visit and restart our communications and conduct ministry/training to our churches, pastors and lay leaders there if we can get support from our agencies,” he wrote. “The long-term goal is to strengthen the Mission District to be recognized as a full district and eventually become an annual conference.”

Lama said the uncertainty doesn’t concern him.

“We are a United Methodist church. If others want to support us, we don’t mind. But in our hearts and minds we are United Methodist,” he said. “Though we are neglected and isolated and forgotten by the whole UMC community, we are The United Methodist Church in Nepal.”

Paul Jeffrey is a photojournalist and founder of Life on Earth Pictures. He lives in Oregon. We are grateful to Mr. Jeffrey, as well as United Methodist News, for this story.

The Time is Now

The Time is Now

By Rob Renfroe —

Over the last few months I have had the privilege of speaking to more than a dozen churches and conferences in six different states and once to brothers and sisters in Europe, the Middle East, and the Philippines via social media. What I enjoy most are the conversations I have with individuals after my presentation is completed.

Different locations and cultures, but there are similar themes that emerge as we talk. There is always sadness that we are at a place where division is necessary. But there is also great excitement about the future as we look forward to re-envisioning what an orthodox Wesleyan movement can be and do for a lost world. What took me by surprise at first, but now I’ve come to expect, are those persons who believe they should wait before making the decision to stay or go. 

Some tell me that there’s no reason to leave right now because “nothing has changed.” What they usually mean is that our official UM doctrines are still orthodox and biblical. On the face of it, that’s a true statement, but it’s not a good description of reality. We presently have pastors who preach that Jesus was not resurrected from the dead or that the resurrection doesn’t matter and that Jesus did not die for our sins. We have seminaries that teach Jesus is just one of many ways to God and one that has even created curricula for persons wanting to be ordained in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination that denies the Trinity and the deity of Christ. We now have a commissioned candidate for ministry who preaches in drag and is celebrated by centrist pastors as being a gifted communicator of the Gospel. We just elected a second bishop who is married to a spouse of the same sex. No bishop charged with teaching and enforcing our doctrines has ever spoken out publicly against any of these false teachings and practices.

Believing that “nothing has changed” because our written doctrines have not been altered is a strange way of looking at reality. It would be like having a peace treaty with a neighboring country that’s dropping bombs on your territory and saying, “But nothing has changed; they haven’t rescinded the treaty.” It doesn’t matter what’s on paper if it’s not being followed or enforced. Nothing has changed? Everything has changed. Compare where we are to what Wesley preached. To where we were when the UM Church began in 1968. To what the Bible teaches. “Nothing has changed” is the last thing you can say about where the UM Church is now.

Others tell me they can stay because centrist leaders have told them that traditionalists will always be accepted and they will never have to accept a progressive pastor. There’s so much wrong with that statement that it’s hard to know where to start. 

First, centrist leaders on a national level have never kept the agreements they have made with traditionalists. In Portland they agreed with us that the UM Church could not stay together and we needed to work together for a respectful separation. But they came to General Conference 2019 with a plan that went back on that commitment. They agreed that the special called 2019 GC would settle our differences over sexuality once and for all – until they didn’t get their way and then they condemned the UM Church and ignored the decisions of the General Conference. Most recently they have reneged on their commitment to the Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation after helping to create it and pledging to support it. For those still unconvinced, the recent actions of the Arkansas Annual Conference should be telling. At a special called conference held November 19, the conference refused to approve the disaffiliation of three churches which had fulfilled every requirement for leaving the denomination. Each of these three churches had made their way through the arduous pathway created by the Arkansas AC and had passed a motion to leave by more than two-thirds. Still centrists and progressives there refused to honor their decision. So, when centrists state that no traditional church will ever be made to do anything they find disagreeable, they already have. There’s little reason any serious person should trust what centrist leaders promise about the future. 

Second, every UM Church will one day have a progressive pastor. In November our five U.S. jurisdictions elected thirteen new bishops. Not one was a traditionalist. The UM Church in the United States will never again elect a traditionalist bishop. And you can be sure few, if any, traditionalists will ever again seek ordination in the UM Church. Why would a young person looking at forty years of ministry join a denomination that despises his or her views – which one of our recently elected bishops described as “a virus which will make the church sick.” You may have a traditional pastor now, but the well is drying up, and the day will come when there will be no one to appoint to your church but a liberal pastor with a progressive theology.

Most importantly, I believe, is not whether traditionalists will be accepted, but what they will have to accept if they remain. In the future, traditionalists will be in a denomination that allows its pastors to preach that Jesus’ death did not make atonement for our sins and that he is just one of many ways to God or that permits its pastors to pray to God as “the Great Queer One,” as future UM pastors did at UM Duke Divinity School recently. If you remain in the UM Church, give your time and your money and lend your name to the UM Church, you will be supporting all of this. You will be aiding a church that promotes sin and allows its leaders to deny our most important Christian beliefs. Will you be accepted as a traditionalist in the UM Church over time? Probably not. But more importantly, you will have to accept a church that undermines the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Still others tell me they are remaining in hopes that something similar to the Protocol will be passed in 2024, something that is more fair and less costly for churches than the present exit path they are being offered by their conference. I can certainly understand this desire. Many bishops are abusing their power and adding exorbitant fees for churches that wish to disaffiliate. But there’s no reason to believe that General Conference 2024 will bring any relief. Literally thousands of traditional churches will have left the denomination by 2024, meaning there will be fewer traditional delegates at the next General Conference to fight for a better deal. Centrists and progressive leaders have stated they will not support the Protocol. Do you believe they will offer a more generous pathway than before for exiting churches now that they have the upper hand? Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline that churches are using now to depart goes away at the end of 2023. There is absolutely no reason to believe that waiting until 2024 will be advantageous for churches wanting to leave in the future.

Finally, some have said they will remain to “be a witness” within the UM Church. If God is calling you to be a Jonah, by all means, be faithful and stay. We traditionalists have tried to be a witness for the past fifty years. Those within the UM Church who have had ears to hear have heard. Those who don’t have not. If God has called you to stay, do so. But please make certain it’s God calling you to do the hard ministry of staying, not your desire to avoid the hard work of leaving.

What I find wherever I speak are good people who love Jesus, who are committed to the Gospel, and who care deeply about their church. It is a privilege to be with them, to listen to their concerns and hear their stories. I also discover that good people can be in different places when it comes to leaving. But I am convinced the UM Church is on a pathway that will take it far from the orthodox Christian faith and from proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and the Lord of all. If you feel called to remain in such a denomination, then stay. If not, the time to leave is now. Do not remain because leaving is difficult. 

This moment is about the Gospel. This moment is about Jesus, lifting him up and proclaiming his glory. This moment is about doing the hard things required to be faithful. Do not take comfort in misleading promises or false hopes. The time is now.

Community Rallies Around Barbershop Evangelist

Community Rallies Around Barbershop Evangelist

By Mike DuBose —

Friends, family, and his beloved church community are coming together to make sure Jake Sherrell gets his flowers while he yet lives.

Sherrell, 96, runs North Nashville’s Bel-Aire Unisex Salon where he’s brought to Christ hundreds who have sat in his barber chair.

He opened Bel-Aire in 1957 and can still be found there most days, cutting hair and sharing the Gospel, despite his stage 4 cancer diagnosis.

On a recent Wednesday morning, more than a dozen well-wishers crowded into the barbershop to celebrate Sherrell’s impact on the community, sharing stories and singing favorite hymns.

“You know the saying is, ‘give me my flowers while I live,’” said Rosa Sherrell, Jake’s wife of 21 years, calling to mind the hymn by gospel artist James Cleveland. “This is gonna bless him.”

Jake Sherrell, a member of Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church for almost 80 years, is among the winners of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award for 2022. Each year, annual conferences and the Foundation for Evangelism recognize one youth, one clergy and one lay person in each conference.

Pointing to a picture of his church hanging above the shop’s front door, Sherrell said, “If you come in here and want me to cut your hair, we’re going to bring up in conversation somewhere down the line how you feel about joining this church.

“It just got to be a part of my life,” Sherrell said. “I felt it so strong that I could draw people to Christ.”

Sherrell’s daughter, Tonya Bosley, came to work in the barbershop and hair salon in 2001 “with the intention of staying two weeks,” she said.

She jokingly describes her father as a “part-time gangster” who knows how to relate to young people in the working-class neighborhood shared by the barbershop, Gordon Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

“He’s led, protected, and guided so many of our Black men,” she said.

“You come in this place, you’re gonna get some ‘act right,’” she said, speaking of the steady guidance and street-smart wisdom Sherrell has dispensed over the decades. Among those who have benefited from that counsel is Sherrell’s grandson.

“He has been exemplary in my son’s life,” Bosley said. “My son can come to him and talk about anything.”

Gordon member Eloise Abernathy said Sherrell is taking the word of God out to the people.

“People aren’t always going to come to the church,” she said. “He made sure that he lived it, exemplified it.”

Sherrell’s pastor, the Rev. Paula Smith, joined the gathering and led a prayer for him.

“We celebrate that although, Lord, his health may be failing, his mind and his spirit are still on fire for you, dear God. For he has said that as long as there’s breath in his body, he’s going to be praising his God and making a difference for the kingdom. And so, God, we just ask that you will continue to give him strength. Let your joy be his strength, God. We ask that you gird him up on every side,” she prayed.

Smith explained the significance of Sherrell’s ministry in her nomination letter for the Denman award.

“The barbershop in African American culture has been more than just a place to get a haircut and a shave. It has been a refuge for Black men to escape from discrimination and humiliation. It is an intergenerational space where Black men and boys can congregate and connect to talk freely about the challenges and inequalities that are a part of their everyday lives,” she wrote.

“Jake’s barbershop has been that refuge for over 60 years. Located in North Nashville, an area long plagued by systemic racism, environmental injustice, high poverty and high incarceration rates, Jake’s barbershop is a place where everybody is somebody.”

Wayne Anderson praised Sherrell’s influence on his life.

“He raised me in this barbershop. Ever since I was 9 or 10 years old, I’ve been coming around through here. I grew up in the projects, right across the street,” he said. “This man always looked out for me. He kept me on the right path. He got on me when I was doing wrong. And when I was doing right, he was proud of me. I messed up one time and he got on me about it and said that’s not the life to live. He straightened me out. I’ve been straight ever since.”

Sherrell said he came to Christ himself through the influence of his grandfather and by way of the mourner’s bench.

Associated with the early Methodist movement, the mourner’s bench was located near the front of the church and was the place “you would go and sit to feel sorry for your sins, to repent, to have the new birth, or to rededicate yourself to Jesus,” said Mark Shenise of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History in a video.

“My grandaddy was a real strict Christian,” Sherrell said. “He made us get on the mourner’s bench. I sat there because I knew if I got off, he was gonna hit me with that stick.”

He recalled the night his grandfather took him to church and he saw a woman “just praying and praying on a Monday night,” Sherrell said. “And I thought about that. I’m gonna try what she was doing. And Tuesday night I went back and I got on that bench and I started praying.

“Something got ahold of me that night and it ain’t been the same since,” he said. “I was 13. From that day on, God had his hands on me.”

Sherrell has been a member at Gordon since he was 17. He had been attending Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church while staying with an uncle. When he moved in with another uncle in North Nashville, it was too far away to walk.

“Bus fare was a nickel. I didn’t have a nickel to ride back and forth to Bethel, out on South Street,” he said. “My neighbors said there was a Methodist church right up the street. I went to church with them up at Gordon Memorial. I didn’t know the difference then between Methodist and AME. I just knew it was a Methodist church.

“I had a first cousin down on the mourner’s bench. He got up and joined the church. I got up and joined the church, too. I’ve been there ever since,” Sherrell said.

Bill Bowen, church historian at Gordon, said he’s known Sherrell since childhood.

“He’s an ambassador for Christ,” Bowen said. “And there ain’t no shame in it. It’s just what he does. If you come around Jake, he’s gonna talk about Jesus. And if you got anything going on in your life, he’s gonna tell you the answer is Jesus.”

Smith concluded her prayer while supporters gathered around Sherrell, laying hands on him while he was seated in his barber’s chair.

“Thank you, God, for smiling on Jake. And we thank you, God, for smiling on us,” she prayed. “Have your way in this barbershop. Have your way in Jake’s life. Have your way and your will in our lives.”

Mike DuBose is staff photographer for United Methodist News. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Making A New Disciple

Making A New Disciple

By Phillip C. Thrailkill —

It’s a romantic ballad from 1970, but John Denver’s “Follow Me” has a chorus that echoes many of the themes of being a disciple:

“Follow me where I go, what I do, who I know/ Make it part of you to be a part of me/ Follow me up and down/ All the way and all around/ Take my hand and say you’ll follow me.”

My catholic (little c) theology is that I’ve been Christian since my baptism at age nine months on Easter 1954. Trinitarian water on my brow, a flame of the Spirit to light a candle within, a new family to sing me into the reality of “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.”

A baptismal certificate hangs in my study above my ordination credentials. It came first and reminds me that I belong to One who claimed and then reclaimed me at a late adolescent turning point. Grace is developmental.

The Triune God was always part of life, sometimes ignored, but always an object of fascination and occasional fits of faith and repentance. I was an American by nationality, an unreflective son of the South by cultural heritage, and a loyal but sometimes loose-living Methodist during my mid to late teens. It was an inherited faith and the foundation for a soon-to-arrive living version. Someone was after me.

Those were the early days of the Jesus movement, and a honey blonde who was a year older and well into a new walk with Christ once asked me in the middle of a date, “Phil, are you a Christian, a follower of Jesus?”

My answer was, “I guess so. I’m a member of the Methodist Church.”

It did not impress her, “That’s not what I asked.” I’d given an institutional answer to a spiritual question.

She was soon done with me as a prospect, and when I soon made a surrender to Christ late one rainy summer night in an Episcopal church that left its doors open for local prodigals, it was with a bruised heart. Cupid’s arrows are painful in their extraction.

I wept my way into the Kingdom in the middle of a thunder storm, and when I rose from the kneeler, life had a new center. I was eager to be led, and for 50 years I’ve lived into an invitation first given to Peter, “Follow me, and I will teach you how to fish for people” (Luke 5:10b). Following means missions.

It’s a great deal to get a new life that keeps unfolding with fresh opportunities. I wear several hats, but at the center I’m a disciple of the man, an apprentice, a fan and follower, a part of his minority report and looking forward to being there when the new reality (my spin on the kingdom of God) comes in full. 

Sometimes I sneak into St. David’s, pull down the same kneeler, and pray, “Do it again, Lord!” It’s good to have a site of sacred pilgrimage.

A Formative Teacher. Within two months of these events I found myself sitting in a Wake Forest classroom listening to lectures by Dr. Charles Talbert in his “Introduction to the New Testament” class. My head and heart were ravenous for the riches of the faith. Little did I know he was a rising star and would soon be regarded as one of the world’s experts on Luke-Acts.

After that I took all his classes I could cram in. My father, a country doc, taught me to read the human document. Talbert taught me how to read the biblical document, and pastors need to have both skills. A call was not far off.

He taught me to map the text using the insights of ancient rhetoric that were designed for an audience of listeners. Once mapped, it’s much easier to follow the flow of the author’s thought and to extract its original intent and implications for preaching and teaching, worship and witness. Providence was at work.

A Big Project. I’ve spent close to 8,000 hours with Luke in the last two decades. Twice I’ve preached through it in order, covering all 94 thought units (think video clips). In the five years since retirement I’ve spent a thousand hours a year in research and writing, one of the fruits being three teaching manuals for a course I teach in Nigeria, Liberia, and Kenya. My goal is to prepare pastors to preach through Luke in order and to preach through one of the other three gospels every fourth year.

Luke is the “Discipleship Gospel.” Like Matthew he includes birth and resurrection narratives, but then goes on in Acts to demonstrate the grand continuities between Jesus and his followers. What he does in Luke, they do in Acts, with the Holy Spirit providing the linkages and holy energies. He rules them from above as they spread his name and fame.

So when a recent convert asked, “Why do you want me to read Luke?” my answer was, “I want you to know who’s messin’ with you! Reading our longest biography will prepare you for the roller coaster ride. You’ve trusted Jesus in order to follow him and to learn the ways and means of the new reality.”

“Can I really do that?” she asked.

“Yes you can. I’ve been at it a half century now, and every day I feel like a goober. Join the club! There’s always more of him to learn, and along the way you become a new kind of human being.”

“I need that,” she said, and laughed.

Two years ago I came up with a list of essays to strengthen my teaching manuals, and one was to be titled “Discipleship in Luke.” But when I reviewed Luke’s 94 thought units (think paragraphs), I discovered that 51 touched on discipleship.

The best image for the third gospel is a rope of two strands: a rich gold cord representing Jesus intertwined with a deep blue cord representing his followers. A smaller red thread is for his foes and a light blue thread for his fans. Luke’s intent is to answer two basic questions: Who is the trustworthy Jesus? And who are his not-so-trustworthy followers? Think not the three but the Twelve Stooges!

Layer by layer Luke builds up a portrait of Jesus as the God of Israel’s only Son and chief Agent dropped behind enemy lines in a surprising conception. His words and works reveal the mystery of his identity.

In the light of Jesus’ bodily resurrection we read Luke a second time with insight and appreciation for the disciples who became his new reality road show and a mutually corrective memory bank for their three years together. It was the finest education ever offered. The lectures were at the speed of walking and listening. The lab was every day and all day long. Theirs was an immersive formation in Jesus and the new reality of loving God and neighbors with wisdom and power from above.

Luke’s Christology has been well explored, but not his Discipleology (my new term!)

Two Case Studies. Luke’s literary preface to his biography of the founder of a new movement is 1:1-4. All who heard it read would be impressed with its rhetorical sophistication. Style as well as substance mattered to Luke, who in addition to being a physician and missionary was a first class biographer according to the standards of his day.

What interests me most is that Luke was a special kind of academic disciple. Someone has to have the time, interest, support, and rhetorical training to gather the sources, interview the eyewitnesses, then dictate a complex story to a scribe for a first copy. Luke was a traveler, sleuth, archivist, compiler and arranger, theologian and publisher. That he made the canonical four is the church’s “Yes” to his labors. All disciples follow the same Jesus, but some form a brain trust for the preservation and propagation of the records of divine revelation. We need a few eggheads and artists!

A second teaser is the call of Peter (Luke 5:1-11). It’s technically a “Call and Commission Story,” and Luke-Acts contain 25 examples of this genre (a great Bible study). What’s often missed is how prepared Peter was to confess his sins (5:8) and accept Jesus’ call (5:10-11). He and Jesus had a brief history.

The tool Jesus used to prepare Peter for the dislocations of discipleship was a series of miracles where the love and power of God broke in to deliver and heal. The Father willed it; the obedient Son took action; the Holy Spirit provided the powers of holy love to make it happen. Jesus lived and worked in radical dependence.

Peter, the married fisherman, is facing a Triune Reality deeper than he can comprehend. He’s likely in the Capernaum synagogue when Jesus casts a noisy demon out of an afflicted man (4:31-37). In the next scene Jesus enters Peter’s home to heal his fevered mother-in-law with a word of command (4:38-39). That Sabbath evening Peter’s courtyard becomes an emergency room as Dr. Jesus moves from one to another to heal and deliver (4:4-41). The new reality descends on Peter’s town, and none are disappointed. This is what life looks like when God shows up.

Early the next morning Jesus announces his mission to move beyond Capernaum (4:42-44). Only then does Luke narrate the reluctant obedience of Peter leading to the miraculous catch of fish and of Jesus’ invitation to have Peter and his friends join him in the laboratory of the kingdom of God (5:1-11). Miracles may be a catalyst to trust and faith. Discipleship involves both the seen and unseen worlds that overlap and interlock.

The gold and blue cords are woven together. Christology (the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus) is the basis for Discipleology. Luke has 51 such stories. It’s time to follow and learn. Truth is where you find it, and often in unlikely places:

“Follow me where I go, what I do, who I know/ Make it part of you to be a part of me/ Follow me up and down/ All the way and all around/ Take my hand and say you’ll follow me.”

Phillip C. Thrailkill is a retired United Methodist minister teaching in Nigeria, Liberia, and Kenya. His two previous books are Mary: Lessons in Discipleship from Jesus’ Earthly Family (2007 ), and Resurrection: A Pastor’s Reading of the Major New Testament Resurrection Passages (2014). He served for seven years as the Chair of the Theology Commission for The Confessing Movement and for five years chaired the board of The Mission Society for United Methodists.

When Women are Called by God

When Women are Called by God

By Carolyn Moore —

I’m beginning to think it was a sign from God.

Maybe that’s because it was in fact a sign. It was standing in front of The Holy House of Prayer of Jesus Christ, a little building with burglar bars on the windows situated deep in the heart of one of the most impoverished areas of Georgia. The lettered sign held a string of announcements about repenting and where you can find the church on the radio. The last line on the marquee, placed like a proverb across the bottom, read, “God have [sic] never called a woman to preach. Never will.”

That sign was the kind of thing that ought to have downright agitated me. As a woman in ministry, I’m acutely aware that a remarkable amount of prejudice still exists around the issue of female leadership in the church. I don’t hear it in every conversation, of course, but I have had enough experiences to know it is very real.

That’s why that beat-up banner in front of The Holy House of Prayer not only caught my attention the day I saw it, but in some odd way validated my feelings. It exposed my reality in such stark relief. The fact is, people unfairly, maybe even unknowingly, discriminate against women who lead. It is not just my imagination. What people like me experience is real, and that sign exposed the problem royally.

Sadly, it also exposed my own angry heart. That church, with burglar bars on the building, stood in the poorest part of town. Rampant crime. Deep poverty, serious drug issues. But because bitterness had taken root in my spirit from years of experiencing inequity, I’d been too eager to prove a point that day. I took a picture of the sign and neglected to say so much as a prayer over the community.

Shame on me.

Let me back up a bit and tell you a little more of my story. I graduated from seminary and moved with my family to Athens, Georgia, in the late 1990s to serve as an associate pastor in a large downtown church. A historic vaudeville theater stood just across the street from that church, and it seemed like a great place for contemporary worship, so I was charged with starting that service on behalf of the church. Who doesn’t want to lead worship in a cool venue like that? I was smitten by the challenge.

The theater was beautiful. The people were treasures. The experience was miserable. I felt a little like the people who tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together. All the slick marketing and all the creative worship planning and all the sweat-producing sermon prep couldn’t build a congregation.

Even though that first dip into starting something new was a mostly miserable experience, I caught the bug from it. When I was offered a chance to start a church from scratch, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I’d been itching to start another new thing for a while, but the regional church development officer of my denomination told me straight up that it had not been proven that women could plant churches. My hopes might have died there, if not for another denominational leader who found out about my interest. She asked if I’d be willing to plant a new church in Evans, Georgia.

I moved to Evans with my husband and daughter in 2003. We were what you’d call in church-planting circles a “parachute drop,” which means we’d been dropped into a community with no team or resources beyond a starting budget and timeline. We had to be fully self-supporting within eighteen months. No one believes the parachute model is a sane idea anymore, but back then, it was how many new churches got started.

What we have built under the power of the Holy Spirit is a very sweet missional community that serves our little corner of the world well. Because it is who I’m wired to attract, many of the folks who attend Mosaic have fallen through the cracks of more traditional congregations. In fact, many are first-generation followers of Jesus. Some have come to us from prison, jail, or addiction. Half the women in our church (literally half) are single, many of them with multiple dependent children in their care. We are also home to young families struggling to make ends meet and single adults with addiction issues. We have a former felon on staff, and the current chair of our vision team is a recovering addict (and both are doing fabulous jobs as leaders).

To mission-minded ears, our demographics make us sound glamorous, but I need to be transparent here. These weren’t the people I set out to attract. I am as competitive as the next person, and I wanted my church to look like all the other seeker-friendly church plants my colleagues were planting in that season when it was the “thing” to do. What I mean to say is, I wanted my church to be big. I figured if I could do the things they did and I could – then I’d get the results they got. Never mind my gender. In fact, I was doggedly determined not to let my gender interfere with our ministry. I would serve Jesus and let him take care of our reputation. And Jesus, for his part, would give us big crowds with lots of people getting saved every week. That was the plan. Or, at least, that was my plan.

I didn’t understand how an inspiring vision plainly articulated would not yield the same results for me as it did for my male colleagues who were also starting churches. I did not take into account how hard it would be for a female pastor to attract leader-quality adults into our ministry. For that matter, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to attract people period. Nearly twenty years in, our weekly attendance still runs around 200, far less than what I set out to build. Statistically, this is a pretty strong attendance figure for a female church planter, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

In the absence of rapidly growing attendance, Mosaic grew deep in mission. We now worship in a warehouse that hosts both our church and a nonprofit we developed to house our local ministries. Our mission on the church side is to help broken people become whole, so we focus heavily on small-group discipleship, healing prayer, and recovery. Our nonprofit side is dedicated to building lives and breaking cycles. We host a thriving food pantry that serves veterans and low-and no-income adults with disabilities; a full-time, professional therapeutic ministry for children with special needs; and a volunteer-led weekly recovery ministry. GED tutoring and mentoring for low-income women help us to cultivate a culture of empowerment. All of this helps us guard against navel-gazing. Serving is in our DNA.

New piece of the puzzle. I can’t count the number of times in more than two decades of ministry that a newcomer to our church has come to me asking to talk about my place as a woman pastor. Based on what I know about them, I can almost always predict what’s coming. They’ll spend the first few minutes telling me how much they love the church. They’ll compliment my preaching. Then, they get to their point. “I have no problem with women pastors,” they’ll say, “and I think you’re awesome. But my mother/coworker/last pastor/book I read/thing I’ve always believed since childhood has me thinking about it, and I guess I just need to know how it all works for you, you know – with what’s in the Bible and all. Can you explain the part about women pastors to me?”

Nine times out of ten, they don’t actually know what’s in the Bible. They haven’t done any real research on their own. They just know what they’ve heard, and until now, they’ve had no reason to question it. But here we are, and now my job is to help them think through something they desperately want to be true, even if they can’t shake the funny feeling that something is wrong.

I’ve had enough of these conversations to know there is an inner hesitancy to accept the place of women in leadership, especially spiritual leadership. In my conversations with women pastors and leaders around the country, I’ve collected dozens of stories just like mine.

Literally half the Christians in the world – comprised of Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Southern Baptists, and several Reformed movements – do not accept women in church leadership. Or, to spin it differently, almost all Christians have a strong memory of male church leadership while few have a strong memory of female church leadership.

What You Believe Matters. Most folks center the debate about women in church leadership around two New Testament passages written by Paul to the early church:

• “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:34-36).

• “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12).

Far better academics than I have written extensively on these passages, so I won’t spend time here exegeting them, but there are common exegetical choices and decisions interpreters make. These passages must be taken within the context of the overall message of the Bible. They must be read through the lens of Deborah’s story (Judges 4-5) and through the lens of Mary’s charge (John 20:18); through the lens of Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female”) and the stories of Phoebe, Priscilla, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and the great host of women who co-labored in the gospel with Paul (Romans 16). God has not called all women into vocational, pastoral leadership (nor has he called all men into ministry leadership), but he has surely called us all to serve the kingdom in the ways we are gifted. That women were mentioned at all in the Bible is a testament to their dynamic contribution to the early church and gospel story.

The problem is that we begin these conversations about women in spiritual leadership in the wrong place. Rather than starting with Paul’s epistles, we should begin in Genesis 1 and 2, in the opening pages of the story of God, because where we begin makes all the difference. The argument for female leadership within the church begins in the garden of Eden. The core theological question is this: Is the tendency to resist women leaders a fact of God’s original, intended design or a fact of the fall? John Piper, a noted Baptist pastor and theologian, argues for God’s design and intention for men and women and makes it clear that this created design is not just a matter for the home. “We are persuaded that the Bible teaches that only men should be  pastors and elders … it is unbiblical, we believe, and therefore detrimental, for women to assume this role.” Complementarian arguments like this affirm a distinction between men and women and deny the full and equal partnership of men and women in leadership, asserting that from the beginning, women were designed to play the role of “helper” (Genesis 2:18), with the role of leadership reserved for men alone.

An egalitarian view, on the other hand, argues that while the fall is responsible for setting man and woman against each other in an antagonistic relationship, God’s intended purpose at creation was for man and woman to fight the battle of evil together as equal partners.

Egalitarians and others who promote the full inclusion of women in church leadership read Paul’s comments about women through the lens of the creation story – a narrative that didn’t create hierarchies but gave us clues to the fulfillment of God’s created purposes:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.’ So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27 NLT).

The first creation story in Genesis describes the work of man and woman together. The clear hierarchy established in both creation stories of Genesis is the hierarchy of humans over animals, not male over female. Men and women are cut from the same cloth, as it were; their creation story is not a text of hierarchy or value but of unity and interrelatedness.

The created goodness of men and women is not found in the roles they play but in their very existence, and it is the combination of the two sexes – male and female – that reflects the image of God. Moreover, their relationship reflects an ontological equality as well as a functional equality. To say this simply, men and women are both created in the image of God, and both are given the task of stewarding creation.

The fall, when humanity sins in Genesis 3, turns this partnership of equals into an antagonistic relationship. Adam will fight against the ground, even as he works it for his existence. Eve will no longer have a partnership with Adam; he will rule over her. Genesis 3 describes what happens when the Enemy of God and humanity attempts and succeeds at distorting the created design. This narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive, and that makes all the difference. We were meant to fight in partnership together against evil, but in his attempt to throw us off our game, the Enemy of God divided us so he could conquer us, and we’ve been trying to recover that unity and partnership between the sexes ever since.

The first-century church proved that when men and women work together to build the kingdom of God, operating in freedom and in the power and giftedness of the Holy Spirit, the effects of the fall can be reversed, and the glories of the gospel will be exposed. I believe that can happen again.

Carolyn Moore is the founding pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. She has an MDiv and Doctor of Ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary with a focus on church planting. She co-hosts a podcast and writes on the topics of holiness, healing, supernatural ministry, and Wesleyan theology at She is the chairperson of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This essay is an adapted excerpt from her book When Women Lead (Zondervan). Reprinted by permission. Photo: The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore speaking at the New Room Conference in 2021. Photo by Abigail Bobo, courtesy of New Room. 

New Bishops Elected

New Bishops Elected

From United Methodist News

In November, United Methodists in the United States elected 13 new bishops during their gatherings around the denomination’s five U.S. jurisdictional conferences.

Jurisdictional leaders recommended electing 14 new bishops; however, the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference voted to suspend its rules and delay the election of a second bishop until the 2024 jurisdictional conference.

The elections bring the number of active U.S. bishops to 39, but the U.S. currently has 46 episcopal areas. Twenty United Methodist bishops in the U.S. will have retired between 2021 and the end of this year.

Each jurisdiction’s college of bishops and committee on the episcopacy within The United Methodist Church arrange coverage of the remaining episcopal areas, with some assigning bishops to serve more than one episcopal area as 16 bishops have done over the last two years with General Conference postponed by the pandemic. Here are the assignments, by conference.

Southeastern Jurisdiction

• The Rev. Thomas M. Berlin, lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. He has been assigned to Florida.

Berlin was the endorsed candidate of the Virginia Conference. He grew up at Braddock Street United Methodist Church in Winchester, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Tech, he earned his Master of Divinity degree from United Methodist Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and entered ordained ministry in Virginia in 1988. He subsequently was appointed pastor of the Brucetown-Welltown Charge in Frederick County, followed by appointment as pastor of Toms Brook United Methodist Church in Toms Brook.

Since 1997, he has been lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in suburban Washington. The congregation has grown from an average worship attendance of 400 when he began his appointment to 1,200 before the pandemic. Under Berlin’s leadership, the church also launched two satellite campuses: Restoration Reston and Restoration Loudon. The congregation’s combined online and in-person attendance is now around 1,000. The church also has been in partnership with the Sierra Leone Conference since 2000.

• The Rev. Robin Dease, a pastor and former district superintendent in the South Carolina Conference. She has been assigned to North Georgia.

Dease has served as senior pastor of St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, since 2021. She joined the South Carolina Conference in 1992 and was ordained an elder in 2001. She has served as pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Johns Island, John Wesley United Methodist Church in Greenville, and St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church in Hilton Head. She also has served as superintendent of the Hartsville District, and in 2012, was interim chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Claflin.

Her appointment as senior pastor at St. Andrew By-The-Sea made her the first African-American woman to serve as lead pastor of a historically white United Methodist church in South Carolina.

• The Rev. Connie Mitchell Shelton, district superintendent in the Mississippi Conference. She has been assigned to North Carolina.

Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition in her native Mississippi, she later found that Methodist theology resonated in her life. She subsequently joined Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she and her husband, Joey, served as volunteer lay youth directors. Eventually, both she and her husband discerned a call to full-time ordained ministry.

She has a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film and a master’s in public relations, both from the University of Southern Mississippi. She and her husband moved to Durham, North Carolina, to study at Duke Divinity School.

Since 2015, she has been superintendent and missional strategist of the East Jackson District in the Mississippi Conference. Since July, she also has served on a team of four superintendents overseeing the Hattiesburg District.

She previously served as director of connectional ministries and communications for the Mississippi Conference. Before that, she served in appointments at both rural and urban United Methodist churches. She also was executive director of “The United Methodist Hour” television and radio broadcast, which reached across the Southeastern United States.

North Central Jurisdiction

• The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional ministries officer for the Connectional Table. She has been assigned to Iowa.

Since 2018, Bigham-Tsai has served as the chief connectional ministries officer for the Connectional Table, which discerns and articulates the vision of The United Methodist Church and helps determine how finances are used for worldwide connectional mission. She has been a member of the Connectional Table since 2012.

She has been actively involved as a delegate from the Michigan Conference at General Conference and North Central Jurisdictional Conference since 2012. She was co-chair of the 2022 delegation as a clergy delegate. She also serves as secretary of the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy.

As superintendent of the Lansing District of the Michigan Conference for five years, from 2013 to 2018. Ordained as a United Methodist elder in 2009, Bigham-Tsai served congregations in Portage and East Lansing, Michigan.

• The Rev. Lanette Plambeck, assistant to the bishop and director of clergy and leadership excellence in the Iowa Conference. She has been assigned to Dakotas-Minnesota.

Ordained an elder in the Iowa Conference in 2005, Plambeck earned a degree from Morningside University in religious studies and political science. After serving as an intelligence analyst in the Army, she worked as an executive and therapist for person-centered agencies. In 2001 she completed her Master of Divinity degree with an emphasis on evangelism at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, then received a Doctor of Ministry in church leadership excellence in 2013 from Wesley Theological Seminary.

Before being on staff at the Iowa Conference, Plambeck was the lead pastor for Broadway United Methodist Church in Council Bluffs, First United Methodist in Atlantic, Manning United Methodist Church in Manning and Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Granger, all in Iowa. She also served as the chaplain at Morningside University.

• The Rev. Dan Schwerin, assistant to the bishop for the Wisconsin Conference. He has been assigned to Northern Illinois.

Schwerin has enjoyed many contexts for pastoral ministry, including urban and rural churches; a new church plant; and a multi-staff downtown setting that became a Reconciling Congregation. He launched non-profits to benefit persons with disabilities, children dealing with grief, persons wanting to help battle generational poverty, and children who desired instruments and music lessons.

In the Wisconsin Conference, he served as the superintendent of two districts. Bishop Jung selected Schwerin to lead a collaborative effort with conference partners to increase racial justice and radical inclusion.

He was elected in 2019 as a delegate to General Conference and the North Central Jurisdiction. He has served on the General Conference Task Force on Funding Patterns in The United Methodist Church and the North Central Jurisdiction’s Episcopacy Committee.

Northeastern Jurisdiction

• The Rev. Héctor A. Burgos-Núñez, the superintendent of the Central District in the Greater New Jersey Conference. He has been assigned to Upper New York.

With his election, he became the first Hispanic/Latino bishop elected in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. Burgos was the endorsed candidate of MARCHA, the Hispanic/Latino caucus of The United Methodist Church.

Burgos has served as superintendent of the Central District since 2019. Prior to that, he served as director of connectional ministries from 2015 to 2019.

He also served as interim executive director, NextGen Ministries, in the Greater New Jersey Conference; director of worship and urban ministries in Greater New Jersey; lead pastor at Oasis United Methodist Church in Pleasantville, New Jersey, from 2009 to 2014, and as associate pastor, First United Methodist Church in Tuckerton and assistant pastor at West Creek United Methodist Church, both in New Jersey.

Western Jurisdiction

• The Rev. Carlo A. Rapanut, assistant to the bishop in the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area. He has been assigned to Desert Southwest.

Rapanut is the first Filipino American bishop in The United Methodist Church, and the first U.S. bishop who was ordained in a central conference – a United Methodist region outside the U.S. He is an elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference.

Since 2014 until May this year, he served as co-dean of the Greater Northwest Area bishop’s cabinet and conference superintendent of the Alaska United Methodist Conference. He also was the Alaska Conference’s director of connectional ministries from 2014 until becoming assistant to the bishop. He previously served as pastor of United Methodist Church of Chugiak in Chugiak, Alaska.

Rapanut grew up in Baguio City, Philippines. Before moving to the U.S., he was senior pastor of Baguio City First United Methodist Church and later assistant to now-retired Bishop Benjamin A. Justo.

• The Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth, director of innovation and communication in the California-Pacific Conference. He has been assigned to Greater Northwest.

Bridgeforth becomes the first openly gay African-American man to be elected a bishop in The United Methodist Church.

An elder in the California-Pacific Conference, he has directed its office of innovation and communications since 2021. He previously has served as lead pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, a historically Black congregation in Los Angeles, and before that as lead pastor of Santa Ana United Methodist Church, a multi-ethnic congregation. During that time, he was also director of academic programs and outreach for the Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies at the University of La Verne.

He also served as a district superintendent in the California-Pacific Conference from 2008 to 2015 and cabinet dean from 2011 to 2015.

Bridgeforth has written books on leadership and prayer. In 2021, he published his memoir, Alabama Grandson: A Black, Gay Minister’s Passage Out of Hiding. A native of Decatur, Alabama, Bridgeforth is a U.S. Air Force veteran.

• The Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, senior pastor of Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. She has been assigned to California-Pacific.

Escobedo-Frank will be the Western jurisdiction’s third Hispanic bishop. She is an elder in the Desert Southwest Conference and has served appointments as pastor to churches ranging from the small and rural to the big and urban. For three years, she also was an associate pastor at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America megachurch in Glendale, Arizona.

She also has experience as a district superintendent based in Tucson and dean of the bishop’s cabinet. She served twice as Hispanic Ministries chair in the Desert Southwest Conference.

She also is a prolific writer, publishing seven books about church life and church seasons with Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House.

South Central Jurisdiction

• The Rev. Delores “Dee” Williamston, director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop of the Great Plains Conference. She has been assigned to Louisiana.

Williamston is the first Black female bishop for the South Central Jurisdiction. She has been assistant to the bishop and director of clergy excellence at the Great Plains Conference since 2021. Prior to that, she spent seven years as a district superintendent in the Great Plains.

She has a degree in management and Christian ethics from Manhattan Christian College; a Master of Divinity degree from Saint Paul School of Theology, with a specialization in evangelism and Black church studies; and is scheduled to receive a Doctor of Ministry degree in transformational leadership in improvisational ministry from Phillips Theological Seminary in May 2023.

Williamston is a 22-year veteran of the Kansas Army National Guard, rising to sergeant first class, and has also worked for the U.S. Property and Fiscal Office, State of Kansas food stamp department, American Federation for Television and Radio Artists, and a New York law firm.

• The Rev. David Wilson, assistant to the bishop of the Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. He has been assigned to Great Plains.

Wilson became the denomination’s first Native American bishop.

Wilson has been the assistant to the bishop for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference since 2021, following 19 years as a conference superintendent. He was lead coordinator for the North Oklahoma City Native American Ministry for eight years, following eight years as a pastor of a church in Norman, Oklahoma. He served seven years as director of promotions/interpretations for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, after being pastor of a church in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and campus minister for the Native American Campus Ministry program at Northeastern State University.

He received an undergraduate degree in mass communications from Oklahoma City University, a Master of Divinity degree from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

• The Rev. Laura Merrill, Central District superintendent for the Rio Texas Conference. She has been assigned to Arkansas.

Prior to her current position, she was assistant to the bishop and director of clergy excellence for Rio Texas. A former church secretary, she served as assistant to the dean and director of communications for Candler School of Theology at Emory University before becoming associate pastor at a church in Victoria, then pastor of churches in Los Fresnos and Wimberley.

Merrill also served as a missionary in Chile for the Desert Southwest Conference.

She received a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Southwestern University in 1984, and a master’s in divinity from Candler in 1995.

A third-generation United Methodist pastor, she has two children.

This story was adapted from the UM News reporting. Photo: The Rev. Tom Berlin speaks to delegates at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference (photo by Ben Smith for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference).