A very inclusive and very small church

CoverPhoenixThe Rev. Drew Phoenix of Baltimore is back in the news, as the United Methodist Church tiptoes back into the minefield of human sexuality.

A recent Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke deals with some of the theological issues involved in this fight over the status of a transgendered pastor, quoting generic, anonymous doctrines on the right that are clashing with scores of living human beings on the left. It’s a strange balance that sounds something like this:

Conservative Christians tend to treat transgenderism as an extreme form of homosexuality. It’s a disorder to be overcome, a cross to be borne. Christians and Jews have traditionally derived fixed notions of gender from the Hebrew Bible, when God creates Adam and Eve. To mess with that, some argue, is to mess with God’s plan for creation.

Other conservatives point to Deuteronomy, which says, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

“There’s the issue of what’s God’s intention for us,” said the Rev. David Simpson, a United Methodist pastor from the Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City, who challenged Phoenix’s reappointment. “Is that something that we get to choose?”

On the other hand, some medical professionals and transgendered people say gender identity and sexual orientation are separate things.

“It’s not about whom I love,” Phoenix said. “It’s about who I am.”

This is the issue that makes headlines and that is to be expected. However, I find myself curious about another issue — the status of St. John’s United Methodist Church itself. Here is the key description of this unique little congregation:

The 40-odd members of St. John’s, who say they pride themselves in being the most accepting and inclusive Methodist church in Baltimore, said their minister’s sex change was no big deal. They had some questions, which Phoenix answered in individual meetings, but no large theological hang-ups.

“It was like, ‘OK, great, congratulations. You’re living as God intended now, how wonderful,’” said Kara Ker, 33, a social worker and lifelong Methodist. “Every now and then people struggle with the pronouns, that’s the biggest challenge.”

phoenix23 01And later we have this description:

The congregation at St. John’s say they would be devastated if they lost Phoenix, whom they describe as the beating heart at the center of their growing church. When Phoenix started five years ago, eight people showed up for Sunday worship; now 40 do. But the pastor said he’s prepared for whatever happens.

As Phoenix began to preach on a recent Sunday, beneath the huge cross and beside the posters proclaiming “This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Church,” he told the Gospel story about Jesus and the 10 lepers.

After Jesus heals the lepers, he tells them to visit the priests and get certified for temple life. One, a Samaritan, realizes he’s been healed and turns back to thank Jesus.

“The Samaritan realizes he’s already recovered what most matters,” Phoenix told his church, “not certification, but his own healing.”

This raises several questions for me.

Baltimore is a very mainline and Catholic town, known as a center for progressives and social activism when it comes to religion. I mean, I live in Baltimore and, when it comes to religion, this is not Colorado Springs or Dallas, folks.

So why does the most “accepting and inclusive” congregation in a mainline, liberal town have only 40 members? Who is being accepted and who is choosing not to attend? The story mentions Phoenix’s skill at youth ministy. But how many young people and children are there in a congregation with 40 members, especially in light of the aging demographics of mainline churches in this region?

Here’s another question to explore. It is a rule of thumb that it takes somewhere between 80 and 120 serious, active members to donate enough money to pay the salary and the benefits of a full-time pastor in a mainline church. How is this congregation managing to pay the bills and the upkeep on its old sanctuary? Are other United Methodist congregations, in any way, helping out financially as a way of supporting the cause?

In other words, there are several interesting stories here about the intersection of several different issues in the world of oldline, mainline, Protestantism.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    The 40-odd members of St. John’s…
    When Phoenix started five years ago, eight people showed up for Sunday worship; now 40 do.

    The arithmetic of that story sounds a bit off. A couple of questions for people reading this: what percentage of members would you expect to show up on Sunday? And how many non-members compared to members? I’m not sure my personal experience would apply here.

  • http://www.lutheranzephyr.com Chris Duckworth

    And what are the numbers we’re throwing around – membership (names on a roster) or worship attendance? And are we talking about Baltimore County or Baltimore City? And more importantly – who cares?

    If we take them at their word, this congregation has grown by a factor of five in five years. Heck, for a mainline congregation of moderate size to grow by 32 worship attendees over that time is not unimpressive – let alone for a small congregation. God bless them.

    But I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill on two issues – their “small” size and their claim of being the most accepting and inclusive.

    So why does the most “accepting and inclusive” congregation in a mainline, liberal town have only 40 members?

    Five years ago it had only 8 members! They’ve grown! God bless them. But you ask, why is this place so small?
    - Have you looked this place up on Google Maps? There’s virtually no parking!
    - I imagine their message of radical inclusivity – particularly on the sexual front – doesn’t resonate well with the mostly African-American neighborhood
    - since when does a message of radical inclusivity attract hoardes of people? You’re assuming all liberals would like such a message – not the “limousine liberals” or the “liberal elite” who otherwise enjoy their exclusivity . . . C’mon! – are the liberals from the Baltimore suburbs going to drive their Volvos into the city to attend this church?
    - church size is a dangerous number to pin your hopes on. Jesus attracted a rather small crowd and got killed for what he said and did. Numbers?

    The 40-odd members of St. John’s, who say they pride themselves in being the most accepting and inclusive Methodist church in Baltimore, said their minister’s sex change was no big deal.

    Have those 40-odd members been to every other Methodist church in Baltimore County/City? Of course not. This statement is simply spoken out of pride in their self-identified inclusivity. In the same way a church might say “we have the best kids” or “we have the best volunteers” or “we have the best pastor” or whatever. It is just a statement of their pride and joy around the faithful community they’ve created. It’s a statement that says, “we love the way we are.” That’s all.

    It sounds like you’re trying to make more of this issue than is really there.

    On the other hand, there is a story about how this church’s message resonates – or fails to – with its neighborhood context. It seems partially out of context, to me. Of course, a quick glance at their website makes it clear that this church is about more than just sexuality – it is a promoter of social justice in various arena, not just the sexuality arena.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    How do they financially survive with such small congregations?? Because of my involvement in ecumenical activities, I think I know one possible reason—investments in stocks and bonds and trust funds. That is how a minister told me his (Lutheran) parish survives with having no people there some Sundays and having few registered families. Yet this minister drives a new high end priced car, travels, and lives well with his second wife who is also on the marriage-go-round.

  • Stephen A.

    Again, “reporters” seem to miss the real theological story here.

    First, I challenge anyone to find the words “Jesus” or “Christ” on their Website. The fact that they simply refuse to name the One whom their denomination calls God is telling. It’s not even in the Spanish description of a transgender pamphlet that their hawking on the site. Granted, they do mention “God” a few times, but based on experience, I expect the description may or may not include JC. That they are a “sanctuary for mind/body/spirit” (from their mission/vision statement – note that serving Christ is NOT part of their mission, apparently) is likely a closer definition of “God” for them. Though I readily admit that it may only be their Webmaster who is a new ager or a closet agnostic.

    Deacon John’s suggestion to “follow the money,” as it were, is an excellent idea as well. Though no doubt the groups it affiliates itself with are likely supportive, financially.

    Speaking of affiliates, I also find it interesting that this tiny but (allegedly) growing congregation loans out their space to what they clinically, though accurately, call “building users.” These, not surprisingly, include various homosexual/transgender activist groups and, also not surprisingly, the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical Marxist union organization that advocates eliminating all wages. In other words, replacing wage slavery with plain old slavery.

    I’m tempted to say that their tiny ‘church’ is an EXCELLENT example of a group simply being “building users” but that would be a bit harsh. After all, there are 20,000+ member churches on the other side of the spectrum in which folks simply get emotional, listen to rock bands, and there is nary a cross in sight (though JC is mentioned repeatedly, mantra-like, in order to gain material wealth or healing.) They, too, are perhaps “building users” of a different kind. And following their pastors’ money trails can ALWAYS be interesting, and revealing.

    Reporters with some theological grounding would walk into either place and say, “hmmm. Something odd is going on here, and I *can* put my finger on it,” and then report with a cold precision exactly what is missing and how these places are deviating from the norm. Leaving it up to the readers, of course, to make judgement calls on whether that is an improvement, or not.

  • Stephen A.
  • Stephen A.

    …and I take part of it back. The Website has one mention of Jesus – on page one, of all places. Still, one mention is not your typical Jesus-saturated Website, and my point holds. Since he’s not defined anywhere on the site, the example of this “Jesus” they mention they are following (again, in one line of this Website) could very well be a beloved former church leader whom they like a whole lot.

  • Jerry

    Stephen,

    I found four mentions of Christ on their website. Do a google search for christ site:stjohnsbaltimore.org and jesus site:stjohnsbaltimore.org. This may not satisfy you or others here, but here are two quotes. And I don’t think that having a “Jesus-saturated website” means anything. The question is whether or not they accept Jesus and try to live according to the “Greatest Commandments”. And that is between them and God.

    In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

    Jesus’ central message is that God’s love and grace extend unconditionally to all of us, not because we look a certain way or have a particular identity, but because we are all children of God created in God’s image. Each of us is a beloved child of God. No exceptions.

  • Stephen A.

    No offense, but one of these quotes is from a rather self-centered letter from the pastor seeking to justify the pastor’s sexual awakening. The other is from a note about a denominational group that is all about reconciling Christianity with what a vast majority of Christians find to be irreconcilable, and sinful.

    But I’ll grant you this, these are mentions of Christ and Jesus, however fleeting. You’ll understand why I found it hard to dig them up. It’s very rare when Google has to be employed to find the TWO Christ/Jesus mentions on a church Website.

    It’s true that no should should judge a site, or a church, solely on it’s Website’s Christ-mentions, but frankly, it’s almost as if they’re hiding it, or perhaps downplaying that particular name.

    When it comes up at all, apparently it’s being pressed into service to justify the sexual experience of the pastor. That’s hardly a conventional use of religion, and worth more probing by reporters to see if this obfuscation is intentional.

  • Sylvia

    Since you live in Baltimore, did it ever occur to you to actually attend a service at St. Johns before publishing your opinion of it? It seems to me that numbers, articles and websites don’t really define a church. Give the place a chance before writing it off.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sylvia:

    What part of my post constituted “writing off” that church?

    Just curious.

  • Sylvia

    OK, so maybe I was too harsh in describing your treatment of the church as “writing it off”. You are, however, questioning it. And I would think that a visit to the church one Sunday morning would do a lot more to answer your questions than posting about it.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sylvia:

    The purpose of this blog is to raise questions about MEDIA COVERAGE of religion. Read my post again and you will see that my questions had more to do with the article than with the church itself. The story contains many unanswered questions and points toward other topics.

  • http://flatlandsfriar.blogspot.com Brett

    Since they are a United Methodist church, it is almost certain that other Methodist churches within the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference support it in some way if it cannot support itself. UM conferences set a minimum salary figure, and if a church can’t meet it, then the conference itself pays what is called “minimum salary support” to the church in order to bridge the gap.

    Funding for the minimum salary support comes from apportionments, or payments United Methodist churches make that go to conference and churchwide agencies and activities. Apportionments also help support ministerial pension plans and some insurance payments.

    Even if a church opposes some of the uses to which apportionments are put (and plenty do), they are still supposed to pay them.

  • http://pos51.org Charles

    Chris –

    “- church size is a dangerous number to pin your hopes on. Jesus attracted a rather small crowd and got killed for what he said and did. Numbers?”

    The crowds Jesus attracted were quite the opposite of “rather small”. The feedings of 4000 and 5000, the crowds that surged around him at the lake when the synagogue ruler came to ask that his daughter be healed, or when the woman was cured of bleeding…sounds like some rather large crowds to me.

    I agree with you that numbers aren’t the best judge of a church’s health. But they do count for something. The Bible makes a point of saying that Jesus and his disciples baptized more than John, and that thousands were baptized at Pentecost.

    What I found interesting was Kara Ker’s comment in the article that the Rev. is “living as God intended now”. Rev. Phoenix has commented in the past that “God does not make mistakes”. But the argument is counterintuitive, and there’s no challenge of the statements.

    And as far as numbers go, I’d like to see an analysis on the growth trends of progressive churches up against those with strict reformed theology, since they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Where would the story of Rev. Phoenix fit in there?

  • Stephen A.

    Relevant question, I hope: Is this a “mission” church? i.e. Do UMC churches sponsor churches like this that are new, until they can support themselves? That would explain how they can survive, financially, with such a small flock.

  • d sullivan

    As Phoenix began to preach on a recent Sunday, beneath the huge cross and beside the posters proclaiming “This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Church…,”

    Posters in church like this, and we just accept that they’re welcoming and inclusive? Maybe somebody is being excluded. Where’s Daddy?

  • Sylvia

    What I found interesting was Kara Ker’s comment in the article that the Rev. is “living as God intended now”. Rev. Phoenix has commented in the past that “God does not make mistakes”. But the argument is counterintuitive, and there’s no challenge of the statements.

    How far can you take this, though? If a child is born with a deformity, and has it surgically altered so that he or she can look more like everyone else, does that mean that God has “made a mistake” by allowing the child to have been born with the deformity?

  • Stephen A.

    I think most people would agree that changing a deformity and changing gender are far different things. At least out here in the suburbs.

    As for…

    Since you live in Baltimore, did it ever occur to you to actually attend a service at St. Johns before publishing your opinion of it? It seems to me that numbers, articles and websites don’t really define a church. Give the place a chance before writing it off.

    I am of the belief that anyone analyzing the reporting on this issue could certainly benefit from visiting, it is simply not necessary. Aside from the obvious point that not all of us live nearby, analyzing the coverage doesn’t require in-person discussions. It’s a bit akin to those who say one shouldn’t comment on the war in Iraq (or vote on it, as a legislator) unless you or a relative have actually served there, or that only Methodists should be reporting on Methodists. Sure, it helps to have first-hand knowledge, but it’s unreasonable to suggest that should be the norm.

    Better reporting and a LOT more tough questions to this person (by phone, email or IM) would remedy the “problem” of not actually being there.

    The problem here seems to be that the reporter failed to ask these great, tougher questions we’ve come up with…for some reason.

  • Sylvia

    I think most people would agree that changing a deformity and changing gender are far different things. At least out here in the suburbs.

    Well… THAT’S easy enough to say. Talk about the “tougher questions”; HOW is it different? In both cases, a person was given a certain body by God, and decides they need to alter it for their own reasons. Why is one criticized and seen as being antithetical to God’s wishes, while the other isn’t? In both cases, a person alters the body given to him or her by God. Both apparently lead to a better and happier life for the person making the change.

  • Pingback: WebElf Blogroll News « The WebElf Report


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X