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Change: It's constant

A United Methodist experiences change

Soon after John Wesley began his ministry, he realized he could not grow a movement alone. Even with the help of other clergymen, the work was too great and the land too vast. God raised up an army of lay leaders and teachers – women as well as men – to spread the message and lead schools and other ministries serving the poor.


The role of laity in leadership is only one of many areas in which change has characterized United Methodism. A few of the others are mission, the role of women and being a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural church.

Lay Leadership

"Wesley placed great importance on the work of the laity, both men and women," said the Rev. Fred Day, general secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. "Laity were the backbone to the success of the British Methodist movement right from the start. There were very few university-trained preachers, so lay ministers would become important to Methodism on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Wesley saw his movement as a renewal movement for laity and managed by laity," Day continued.

The emphasis on lay ministry changed in 1784 when Methodists became a church in the United States. "After the Christmas Conference, leadership in the church was reserved for the clergy," Day said.

During the 19th century, the church could try both laity and clergy for advocating for lay representation, said the Rev. Diane Lobody, professor of church history at Methodist Theological School of Ohio. Today laity have equal voice and vote with clergy in the church's legislative and decision-making bodies – General, central, jurisdictional and annual conferences.

"Once the early American church became established with clergy leading the churches and work, the laity became sedentary," said Jodi Cataldo, director for Laity in Leadership at Discipleship Ministries. "It stayed mostly that way until the 1950s when social ministries became widespread."

Cataldo sees tremendous lay leadership in the denomination, especially in areas where churches typically are small and far apart.

She also sees a change in the attitude of pastors toward growing leadership by laity.

"I believe clergy and pastors do not see certified lay ministers as threats," she said, "but see them as vital partners in ministry. The pastors recognize they cannot do everything themselves."

The denomination as a whole seems to agree. The 2016 General Conference adopted significant legislation identifying five categories of lay ministry for which people can be called, trained and credentialed.

"I think our work to empower laity to be servants recaptures a lot of our Wesleyan history," Cataldo said. "I absolutely think John Wesley would be a fan."


As the understanding of the church as global has grown, the approaches to mission work and deployment of missionaries have changed.

Since 1890, said Thomas Kemper, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), mission activity by the predecessors of The United Methodist Church almost always meant missionaries from the United States went to other countries to preach the gospel and minister to those in need.

"Now, our slogan has become 'from anywhere to anywhere,'" he said. "Almost half our United Methodist missionaries are not from the United States. We have missionaries from the Ivory Coast going to the Central African Republic, from Brazil to Mozambique, from Germany to Central Asia.

"Global Ministries is committed to connecting the church in mission," he said. The agency sends missionaries, including young adults, collaborates and engages with volunteers, evangelizes and plants churches, addresses poverty and global health, and responds to natural and civil disasters.

The staff at the GBGM headquarters in Atlanta reflects the "from anywhere to anywhere" approach.

"Our staff in Atlanta come from more than 30 countries and speak more than 30 languages," said Kemper, who is from Germany and was a missionary in Brazil. "We believe that is very important."


In 1766, Barbara Heck helped establish a Methodist congregation in New York City, and in 1770, Mary Evans Thorne became a class leader. However, it took until 1889 for the Rev. Ella Niswonger to be the first woman ordained in the United Brethren in Christ (UB). 1904 saw the first laywoman delegates to the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) General Conference – some 20 to 30 years after the first women's missionary societies were organized. In 1956, women won full clergy rights in the MEC – and full clergy rights for women were part of the agreements leading to the union in 1968 creating The United Methodist Church. From 1988 until 2015, the number of women in clergy positions grew from almost 16 percent to more than 30 percent.

Today's United Methodist Church is appointing and electing more women to positions of influence.

"Having women share in leadership of the church is very important," said Dawn Wiggins Hare, top executive for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. "The women who are leading now – both clergy and non-clergy – are changing the norm. From a reality standpoint, women bishops and leaders are bringing a different voice to the table. That is huge in terms of messaging, education and nurturing."

United Methodists elected their first woman bishop Marjorie Swank Matthews in 1980, and since then have elected 33, including two in the central conferences and seven in the United States in 2016. Currently 18 female bishops are active, 14 are retired and two are deceased.

Six of the top executives of the 13 United Methodist general agencies are women as is the chief officer of the Connectional Table.

Hare said progress is making the church more inclusive, but she believes it will take a change in what people see as the norm before there is gender equality.

"I think for many people, they see 'maleness' as the norm in ministry," she said. She doesn't believe those who see "the church culture that way are in any way misogynistic. I think it's just a matter of what seems normal to them."

Race Relations
Progress toward inclusiveness and leadership has been slow but steady for people of color in The United Methodist Church and its predecessors. In recent decades, United Methodists both celebrated "firsts" and formally repented for mistreatment.

General Conference 2000 included "acts of repentance," acknowledging the racism that caused some blacks to leave the denomination in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 2004, General Conference honored and celebrated those African-Americans who remained as members of the MEC.

General Conference 2012 engaged in an "Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples." The 2016 session learned about and formally lamented The Sand Creek Massacre in which Col. John Chivington, a MEC pastor who had joined the Union Army, led a surprise attack on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment. The church never took action against Chivington.

African-Americans became a part of Methodism in 1758 when John Wesley baptized two slaves, breaking the color barrier for Methodist societies. By 1787, black congregations had formed in the United States. The 1800 MEC General Conference urged the abolition of slavery. Ordination as elders and full clergy rights came in 1864 in the MEC North.

Although some African-Americans had left the MEC earlier over mistreatment, contention over slavery finally led in 1844 to a split into two MECs, one North, one South.

In 1858, Bishop Francis Burns was the first African-American elected bishop. He served in Liberia. In 1920, Bishops Robert E. Jones and Matthew W. Clair were the first African-Americans elected who served in the United States.

The separation lasted until 1939, when the MEC North, MEC South and the Methodist Protestant Church merged to form The Methodist Church (USA). However, the merger agreement included segregation of local African-American churches into their own annual conferences in the Central Jurisdiction.

"For Methodist blacks, the creation of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction was a humiliating disappointment," the late W. Astor Kirk told the 2008 General Conference. He was a member of the Committee of Five, a group mandated by the Central Jurisdiction to end racial segregation within the denomination.

However, Kirk said, "Many resourceful men and women used the organization as an instrument for empowering Methodist blacks."

In 1968, the union creating The United Methodist Church included the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction.

In spite of missteps, raising and affirming leadership from within different racial, ethnic and cultural groups has been a consistent part of the United Methodist story. Turtle Fields was ordained in 1833, the first Native American clergy. No Native American has yet been elected bishop. The ME South ordained Alejo Hernandez as the first Mexican deacon in 1871 and as elder in 1873. He organized the first Methodist church in Mexico City. Bishop Wilbur Choy was elected in 1972 as the denomination's first Asian-American bishop. Elected in 1984, Elias Galvan became the church's first Hispanic bishop.  The first Korean-descent bishop, Hae-Jong Kim, was elected in 1992.

Polly House is a freelance editor and writer now serving as editorial assistant for Interpreter.

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