In a story on January 6th, the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper announced a new role that I will be fulfilling: that of “Wesley Scholar” for my annual conference. This is an appointed position to which I’ve been assigned by my bishop, the Rev. Charles Crutchfield. It’s not a conventional appointment, though, in the sense that (according to Bishop Crutchfield) it is unique across the entire connection.

So what is a Wesley Scholar anyway, and what will the role mean for my work with the Arkansas Conference?

Amy Forbus at the Arkansas United Methodist did a nice job with the article, which includes information on Dr. Kurt Boggan as the new Director of the Center for Clergy & Laity Excellence and Ms. Sandy Watson as the lead facilitator for the Network of Discipleship & Mission. All three of these appointments are a result of the “Imagine Ministry” program which was passed by the annual conference last year and is now being implemented.

To offer a little more depth about my thoughts on the new conference position of Wesley Scholar, I’ll offer this Q&A that Ms. Forbus and I did a few weeks ago. It was way too much information to print in the Arkansas United Methodist, but I can happily offer it in this forum:

Here are some questions to be thinking about: Is this appointment effective at Annual Conference, or will you begin the work sooner?

The appointment begins on January 1, 2012.

How much time do you expect to devote to it (per week or month)?

It is difficult to put a number on the amount of work I’ll be doing. As the bishop mentioned to me when he started talking to me about the appointment, this is a unique position that has not been tried anywhere else before. That means it will necessarily evolve over time. It will involve writing, speaking, teaching, and participating in conferences & meetings of various kinds. And so I think there will be an ebb and a flow to the work that will vary depending on the time of year and the needs that arise.

Will you be available to visit local churches, and if so, what would you offer them?

I think direct engagement with local churches will be a significant part of this ministry. Sometimes that will happen in person, and sometimes it might also happen virtually through web-based media. I will also participate in meetings of the extended cabinet, as well as in gatherings around the annual conference in settings larger than local churches.

As far as what I will offer them, I think the best way I can put it is like this: I want to help connect the mission & ministry of the Arkansas Conference to the rich Wesleyan heritage out of which the people called Methodists have sprung. In one significant body of material from the early Methodist movement called the “Large Minutes,” Wesley gives a number of reasons as to why it is important for Methodist ministry to exist. He says that he, his brother Charles, and their friends were originally impelled to go out and form a holy people. He tells the junior preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls, and that they should spend all their time in that work. And he says that the first Methodist preachers were called to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

When you read those kinds of passages out of the Large Minutes, a number of concepts stick out: holiness, salvation, and reform. But what do they mean, and how do they translate into our present context? I have spent the past 13 years of my life committed both to pastoral ministry and to the scholarly study of the Wesleyan tradition. The role I hope to embody in my ministry is that of a pastor-teacher for the church, and I think I can best do that by engaging in the work of making the Wesleyan tradition alive in our churches.

The Book of Discipline says that John Wesley believed that the Christian faith is “illumined by tradition.” That means that the tradition gives light to our understanding of the faith itself. The vehicles I will use to assist the annual conference in receiving the light of the Wesleyan teaching will be through eminently pastoral tasks: preaching, speaking, writing, and teaching.

Say something about how the new role relates to your own call to ministry.

I am an elder in the Arkansas Conference of the UMC. When I left the annual conference in 2006 to pursue my doctorate, I told the bishop and a number of clergy friends that I wanted to come back and figure out a way to serve the church in Arkansas through the academic study I would be doing. That commitment never wavered, and as a result, my wife and I decided that I would not apply for teaching positions far away from the state of Arkansas. We never knew that a Wesleyan Studies position would open up at Memphis Theological Seminary at just the right time (much less that I’d be hired for it!), but we did trust that something would work out that would allow me to pursue my sense of call to ministry with the church in Arkansas. So part of my sense of call is call to ministry in a particular place, with a particular people.

The other way that this new position intersects with my vocation has to do with the role of seminary education in the life of the church. I have always experienced my vocation as one that keeps me with one foot firmly planted in the church and the other foot planted in the academy. I have served an appointment as a campus minister at a United Methodist-affiliated college. I’ve served two appointments as a local church pastor. And now I’m serving an appointment as a seminary professor. Through this past and present experience, I have seen the way in which there’s often a gap between the church and the academy – a gap I think is much too wide. I want to help narrow it, and because of that I want to do the kind of teaching and writing that makes Wesleyan theology accessible for folk in the church. I can do that to an extent as a professor at Memphis Theological Seminary. But with the added duties as Wesleyan Scholar for the annual conference, I will be able to focus that much more directly on how the work of a Wesleyan theologian should serve the life of the church at the ground level.

There is a term that Catholics and Anglicans tend to use for a position like this. It is called a “canon theologian,” and it means a scholar who serves the church according to a particular rule of life. Sometimes canon theologians are attached to episcopal staffs, and sometimes they work at a particular cathedral to resource the life of the church in the area the cathedral serves. I see my position with the Arkansas Conference in those terms, where my calling to serve as Wesley Scholar to the annual conference will largely determine the kind of theological reflection (and writing, and speaking,) in which I’ll engage in my daily life.