Jen Mulford has had the job of helping choose materials for women’s groups at her church, Providence United Methodist in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., for several years. She opted for books and DVDs featuring Bible study teachers like Beth Moore, Kelly Minter, Jennifer Rothschild and Priscilla Shirer.
All of whom are popular among women’s Bible study groups—but none of whom are United Methodists.
Why no Methodists? Until recently, Ms. Mulford said, “I’ve never been aware of any [United Methodist] women who were as compelling as a Beth Moore or a Priscilla Shirer.”
But that could be changing: Ms. Mulford now plans to offer a Bible study that Abingdon Press will release in February, called Namesake: When God Rewrites Your Story, and she believes women at her church will like the study’s author: the Rev. Jessica LaGrone, pastor of worship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in Houston.
“She’s just real,” said Ms. Mulford. “I felt like I knew her. We can’t wait to do this study.”
Filling a gap
Leaders at Abingdon Press are hoping that many other United Methodists will discover Ms. LaGrone, too. She’s one of four authors that the publishing house is touting in a new line of Bible studies called Abingdon Women. If it succeeds, it could help fill a gap that United Methodist leaders and bloggers have lamented for years—the lack of a United Methodist voice in the pantheon of popular female Bible teachers.
Abingdon Women was launched this fall with a Bible study called Embraced by God by Babbie Mason, and another, Healing Waters, based on a series of novels by Melody Carlson, a popular Abingdon Fiction author. But with Ms. LaGrone, the series will have its first United Methodist author. The six-week study includes a book as well as video segments, which Ms. LaGrone taped in Nashville in September.
While the publisher won’t disclose how much money it has invested in Ms. LaGrone, Abingdon is clearly making Namesake and Abingdon Women a priority. Plans are underway for ads, promotions online, in Christian retail stores and other book distributors (including Cokesbury), and at trade show and special events. Also, Ms. LaGrone has tentative plans to tout Namesake at annual conferences next spring and summer.
Susan Salley, associate publisher for ministry resources at Abingdon, loves to tell the story of how the publisher “discovered” Ms. LaGrone. Speaking at a workshop last spring, Ms. Salley noted that Abingdon was seeking female authors for the series. “I told the group, ‘We’re looking for the kind of speaker who you always have to get a bigger room for,’” she recalled. Just after she finished her talk, “I had not taken two steps before someone came up to me and said, ‘You need to call Jessica LaGrone.’”
Ms. Salley checked out Ms. LaGrone’s blog, and immediately forwarded a link to colleagues.
In Ms. LaGrone’s writing, she saw a rare combination. “She’s got this ability to combine Bible insights with stories that are so close to women’s daily lives,” Ms. Salley said. “She’s had the questions, doubts and triumphs that we’ve all had.”
Even better, Ms. LaGrone also came with a “platform”—the built-in audience that publishers like to see before they commit to an author. Ms. LaGrone, 38, is the first female pastor at The Woodlands, which averages 4,000 in weekly worship; she authors a popular blog (www.jessicalagrone.com) called “Reverend Mother,” a nod to her dual role as a pastor and mother of two young children; and she’s already a popular speaker who’s been called on to speak at women’s retreats and in the pulpit at dozens of churches in several different states. Also, in 2010, her church published her six-week Bible study, called Women in the Word; the participant book has sold 500 copies with no marketing or advertising. She’s also got a fine pedigree: at Asbury Theological Seminary, Ms. Lagrone was mentored by the Rev. Ellsworth Kalas, a revered preaching professor.
It also turns out that Ms. LaGrone has camera presence. She taped six segments, with six wardrobe changes and virtually no retakes, in one day—a “preaching Ironman,” as she called it—and nursed her 4-month-old daughter, Kate, between taping sessions. (Ms. LaGrone and her husband, Jim, also have a son, Drew, age 2½.)
Abingdon executives say Ms. LaGrone made an immediate connection with the studio audience of about 25 women.
“Her genuineness, her realness, her ability to connect with women, that really came through,” said Sally Sharpe, senior editor for ministry resources at Abingdon.
Ms. Mulford and her friend, Whitney Simpson, a United Methodist in Gallatin, Tenn., were among those in the studio audience.
“I think she has the knowledge and the passion and the real-life relatability to connect to a lot of people,” Ms. Simpson said.
On her blog Ms. LaGrone shares mommy-pastor moments, like the time she went into labor 20 minutes after arriving at the Texas Annual Conference in June, and speaks openly of personal heartbreak shared with her husband.
“Our dreams of starting a family were delayed several years by a battle with infertility and miscarriage,” she writes on her blog. “Those years of heartache and grief brought us closer together and closer to God, although it didn’t feel super-spiritual at the time.”
That kind of self-revelation is part of what makes authors like Beth Moore and Ann Graham Lotz popular, according to Jana Riess, an editorial consultant and author of Flunking Sainthood (Paraclete Press, 2011).
“They’re very personal about the struggles they’ve had as wives and mothers,” she said.
Ms. LaGrone seems to be comfortable doing that while maintaining her clerical dignity. In her blog, she transitions deftly from theological commentary to a confession about staying at home in her pajamas all day while on maternity leave.
“It’s like to talking to a girlfriend,” said Jeanne Damon, director of adult discipleship at Christ UMC in Sugar Land, Texas, where Ms. LaGrone spoke at a women’s retreat last year. “She’s very open about her life, her history, and her struggles.”
What women want
The Rev. Sky McCracken, a district superintendent in the Memphis conference, posed the question, “Where are the Methodist women?” a few years ago on his blog, naming authors of successful Bible studies, like Ms. Moore, Kay Arthur, Liz Curtis Higgs and Anne Graham Lotz. Women’s groups at churches he’s served have used the materials, and he doesn’t mind—“it’s basic, exegetical Bible study,” he says—but he wonders why there are no United Methodist Bible teachers on that list. Historically, he adds, the Methodist church has had high-profile women, like Anna Howard Shaw and Belle Harris Bennett, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“I just hate that the other denominations get to have all the fun,” he said.
The missing Methodists also represent a missed opportunity to speak to tens of thousands of women. Tyndale reports there are 450,000 copies in print of Ms. Moore’s recent book, So Long, Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us, and that’s just one of her dozens of titles.
Ms. LaGrone has contemplated the gap, too.
At her church, women’s groups use books and videos by Ms. Moore, who is a Southern Baptist. Ms. LaGrone doesn’t criticize—“I applaud anyone who can get people excited about digging into Scripture on a daily basis and applying it to their own lives,” she says. “But from time to time, there is a twinge of something that is not quite in step with Wesleyan teachings.”
Ms. LaGrone notes that Ms. Moore speaks from a theology that emphasizes Jesus’ “justifying grace” but not the Wesleyan idea of sanctifying grace. While Baptists might argue “once a sinner, always a sinner,” Methodist teaching “affirms that with God’s grace we can get better,” Ms. LaGrone says. She also notes that Ms. Moore’s Calvinist bent doesn’t jibe with Methodist belief.
“I’ve also had to do a lot of corrective teaching and pastoral counseling to help people understand that God isn’t causing bad things in their lives to test them and try them,” she says. “Beth has some great content and a compelling style, but she’s just not singing in our key.
So now, with Namesake, Ms. LaGrone has the chance to sing in a Wesleyan key, and Abingdon officials hope many women will be listening.
Which is a just a bit ironic, because Ms. LaGrone says she never set out to be a “women’s Bible teacher.”
“I’ve always considered my call to be one of ministering and speaking to both men and women,” she said, adding that, earlier, she had a “misguided perception of women’s ministry as tea parties and fashion shows.”
Over time, however, she’s changed her mind.
“God really worked on me to have a heart specifically for women and their needs and issues,” she said. “I believe there is a real fruitfulness when women gather together with other women to learn and grow.”
Ms. Damon, meanwhile, looks forward to purchasing Namesake and introducing Ms. LaGrone to even more women in her church.
“She’s someone who has good Wesleyan theology,” Ms. Damon said. “The message of grace really comes across in her work.”