When a Methodist Turns Baptist by Katey Zeh


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Nearly a year ago, almost to the day, I entered the sanctuary of an historic church in downtown Raleigh for the first time. Visiting a new faith community is nearly always at least a slightly uncomfortable social experience. In my case I’d grown quite accustomed to feeling like an outsider in these spaces as a significant portion of my work included traveling to congregations around the country. This particular Sunday, however, had me a more on edge than usual.

The church, as it turns out, was Baptist. I was Methodist. Sitting down in a Baptist Church for worship felt something akin to rooting for a rival sports team. It was simply not done.

I recall on several occasion the pastor of my hometown Methodist church, a soft-spoken and generally mild mannered man, would poke fun at Baptist preachers from the pulpit. If a worship service ran long as it often did on the Sundays we celebrated communion, my mother and I would half-jokingly lament that our favorite lunch spot would be filled with Baptists by the time we got there. One could argue it was all in good fun like any hometown rivalry. But even well-meaning jokes, if they are repeated enough, have a poisoning effect over time.

As I fidgeted in the pew that first Sunday waiting for the service to begin, a woman sporting black cat-eye glasses and fiery red lipstick leaned across the pew to greet my husband and me. “Is this your first time at Pullen?” she asked. I nodded my head and confessed quietly that I was struggling a bit with being in a Baptist church. “I’m Methodist,” I whispered to her. Without skipping a beat, she responded with a hint of a smile, “Well honey, I’m Jewish.”

Needless to say this Baptist Church was unlike the ones we’d joked about in my small town Georgia church. Pullen Memorial Baptist Church has been on the forefront of social justice movement for decades, much to the chagrin of certain other Baptist-identifying bodies. From affirming women and the LGBTQ community to standing against racism and Islamophobia, Pullen is committed to the work of dismantling oppressive systems.

Prior to my first Sunday at Pullen I’d tried desperately to find community in several local Methodist churches, but I could not in good conscience align myself with their theological values. Pullen, on the other hand, affirmed my spiritual sensibilities and challenged me to examine them critically. In the end I had to make a decision: what was more important to me, the ministry of the congregation or its label (and the stereotypes that came with it)? As you might guess, the choice was easy.

Last month my husband and I along with our two-year-old daughter stood before the congregation and pledged our commitment as official members of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Some have asked me if leaving the Methodist faith was terribly painful for me. In truth this decision felt very little like a departure at all; rather it felt grounded in the deep joy and affirmation of having found a community to make my spiritual home. No change is without some sense of loss, but what I mostly feel is an overwhelming sense of joy.

Joining a Baptist congregation has opened my heart to the possibility of unexpected becoming. We are never as sure of things as we might like to believe. I’m grateful for that.

RA82Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer,  and educator who inspires communities to create a more just, compassionate world.  She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press in March of 2018.  Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com

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15 replies

  1. Looking at Pullen’s website, it calls itself a member of the Alliance of Baptists, roughly thirty years ago, they split from the Southern Baptist Convention when they saw an increasing conservative stance takeover the denomination that ultimately forced out liberal and moderate congregations like Pullen. As the Southern Baptist denomination began forbidding women from serving in ministry and limiting the role of women in Church, Pullen and the AoB churches did the opposite. To me, I’d love to find a church like Pullen in my area. But I live surrounded by Southern Baptist churches that don’t affirm women, don’t accept members of the LGBTQ community, and are extremely traditional. I tried Methodism for a time, but watching them go through the same struggle, trying to figure out the rules of the LGBTQ community and wondering if they’re going to end up limiting women who serve as pastors has me distancing myself from them lately. I think what matters most is that congregations don’t just say: “of course we affirm women in leadership” but that they put that belief into action. When my grandfather’s church was looking for a new pastor, one of the candidates who submitted her application was a woman. Hers automatically went to the bottom of the pile. Even though the denomination affirms women in leadership, my grandfather and the other men and women in charge of the church reasoned that: “our congregation just won’t stand for that sort of thing around here.” That is why change can be so slow in coming.

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    • Jamie, my heart breaks for the women and LGBTQ people harmed by these congregations. And as you rightly noted, even when a policy is officially affirming, that does not mean the culture of the church shifts accordingly. What good is a policy if behavior does not change? I pray you find a community that you can call your spiritual home.

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  2. What a lovely post. Thank you for sharing this experience with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like you found a great community.

    I would be interested to know what stereotypes Methodists hold of Baptists, and to what extent the stereotypes are about class and to what extent about theology or worship practices.

    I also wonder what Methodist theological positions you found you could not agree with. And do the Baptists or Pullen not hold these views?

    I am asking because I have never understood and am trying to understand denominationalism and denominational loyalties, not having experienced them in my upbringing. You might think we all know what you are talking about, but in fact at least some of us don’t.

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    • Carol, thank you for pointing out my “insider speak” and I apologize for doing so! That is a pet peeve of mine. I’m not sure about the class implications, but in the southern United States, Baptists are perceived to be ultra conservative, anti-woman, and anti-sex. (The same could be said of many Methodists, though!) The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., has policies that reflect those stereotypes.

      For me the Methodist wrestlings with whether or not to fully include LGBTQ persons was what I could no longer stomach. Pullen has historically stood in solidarity with marginalized communities for decades. They are seriously radical!

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  4. Katey, I believe that Baptists, in the early years of this country, were one of the best educated and most liberal Protestant denominations. What may have happened is that Baptists and Methodists competed to minister to slaves in the South. Access to the slaves however required accommodation to slaveholders and their social/racial philosophies, a tailoring of the gospel message to support an exploitative social structure. I think the distorted message was especially attractive to poor, exploited Southern whites, resulting in “Southern Baptists.” The Southern Baptist movement adopted a self-righteous fundamentalism and the varieties of millenarianism and spread out from the South, overcoming the earlier liberal Baptists in many areas.

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  5. Congratulations on finding your spiritual home, Katey, and thanks for sharing the story of your search.

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  6. Katey, having grown up in a Southern Baptist Church, I’m amazed that there is a Baptist church that aligns with your strong commitment to social justice and equality. I’m so thankful that your search has ended.

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  7. I loved reading your posts. I met you when you came and did a presentation at Mississippi University for Women and I want to thank you for that again.

    Liked by 1 person

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