Ministry Matters: The rise of the “Methodist middle”

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a clergy delegate from the Great Plains conference, makes a motion on May 18 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The motion would give General Conference endorsement to a plan proposed by the denomination’s Council of Bishops to address issues related to human sexuality over the next four years.

By James A Harnish*

mm-logoAccording to the New Testament book of Acts, surprising the church is the Holy Spirit’s idea of a good time.

When the leaders of the early church thought they had figured everything out or when they were at loggerheads and didn’t know where to turn, the Spirit would suddenly surprise them with a new way forward that they never expected.

My consistent prayer for our General Conference has been that the Spirit would once again surprise the church by opening a new or unexpected way through the conflicting convictions about same-sex relations that have divided our denomination for four decades. I described my hope for that surprise in an interview with Ministry Matters.

The Methodist middle

The irony is that Methodists have historically been people of the via media, the “middle way.” Not a mushy middle, but what Bishop Scott Jones calls “the extreme center.” It’s a clearly defined core of faith that allows space around the circumference for a variety of convictions as to how the faith is lived out.

In Portland, I experienced the Holy Spirit surprising the church in what one friend described as “the rise of the Methodist middle.” Magrey deVega described it as the parents in the front seat telling the squabbling children in the back seat to calm down. My experience at General Conference is consistent with Adam Hamilton’s description of “A Hopeful Way Forward.”

I was surprised…

  • When the General Conference voted to ask the Council of Bishops to lead us in finding a way to unity through our division
  • When the Bishops offered a wise option for a Commission that would not simply kick the can down the road, but would offer a specific plan for a way through our division into a new way of being together
  • When I observed that the current and successive Presidents of the Council of Bishops are very wise people with exceptional gifts for leading with a non-anxious, moderating presence;
  • When the GC finally adopted the Bishops’ proposal and held to it in spite of attempts by the folks on the extreme ends of the continuum to scuttle it.

My hope and prayer is that the Spirit will continue to surprise us by drawing together a Commission that will clearly define the center of our life together that will include grace-filled ways for those who find that center to be either too conservative or too progressive to find their way into other ways of ministry.

As I wrote this I remembered an 18th Century Anglican hymn says:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

I was surprised when I found it set to a new tune here, which only demonstrates that the Spirit still has surprises for all of us!

*James A. Harnish is a retired United Methodist pastor who most recently served Hyde Park United Methodist Church… read more…


This commentary originally published by our partner, Ministry Matters, at

Ministry Matters

Ministry Matters™ is a community of resources for church leaders. Ministry Matters™ was launched in 2011 by The United Methodist Publishing House, based in Nashville, Tennessee. With thousands of original articles and blogs, unique book reviews, and weekly worship and preaching helps in our This Sunday area, Ministry Matters provides both community and inspiration to Christian leaders of all denominations–or no denomination at all!

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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jimmie shelby
jimmie shelby

This writer believes the can has been kicked yet again. This writer is reminded of Revelations chapters 2 and 3–particularly Revelations 2: 12-17 AND Revelations 3: 14-22.

james ballard

The Methodist beginnings were never about “via media”. They were radicals. There was no middle way to salvation. There was only salvation from sin through Christ and repentance. There were only radical pursuers of holiness. The Church of England at the time represented the “via media”. I don’t know where the author studied Methodist History. And when pastoring Methodist churches, the middle your are writing about is gone. The Middle I know are passive non leaders who just want their world not to change at any cost. They just want non violence and will accept any heresy to attain that.… Read more »

Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

The writer spits in the Creator’s face by disliking rain which his little song wishes would go away. Okay. Don’t like rain? Try doing without it. Your God is too small. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC


Have you spoken to the writer? I know the writer, and know for a fact that is not, and would never be the case – for him to “spit in the Creator’s face”. Please remember that God is bigger than any of our interpretations of the Scriptures.

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