Exercising the Discipline of the Whole Church

I learned two things about The United Methodist Church before I ever dreamed of one day becoming a United Methodist pastor. First, when a large United Methodist church in Connecticut hired me to be their part-time Director of Music while I was pursuing a graduate degree in sacred music, I said to myself after a few months, “I love the people of the United Methodist Church! They are faithful and fruitful, and they were willing to take a risk and hire a kid like me to shepherd their music program.” I stayed for five years.

Second, two District Superintendents traveled to Yale Divinity School to visit Gary during his last year as he was preparing for his first appointment in Michigan. Then they turned to me and said, “Laurie, we know that you are pursuing ordination in the General Conference Mennonite Church, but if you ever want an appointment in the West Michigan Conference, just let us know! We’d love for you to be one of our pastors.”

I never forgot their gracious invitation and eventually took them up on the offer, receiving my first appointment in Michigan as a pastor in good standing of another denomination. Six years later, I transferred my ordination credentials from the General Conference Mennonite Church to The United Methodist Church.

It was because of the graciousness of the Cabinet and Board of Ordained Ministry of The West Michigan Conference that I am a United Methodist today. The United Methodist Church is not an insular denomination, closed in on itself and unwilling to embrace other religious groups. In fact, United Methodists are on the forefront of ecumenical and interfaith relationships, as we seek to work together to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

  • Did you know that there are 24 pastors from other denominations who are serving under appointment in United Methodist local churches in Iowa? Additionally, there are four pastors serving from other Methodist denominations.
  • Did you know that there are 23 yoked/union/federated/multi-point charges in Iowa, which means that one or more of the churches is United Methodist and the other is of a different denomination? All but one are located in small towns or rural settings.
  • Did you know that the United Methodist Church has an Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, which is located in the Council of Bishops Office in Washington D.C.? The staff includes a part-time Ecumenical Officer, who is a retired bishop, an Ecumenical Staff Officer for Leadership Development, and another Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith and Order and Theological Development.

Episcopal leaders in The United Methodist Church are mandated to lead the denomination in ecumenical and interreligious ministry. When new bishops are consecrated, these words are shared during the examination of episcopal candidates, “You are called to guard the faith, to seek the unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole church; and to supervise and support the church’s life, work and mission throughout the world. These are high and holy callings.”

The Book of Discipline 2016 also emphasizes our call to share Christ’s love throughout the world by partnering with other religious groups.

  • “The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ”. (UMC Constitution, Article IV 4 “Inclusiveness of the Church”)
  • “Christian unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ, we are made members-in-common of the one body of Christ. Christian unity is not an option; it is a gift to be received and expressed.” (Our Theological Task: Ecumenical Commitment, ¶105 BOD 2016)
  • “In the name of Jesus Christ, we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God.” (The Present Challenge to Theology in the Church, ¶105 BOD 2016)
  • “The Church expects the Council of Bishops to speak to the Church and from the Church to the world and to give leadership in the quest for Christian unity and interreligious relationships.” (¶ 422.2, BOD 2016)

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From the very beginning of the Methodist movement, we have been in relationship with Christians of other denominations in order to exercise the discipline of the whole church, and John Wesley was always eager to dialogue with other Christian groups. Even when Wesley disagreed firmly with those of different beliefs, he always wanted to stay in relationship.

United Methodists lead the way in ecumenism. United Methodist clergy almost always participate in local ecumenical/clergy organizations. The UMC also has formal, full communion relationships with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, AME Zion Church, African Union Methodist Protestant Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Uniting Church of Sweden, The Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, and The Moravian Church, Northern and Southern Provinces.

Here are other resources and ways to exercise the discipline of the whole church.

  • “One in Spirit,” An Ecumenical Curriculum for Local Congregations” (six-week study)
  • UMEIT (United Methodist Ecumenical and Interreligious Trainings) There are different types of training resources, including for youth and young adults.
  • United Methodist Ecumenism 101 Brochure
  • The United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church have completed a proposal for full communion, A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness, which will be voted on at the 2020 General Conference.
  • The staff of the Council of Bishops and the General Board of Church and Society have partnered together to begin a new interfaith scriptural study group in The United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. The study is using a practice called Scriptural Reasoning, which is a tool for inter-faith dialogue where people of different faiths come together and read and reflect on their scriptures.

In a country and world that seems increasingly polarized, it is more important than ever that United Methodists exercise the discipline of the whole church by engaging their neighbors of different denominations and religions in common ministry. May all Christians together use this prayer from the Book of Common PrayerGracious God, we pray for thy holy catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.(William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1645)

10 thoughts on “Exercising the Discipline of the Whole Church

  1. Thank you for this well written commentary on Christian unity and ecumenism. My heart longs for the same feeling amongst us as we labor towards General Conference.

  2. Amen! If the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA can do it within their own denomination, why not. I remember when I was living in Georgetown many moons ago, there were three such churches there, labelled, low, medium and high. All of them quite different in their services, etc. Yet still one.

  3. Thank you for espousing Christian unity. Would that we could unite with the AME church, possibly created in the beginning because our African American brothers and sisters did not feel comfortable in the established churches of the time, or indeed, were barred from joining. I see unity even within some denominations, despite some breakaways. I remember in Georgetown there was a so-called high, middle and low Episcopal church during the time I was there, yet all three of them under the auspices of that one denomination. Our early Church’s suggestion was that we all be one. We should work toward that and I love you for it. Thank you

  4. Bishop Heller, I am always impressed…and more importantly, moved…by your writings. The warmth & inclusivity of the church and its role in society to unite always comes through. Thank you once again for reminding me/us of OUR role in doing the same. (PS-I will “steal” the prayer for use at another time..with citation, of course.)

  5. Very well written and received, especially at this time of year, Thanksgiving!
    Attended a Church Women United meeting this morning where we discussed the ecumenical group and how many denominations are not participating any more. God bless, Cleo Farris

  6. Women at the Well, our church inside the Iowa women’s prison, is a great example of this ecumenism in action. Our founding documents say that we are “United Methodist in origin but ecumenical in practice.” We welcome all comers without regard to denominational background. Within our own programs, we welcome volunteers from a range of traditions, including Episcopal, Lutheran, Evangelical Free, Disciples of Christ (Christian), Salvation Army, Presbyterian and independent. We have shared about this ministry during Sunday morning worship in a number of these churches in addition to United Methodist and Many of these churches support us financially as well. Our minister of reentry and congregational care, who shares worship leadership with me, is ordained through the United Church of Christ! We are living this diversity of which you spoke, Bishop Laurie. It is a key to our strength!

  7. Very well presented, Laurie! Thanks for the reminder to all of us readers that we do not–as United Methodists–live in a vacuum!!



  8. Excellent thoughts and directives to be reminded of during these times of divisive “tribalism” and other negative impacts of “identity” politics. Thanks.

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