This post is the third in a series of interviews with leading online Wesleyan and/or Methodist platforms. We at BeADisciple believe in the power of the Wesleyan movement to change lives – and we recognize the importance of online presence. In fact, our entire ministry is online! Over the past several years, a plethora of Wesleyan and Methodist resources have emerged in the online faith conversation. The goal of this post series is to explore a network of helpful voices as we seek Christ together in the tradition of the Wesleys.
This week, we feature Rev. Hannah Bonner, a member of the leadership team of UMC LEAD – a progressive platform which aspires to promote new voices in the United Methodist conversation. Read below to learn more.
Briefly, what are the history and mission of your platform?
UMC LEAD was started in April of 2012 at the initiation of Rev. Justin Halbersma of Minnesota. At that time, the blog was titled Rethink Bishop and was a challenge to the church to rethink its attitude and approach towards leadership, and specifically the barriers of age, race, and gender that seemed to prevent people being in leadership. Rev. Halbersma invited a diverse group of respected young thinkers from around the country to write with him in this collaborative project.
As time went on, and new voices were added, it became very clear that the aim of the blog was to offer a hopeful voice for the church – one that not only recognized, verbalized, and addressed the inherent issues – but also offered hopeful ideas and directions. It became clear that the blog was achieving its intended purpose of supporting new voices when the blog stats revealed that female contributors to the blog were receiving the highest numbers of hits amongst the blog’s readership.
This entrepreneurial, innovative edge clearly seemed to match well with another project, a national event called LEAD, that tried to offer the same kind of platform for a discussion of innovation. LEAD, whose main founders were Rev. Rob Rynders of Arizona and Glen Simpson of Nevada, offered an opportunity for individuals within the church to speak on innovation in the same way that Rethink Bishop allowed individuals to write on innovation.
Therefore, in the first months of 2014, Rethink Bishop and LEAD chose to merge into UMC LEAD in order to better offer innovative voices within the church an opportunity to engage in community, not only through writing but also face to face.
What distinguishes your platform from others?
The core ethos of UMC LEAD is to offer a positive and creative response, rather than a cynical or critical response. We do name truths, and sometimes they are hard truths to hear, but we try to do so in a way that honors, rather than dehumanizes, those who may disagree. This is very central to our conversation as writers, and we have regular dialogue about how to do this better and how to make sure that our engagement in the world is one that seeks to be positive and make a contribution rather than simply a critique.
Do you seek to cultivate an explicitly Wesleyan or Methodist voice online? Why or why not?
Our platform is clearly Methodist, and often addresses very Methodist topics. However, it remains open to other voices. Just as we know that our readership extends beyond the Wesleyan and Methodist communities, we also are open to voices from other communities being heard through interviews, guest posts or even regular contributions. We would like to think that this blog is a contribution from Methodist voices to the greater church and world. We think that what we experience, both the joys and struggles, are not limited to the Methodist community. It is therefore our hope that our responses to those experiences can be appreciated by those beyond the Methodist community, even as we write from that perspective.
How do you identify your contributors and content topics?
The initial group that was invited was recognized by the ability that they had already exhibited to have their voices heard and their impact felt beyond the local level. From there, we have worked within our networks to listen for and recognize those who both have something worthwhile to say and have the commitment necessary for participating in the community of writers. The platform we have created now allows us to lift up voices that need to be heard. Our content typically has to do with what rises to the top of the conversation in terms of what is impacting young leaders in the church and world. For example, many of our writers have been involved in the #blacklivesmatter movement; thus, many of our posts have touched on that topic. This is our way of expressing authenticity between our lived and written lives.
Do you provide content that is primarily: theological, academic, cultural, pastoral, practical, or all of the above? Do you have a niche?
I would not say we have a specific niche. Our contributing writers are diverse with a diverse array of talents and interests, and so the resulting conversation may be at sometimes deeply theological and at others deeply practical, ideally even in the same post. We believe that all of these things are intertwined together. We live that way, and so we write that way.
What have you learned about your readers since developing your platform? What have you learned about the Methodist or Wesleyan movement?
We have learned that readers are hungry to hear new voices, and that you do not have to be famous to be heard. Some of our posts that have received the most attention have been from people who are relatively new to the conversation. What we have learned, therefore, is that there is a hunger within the Wesleyan movement for something fresh, some bit of inspiration that mirrors the innovative, independent thinking nature of the founder of the movement itself, John Wesley.
What are your hopes for the future of your platform?
We hope to continue to broaden the conversation, and to continue to increase the diversity of voices being heard. That has been central since the beginning, and remains central moving forward. We also hope to increase the opportunity for community amongst our readers and our writers. Merging with the LEAD event, which is held on a yearly basis, gave us the opportunity to come together from around the country and experience community in person. We have to continue to advance our ability to offer people opportunities to engage authentically with those whose creativity gives them hope. “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”
Rev. Hannah Bonner is on staff with St. John’s UMC in Downtown, Houston, Texas, serving primarily as the pastor and curator of The Shout. Learn more about this outreach initiative here. Hannah is on the Leadership Team of UMC LEAD.