It was my first paying job in journalism and it gave me an incredible insight into the institution I had already decided to commit my life to serve. For working on the local church editions of the United Methodist Reporter while a journalism student at SMU long ago, I found myself reading and processing through the news items of hundreds of congregations each week. Every chili supper, every UMW meeting, every weekly financial report, every pastor’s column—they were all there, and so over the course of time, each became an ongoing storyline for me, long before Facebook and blogs made mass communication an instantaneous experience.
Later on, after completing seminary and being assigned a church of my own, I became one of those pastors sending in weekly items to a drop-box in Dallas. And I still marveled at how working into the wee hours of the night, others did what I once had done, giving form and order to bits and pieces of otherwise random information to transform them into a newspaper with both local and national stories that miraculously (or almost always at least) arrived by Friday of the same week.
All of which is why when the United Methodist Reporter announced last week that they will cease publication in a few days due to dwindling finances, it felt like an old friend indeed had died. For while I understand that the church press could not stay immune to the forces of change which have closed countless newspapers and magazines across the country in recent years, I had come to hope that at least in its digital form the ministry of the UMR had many days of meaningful ministry ahead of it still.
The sad truth may be, however, that the world is changing more rapidly than the church can keep up. For it’s not just the Reporter that has succumbed to societal shifts this past year, but other church institutions that have likewise done so. Cokesbury, our chain of bookstores dating back to the beginnings of Methodism in this country (and named for our first two bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury), closed its last retail stores, including the one in Houston, in April, not long after Lon Morris College, which was the oldest private two-year school in Texas (and one which I was privileged to serve as president long ago), closed its doors last fall. Just as every month, across the nation, Methodist congregations in both rural areas and inner cities dissolve as well, unable to draw enough of a crowd to keep their ministries going.
There are magnificent exceptions to the trend, of course, and how grateful I am to serve such a vibrant congregation as Lakewood UMC which is one of them. But as a denomination, when we can’t support our own institutions any longer, I have to worry at least a little if there is not a canary singing in a mine somewhere.
This is definitely a time thus for both persistent prayer and hard thinking about who we are as a people of faith today, and what it will take for us to go forward and practice, as the tagline of this blog says it, “faithful living in a fickle world.” For while it is never wise to simply cling to the past, it’s even more unwise to refuse to learn from its lessons, or heed its warnings.
In the meantime, pardon me if you see a little tear in my eyes these days. Some dear old friends indeed have just passed away.