Maxie Dunnam: Finding His Pulpit in Life —
Known all over the globe, Maxie Dunnam may be his generation’s most recognizable Methodist. Of course, popularity contests are for politicians and marketing firms. Still, it is worth noting that we don’t know of a more beloved Methodist clergyman.
His first article in Good News appeared in 1984. It was ambitiously and positively titled: “You Can Grow In Your Walk With God.” He led with a wise admission: “For anyone to write on this subject is presumptuous at best. So, I accepted the assignment with some reservation, but keeping in mind the original ‘working title’ for this article: ‘Developing a Deeper Walk with God.’”
Dr. Dunnam went on to clarify: “Developing is the right word, and humility is the saving stance, when we talk about our relationship with the Lord. Yet, I’m convinced that no need is greater for Christians than a commitment to pursuing a ‘deeper walk with God.’”
In many ways, this has been the theme of his life’s ministry. In a world with chaotic church skirmishes, this is something that people of faith can agree upon.
“Maxie is known and loved by Methodists around the world probably more than any living United Methodist leader,” observed the Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger II, my former colleague at Good News. “Here is a pastor who has been effective in the local church, bold in addressing issues facing the nation, a visionary leader at the Upper Room, a prolific author, a seminary president, a voice for renewal – the Houston and Memphis Declarations, and a co-founder of the Confessing Movement – and a mentor to more pastors than we might imagine.”
The professional journey on his resume tells you a lot – but not nearly as much as locking eyes with him as he grasps the back of your arm to draw you in closer to hear about what is going on in your life.
Maxie married Jerry Lynn Morris in 1957 after he had graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory. She was a charter member of his first church plant, Aldersgate Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and went on to join him in planting two others, Trinity Methodist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, and St. Andrews Methodist Church in San Clemente, California.
I’ve always thought of her as the artistic one – the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. A famous politician from Texas once said that Rogers did everything Astaire did: “She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Their daughter, Dr. Kim Reisman, described her mom as a “partner in ministry.” After all, it has always taken two to tango. “Jerry worked in the early days of the Fair Housing movement and the Laubach Way to English. While in Memphis, she was instrumental in the founding of the chapter of Habitat for Humanity and in organizing a local jail ministry for Shelby County,” Kim told me. “During their time at Asbury, she used her gifts in art and hospitality to provide ministries with students, including an annual Holy Week mime interpretation of the passion of Christ.”
The Dunnams have endeavored to answer “yes” to the divine calls in their walk together with the Almighty. It has led them on a remarkable path.
That resume is colorful and significant. After serving in the local church, he became the World Editor of the Upper Room devotional with a circulation of four million and was instrumental in founding the church’s Walk to Emmaus program and launching the Academy for Spiritual Formation. He became a leader in the World Methodist Council, served as senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, and was elected President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. In 2004, Maxie and Jerry returned to Memphis where he serves today on the staff as minister-at-large at Christ Church.
Maxie believes his most significant contribution to the Christian cause was The Workbook of Living Prayer (The Upper Room). That may prove to be a memorable legacy. “Prayer is one of the ways we link ourselves with God, we put ourselves in the channel of God’s moving power, and we participate with God in ministry to all persons,” he wrote. “I am convinced that this is one of the most glorious privileges given to Christians.”
The prayer workbook was first published in 1974 – nearly five decades ago – and is, remarkably, still in print. Available in six languages, the publisher estimates that more than one million copies have been printed.
It is always a pleasure to be in the company of the Dunnams. I sat down with my old friend recently to go over some of the highlights of his life’s story. This is part one of our conversation. Part two will appear in the next issue of Good News. I’m grateful for his time and our friendship.
– Steve Beard
You were born in Mississippi during the crest of the Great Depression. Aside growing up without electricity or indoor plumbing, what do you recall about your childhood?
I grew up in rather extreme poverty in rural Mississippi. We lived way out in the country and were limited in all sorts of ways – educationally and culturally. We had expressions of Christianity all around us, represented primarily in small Baptist churches. We had a minister that came to our area once or twice a month and held evangelistic services. They called them holiness preachers – primarily holiness in terms of morality and enthusiasm. These preachers would preach on the front porches of homes or in a barn or outdoors.
Hellfire and brimstone preachers?
Always hellfire and brimstone. We lived way out in the country and we just couldn’t go to church often – but we went whenever we could.
These services were held in people’s homes?
Well, there were a lot of the traveling preachers. Lots of little Baptist churches. I can’t remember any other kind of churches. We moved closer to town when I was in my early teens. There was about 800 people.
About 150 yards up the road from where we lived was East Side Baptist Church. My mother was a professing Christian. My father was not – although he may have been more Christian than the rest of us. We went to that church. They would have services with Brother Wiley Grissom.
Let’s talk about him. In your book, God Outwitted Me, you write: “Memory of him kept me aware of the fact that calling and anointing are as important (ultimately, maybe more important) as education.”
He was a fifth-grade educated Baptist preacher. I seem to have experienced him in a different way than I had all the other preachers I had heard. There was a tenderness. The invitation was never a rigid hellfire and damnation. It was more, “Come on, join the people of God.” And that part of it really attracted me.
Two things were going on in my life. One, I had heard enough of the gospel – in a lot of different ways – to know that I really needed to reckon with it. But the other thing that was just as strong was feeling that I had to get out of my circumstances – culturally, educationally, economically.
I have repented of a lot of the feelings I’ve had about my circumstances because my mother and father were really loving and outstanding parents. My father was a very wise man – ponderous and reflective. My mother was very emotional. I think I may have gotten more of my mother than I did of my father in that emotional bit.
Brother Grissom’s preaching made a difference in your life.
One Sunday morning, it came to a head. I said, This is it. I’m going to make a commitment to Christ.
How old were you?
I was 14. I walked the aisle and made that decision. My father didn’t walk down with me, but he was there. Sometime during the next three weeks he made a decision. I’m sure he had really made it earlier but he felt he had to make that formal.
He and I were baptized together by immersion in a running creek. I was probably more serious as a teenager than I should have been, but I tried to live that out. We were about a mile and a half from the little town of Richton [in southern Mississippi] and we had absolutely nothing for young people in our little Baptist church and I just wanted to be with young people.
How did you get involved with Methodism?
I had heard of the dynamic youth group at the Methodist church in the same town. I had never been to a Methodist church, and I didn’t know anything about Methodism. I started going to that youth group, and the minister was very dynamic and educated. He took tremendous interest in the youth group and really paid attention to me. The youth group had a short term retreat in a rural area on the banks of a big lake. I vividly remember he rowed out not very far from the shore and stood in the boat and preached to us.
I formalized my commitment to Christ and decided then that I was probably going to have to do what the preacher was doing. I went off to my first year of college, but I was poor and didn’t have the kind of clothes everybody else did. I was wrestling. I knew God was calling me to preach, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I knew I was going to get an education and get out of what I felt was the trap of poverty. I wrestled with that intensely while I was in my first year of college.
Sounds like a difficult time to struggle with the call to preach.
I ended up leaving college and moved in with my married brother in Mobile, Alabama. I got a job selling women’s shoes. My brother was newly married and I knew I’d have a lot of time alone. He was generous. I couldn’t pay any rent.
During that time – it didn’t last but about six weeks – I said to myself, I’m gonna do what God wants me to do and I believe God wants me to preach. I believed I had to share this with someone and I said it to that young Methodist preacher. He smiled and said, “I have known it a long time.”
I became a Methodist and he began to shepherd me. I attended Mississippi Southern College [in Hattiesburg] in the early 1950s. We had an outstanding Wesley Foundation director. He took us to the National Student Movement conference at the University of Kansas. The president of the student movement was Jameson Jones, the father of Bishop Scott Jones. He gave an address to that group and I was tremendously inspired.
In reflection on my whole story, that director of student ministries at Mississippi Southern really was a liberal theologically and socially and that’s one of the places I got my social commitments.
I made it through college, but my passion always has been to preach. My mentor was a marvelous young Methodist preacher named David McKeithen.
This is a little bit neurotic on my part but this whole business of feeling that I had been cheated economically, socially, educationally, culturally was not a healthy thing with me. I didn’t want to do anything but preach.
What did your mom and dad think about this trajectory in your life?
They were very happy. My Mama said, “I hope you’ll be as good a preacher as your great grandfather was.” He was a Free Will Baptist.
My father didn’t say much because he was not a churchman. I didn’t know his daddy, but everybody seemed to have loved his daddy. He was poor and uneducated but somehow ended up being a Free Will Baptist preacher, rather than a what they call a Missionary Baptist. I remember the first time my father visited me at the seminary. I was preaching in chapel that day, and the students gathered around him and one of them said, “Well, what did you think of that sermon?” My daddy said, “Maybe a B.” [laughter]
That was when you began preaching?
My mentor started sending me to a little group of people that were attached to his church. He was the pastor of the church in town, but there was a little church further out and he would send me there to preach. That’s the way I got started. Over a six month period, I told him I wanted a church. He talked to the district superintendent. My commitment to preaching was so passionate.
The district Superintendent in Atlanta – Nat Long was his name – wanted to plant a church. He felt that if he could get two students from Candler School of Theology in Atlanta to do that, they could get it done – at least get it started. I became one of those students. Elton Smith and I went out into southeast Atlanta, near the federal prison. We organized that church. My colleague felt that he didn’t want to stay with it, and so it was my church after the first year. We planted a good church. That’s where I met Jerry. Her whole family became part of it.
When did you and Jerry get married?
I was married my last year in seminary, and she knew that we would go back to Mississippi. I didn’t know there was anything else to do. You just went back to your home conference and that’s where you served the rest of your life.
After graduation, you were assigned to Gulfport, Mississippi?
Our church in Gulfport really began to grow and get attention. Tom Carruth had been the minister at the First Methodist Church in Biloxi, but he was teaching prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I think Asbury was the first seminary ever to have a full time professor teaching prayer. We had him at the church to do a prayer retreat. Carruth is really the one that recommended that Asbury give me an honorary degree.
Bishop Gerald Kennedy of California had heard about what we young preachers were doing in Mississippi. Some of us went to hear him preach in New Orleans.
What was he doing in New Orleans?
He preached all over the nation. And whenever he was anywhere nearby, I would drive to hear him preach. He said, “If you all want to come to California, we’ll find a place for you.”
While you were pastoring in Mississippi in the early 1960s, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson. The civil rights leader had been helping in James Meredith’s efforts to enroll in the University of Mississippi.
You were one of 28 Methodist ministers in the Mississippi Annual Conference who gathered to present a statement, “Born of Conviction,” to the church in Mississippi.
The civil rights movement was raging in higher education and the first black student, James Meredith, was admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Five of us young ministers decided we had to do something – at least say something publicly to the whole church. When I say the “whole church” I mean the Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Church. We thought it may be good if some of us young preachers voiced our opinions because we were the future of the church. Five of us got together over three days. We wrote this “Born of Conviction” statement. If you read that statement, it really is not a strong statement – but it was clear.
In the context of all that was going on …
Oh, all hell broke loose. Yeah. We issued it to the church – to the Mississippi Annual Conference – through The Methodist Advocate.
What was the reaction?
Oh, Lord. Mercy.
Dr. Joseph T. Reiff, a professor at Emory & Henry College in Virginia has written a book about it called Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford). The issue that we felt we had to address in the statement was, of course, the race issue. But we were being accused of being communist. The three areas of focus were race, freedom of the pulpit, and public education. Looking back on it, it was not really as prophetic as people have credited it being.
By the standards of the day, however, this was a shot across the bow. In God Outwitted Me, you wrote, “Within eighteen months of the signing of the document, eighteen of the twenty-eight signers had left Mississippi, two left later, and only eight continued their total ministry vocation in the state.”
In 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Medgar Evers’ death, the Mississippi Annual Conference presented The Emma Elzy Award, an award celebrating those who had contributed to the improvement of race relations in Mississippi, to “the 28 ministers.” Eight of the twenty-eight signers who were still living were present. You and your colleague, the Rev. Keith Tonkel, accepted the award for the 28. In your remarks, you said, “Fifty years ago some young men, now old men, signed a statement, and now this Annual Conference is saying, ‘We appreciate that.’ God outwits us.”
How do you view your statement today?
Reiff believes the reason that it was so prophetic was that it was the church speaking to the church – but also it was a small group of Methodists speaking to their denomination. He compared it to “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and the response that the pastors made to that. Almost every person that signed the statement – 28 signing it – ended up leaving. Many of us went to California.
These were days of great turmoil.
This was a sign of how dramatic it was: Dow Kirkpatrick – the most liberal pastor in Georgia back then – left to be the pastor at First Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. Back then, it was one of the most liberal churches in Methodism. Dow invited me to be his associate minister. Instead, I chose to plant a church in Southern California.
You felt you had to leave because of threats?
We had threats. We didn’t have crosses burned on our lawn, but Jerry got telephone calls.
My church got angry with me and held special meetings. It was a new congregation. They loved me as the only pastor they ever knew. We were flavored with people from all over the nation because we were in Gulfport – there was a big air base nearby and a big veterans hospital facility and a retirement home. We had people in the congregation from all over the United States. That made it less against me.
My closest friend in the town – in terms of ministers – was the Rev. Henry Clay, Jr. He was black, and he became a leader after all this in the Mississippi Conference. I can’t believe this now, but we never had him in our home and he never had us in his home. He told me later that they didn’t have the sit-in people that were traveling on buses come to our church because they knew where I stood and they didn’t want that threatened. But we never visited in his home until he moved to California. That’s the ugliness beneath the surface.
Bishop Gerald Kennedy called you and invited you to California. Kennedy was a fascinating maverick. He was despised by fundamentalists of his era, but evangelicals within Methodism considered him an ally. Interestingly enough, he wrote an article for the first issue of Good News magazine, became the chair to the Board of Evangelism, and led the crusade committee of the 25-day Billy Graham preaching mission in 1963 when it was held in Los Angeles.
The district superintendent that finally extended the invitation to me was Andy Miller’s father [Andy Miller is the Director of Publishing for Seedbed]. Kennedy was my hero. He was such a great preacher and he was evangelical and orthodox, but he was considered liberal. I think he made it out there because he filled a unique gap culturally.
Let’s talk about Brother E. Stanley Jones. In an earlier era, Jones was a remarkably well-known missionary to India. In the 1930s, Time magazine referred to him as “the world’s greatest Christian missionary.” He is well known for his friendship with Gandhi, his creation of the Christian Ashram Movement, and inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How did you get to know him?
In the midst of the Mississippi crisis, one of the writers of that statement and I went to an Ashram in Florida being led by Stanley Jones. We were with Stanley for a week. Dr. Tom Carruth really loved me and saw things in me that I didn’t see. He’s the one that got me involved with Stanley Jones.
This would have been in the mid 1960s?
Yes, early 1960s. We left Mississippi in 1964. I had been reading Stanley Jones along with a group of people from my church in Gulfport. His little book In Christ really shaped my theology. That’s the crux of my theology. [Editor’s note: The book is a study of the 172 times the phrase “in Christ” or its equivalent is found in the New Testament]. I was with Stanley Jones as much as I could be that week. He was gracious. Tom Carruth thought I needed to spend time with Stanley and tried to make every opportunity he could for me to be with him. Tom invited me to go with him and Stanley Jones to lead ashrams in Europe, and I was to speak to the youth.
That was before the Berlin Wall came down, and we were in Sweden and Germany. I never had a lot of private time with Stanley. That was my fault. I just felt that he didn’t need to be spending his time with me. I regret that now.
You’ve written dozens of books. How did this begin?
I was reminded of Stanley last week when I pulled out the first book I ever wrote. It was a collection of columns I wrote for the church page in the Gulfport newspaper every Saturday. I named it “Channels of Challenge.”
Two women in that church – this is important to my history – mentored me in prayer. One was Nettie Beeson. She was married to one of the Beeson brothers that later gave substantial money to Asbury Theological Seminary. Nettie was in her 80s. The other was Claire May Sales. She was a retired missionary but had taught English and literature all over in little church schools.
Claire May showed up at my office one day with a bundle of these columns that I had written for the newspaper and she said, “You’ve got to publish these as a book.” I didn’t know anything about anything like that. She said, “I think they’re worth publishing and I think you can get them published and I’ll help you organize them.” And she did. Abingdon published it. That book is recommended by Stanley Jones on the back cover.
Wow, he gave you a blurb.
[Laughter] He gave me a blurb. Yeah, pretty great.
No matter what someone’s religion, prayer seems befuddling because you’re basically – to the naked eye – speaking to yourself in hopes that someone invisible is visible in a different realm. Where have you come down on attempting to explain what it is that we’re doing in prayer?
Communion is one word – and extend that to communication. I believe that God is personal, though spirit. God is personal, and persons need to communicate personally. We pray as though he is flesh, or he is our Father. We speak to him in that fashion. In my own pilgrimage, I had difficulty praying. That’s the reason I had to be mentored in prayer.
It’s okay for people to struggle with this?
It would be surprising if they didn’t. I don’t believe any person really ever feels that they have mastered the art of prayer. We look at some people like Frank Laubach, Tom Carruth, and Stanley Jones and believe they know. On second thought, I don’t think Stanley Jones would be on that list.
I’m somewhat embarrassed when people think I know how to pray because I’ve written about it. I pray – but I wish I knew how to pray more effectively.
There are times when Christ is vivid to me. But there are times when I keep on talking to him as though he’s left the room. There is a sense in which I believe that we can’t base our discipline of prayer on what we feel. The Father has told us that he loves us and he wants to be related to us. We just keep on accepting that, even though we may not feel it – and we keep on talking to him and that’s what prayer is. It’s just talking with God.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. In the next issue, we will publish the second half of this interview with Maxie Dunnam and touch upon his work with the Upper Room, some of his heroes, and his hopes for the Global Methodist Church.