MARION, Va. – After going to bed feeling “burned out” one night, the Rev. Natalie Justice woke up at 2 a.m. with a “nudge” and an idea: Why not do interviews with church leaders about their hopes for The United Methodist Church?
In March 2023, that’s exactly what Justice did, beginning with a list of five people she initially had in mind. Her Zoom recordings led to a weekly video series called, “Hope Springs Eternal: Positive Conversations about the UMC,” posting every Monday.
“I was pretty discouraged about disaffiliation and the turmoil on both sides and several other things,” Justice explains. “Then God just laid this on my heart. I really feel like it’s a calling.”
As of this week, the pastor has posted 23 Zoom conversations with United Methodist leaders and one from outside the denomination. The subjects include bishops (Tom Berlin, Kenneth Carder), authors (Adam Hamilton, Kay Kotan), and the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives (Margaret G. Kibben).
Most of her subjects are clergy. Ten are from Holston Conference where Justice is from, although 12 other United Methodist regional conferences are also represented, from the Dakotas to Louisiana.
At least five more interviews are in the hopper, including conversations with Hamilton to be posted Aug. 28 and Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of Holston and North Alabama Conferences, on Sept. 25.
Justice says she started with asking five persons she wanted to chat with: Hamilton, Kotan, Rev. Mike Slaughter, Rev. Rachel Billups, and Rev. Matt Rawles. The list “bloomed from there” as her subjects recommended others.
The shortest interview was seven minutes with Rev. Lindsey Freeman of the Virginia Conference. Justice had the longest conversation (41 minutes) with the Rev. Wil Cantrell of Holston Conference.
Justice said she learned how to be a digital communicator during the pandemic. "COVID was awful but it also reinvented the way we reach people," she said. "I found out I have a love and passion and knack for it." She is currently serving as pastor at Davis Memorial United Methodist Church and Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church in Marion, Virginia.
When asked when the conversation series will be complete, she said, “When the work is done.” Here are four things Justice says she has learned from her interviews.
The United Methodist connection is powerful.
“I’ve talked to people all across the country who would not have talked to me, if not for the connection,” Justice said. "I took a risk and just asked, and they said yes."
Every person she interviewed “celebrated the connection” as a strength of the denomination, she said.
Rachel Billups, lead pastor of New Albany United Methodist Church in Ohio (and a former speaker at Holston’s Resurrection youth event), spoke of how the connection has strengthened her in a personal way.
“She talked about spending time with her mother who has cancer, and how she receives texts from all over the connection – from Jorge Acevedo, Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, Matt Rawles – offering prayers for her and her mother,” Justice said.
The denomination is a mix of people serving a common purpose.
Most of the people she interviewed are likely centrists, Justice said, although at least one person came right out and said she is progressive. A few future interviews will be with people who are “very traditional, theologically.”
The persons in the video series are a mix of gender, race and age, including retirees. Most are lifelong United Methodists but some, like the Rev. Walter Cross of Holston Conference, have a different faith background. (He’s a former Baptist.) The churches represented range from small to mega.
Justice believes her subjects represent The United Methodist Church as a whole. “I think we are better because of the mix,” she said. “It forces us to look at God from different perspectives. We’re all different but serving a common purpose.”
Most United Methodist leaders want to get back to the mission.Of the people she talked to, “they all desire and long for the same thing,” Justice said. “They want to get back to the mission.” They're tired of talking about disaffiliation and want to get back to "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," the United Methodist Church's mission.
Several interviewees illustrated their hope for leaving divisiveness behind with stories. Matt Rawle talked about being part of a group that was working together to build a playground. There were disagreements and arguments along the way, but at the end of the day, the playground was completed. “Because it wasn’t about consensus. It was about the mission,” Justice recalled.
The way to get through this is: Focus on your calling.
When Justice asked her subjects to offer encouragement for others in the mission field, they were ready with advice that guided them through their own discouraging periods.
Justice was encouraged with these words from Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus for Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, which she paraphrased: God is still God, and you have a calling in your life. Follow the God.
The Rev. Sharon Bowers, director of church relations, Emory & Henry College, offered this advice (also paraphrased by Justice): Start to look for open doors. Don’t get caught up in what might be, “Who’s on first?” Others might want to take sides or continually ask, “What’s going to happen at General Conference 2024?” In the midst of disruption, find that spiritual space of beauty. Focus on your call.
Finally, Kenneth Carder, retired United Methodist bishop and native of Holston Conference, had this to say as encouragement (paraphrased): When you are discouraged, and when you think there’s no hope … Remember, no act of love is ever wasted. Find someone you can love and encourage. It’s what we’re supposed to do.
"Hope Springs Eternal" Facebook page
"Hope Springs Eternal" YouTube playlist
Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee. Sign up for a free email subscription to The Call.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.