Bishop Matthews retires after 42 years
July 27, 2016
By Melissa Lauber
It was July 25, 239 years ago, when Bishop Francis Asbury wrote, “My desire is to live more to God today than yesterday; and to be more holy this day than the last.”
These words have been echoed each day for the past four years by Asbury’s spiritual heir, Bishop Marcus Matthews, who recites these sentiments in his daily prayers.
In September, Matthews will retire after 42 years of ministry, 34 of which have been in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. In his past four years as the BWC’s bishop, he has focused on making each church a prayer station, creating and strengthening partnerships between churches and area schools, and asking each person to bring one person to Christ.
To mark his retirement, more than $327,000 was raised and given in a love offering to serve as seed money, breaking ground on a new health and fitness complex at Africa University in Zimbabwe.
While he is officially retiring, the bishop will continue to be in ministry in his new position as executive secretary of the Council of Bishops. His office will be at the Methodist Building in Washington, D.C.
A conversation with Bishop Matthews as he prepares to retire
It’s been said, ‘You can’t go home again,” but you did. Tell me a little bit about what it was like to come home for your last four years as a bishop before you retire.
I think people can go back home again. I always like to say, “it’s the way you leave home that determines whether you return home.” Barbara and my 32 years in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, 18 of which I sat around the Cabinet table as a superintendent and council director, were actually good years in the life of the conference. We were graciously welcomed back and being gone for only eight years, it wasn’t like starting from zero.
I think, if there was a low point, for me, it was knowing the persons who faced illness or death. It was emotional, because I knew the people, some of them for all my ministry, and was close to many of them. So if there were any low moments coming home, it was around that issue.
Looking back, how would you describe yourself as a bishop?
I see myself as a program-centered bishop. I tend to get more energy when people are doing something, doing mission, doing programs. I can deal with administration, which comes to me in a natural way. But what I get my high off of is seeing people put their faith into action.
For me, ministry is about building relationships. I feel that in order for us to continue to move this church forward, we have to first build relationships. What I’ve discovered is once you build a relationship with a group, then that moves you to a trust level, that moves you to a place you can do some things that you never thought you would do.
You’ve mentioned that Psalm 23 has great meaning for you. How, during your time as a bishop, has that verse influenced you?
I think mainly because I really do trust. On the night of the celebration of my ministry at annual conference, Bishop May said something that hit me – that I am a person of hope. I firmly believe that God is with me. Because God leads me, there’s that hope always present even in the lowest moments. When I think that I’m down in the valley, there’s that hope. If I didn’t have that hope, I don’t think life would have any meaning.
Does that thought transfer into the way you want the church to be? Have you helped to create a church with hope?
I’m always hopeful about the church. I believe we can do anything we want to. I think, for example, about how when the BWC first started its partnership with Zimbabwe, it was taboo for people to talk about AIDS. It was hush-hush, there were no signs, no education, none of that. But the church made a difference and found a way forward. Today, there are even billboards put up about it, there is education, and infection rates have dramatically dropped. And so, that’s brought me hope. It’s that hope that makes me know we’ll find the best way to globally address the issue of homosexuality. We will find the path forward.
I also think of our conference’s partnership with Zimbabwe. It’s unbelievable the large number of people who have been involved since the 1990s in many more ways than I would have imagined. I was always hopeful that it would catch on. We started small. It was a dream. That’s how life is. Life starts with dreams.
You’ve heard me talk about Uncle Bubba. We would sit out fishing and talk. He didn’t use the word “goals,” and he didn’t use the word “vision;” but he would always say, “you can move beyond where you are. You can do this, you can do that.” And so hope is just in my DNA.
You’ve been known to wear your love of the institutional church on your sleeve. What is it about the church that captures your heart?
I guess the greatest thing for me is the connectionalism, being part of a connectional church. To me that’s just such a good thing to be a part of. When one part needs assistance, another part steps in. When one part can’t do something, the others can make it happen.
And I think the other thing I love, which actually took a while for me to grasp, is the value of being a global church instead of a national church. In these 42 years, the church has afforded me opportunities to see and be exposed to the world in ways that another profession, like teaching, could not have.
Why is it important that we be a global church?
Because the world is getting smaller and I don’t think we will ever be able to move back into silos anymore. I think what we witnessed this last General Conference was, for the first time, the global church. I think we got the church we prayed for, but we weren’t entirely prepared for it. God answered our prayer, but we didn’t have all the tools to make it happen in a smooth way. I think for going forward we cannot prepare for General Conference in the ways we’ve always done it.
You talked a little bit at your farewell celebration about prayer. How has your daily prayer, “God make me a better person today than I was yesterday,” been answered for you during these past couple of years?
I think what is has done is slow me down. It helps me to be more reflective. It’s caused me to listen more. Listening is not easy. It’s a challenge because we always assume we know the answer. But to sit and really listen to God helps me to put on the brakes when I need to. Prayer and listening puts something in motion that allows me to go down the right paths.
Prayer really does help. People who are prayer warriors, you can see a difference in them. They have a different outlook on life. Some people will say it’s a gentle spirit. I say, it’s just being what God wants you to be.
What words would you share with our churches, or individuals in our pews who want to grow in their faith? What wisdom would you share?
Don’t be embarrassed to be who God created you to be. That goes for individuals and churches, don’t be carbon copies. Rejoice in what makes you unique; focus on your personal relationship with God and how you can live that out.
The inclusion of young people in the church has been a priority for you. What words do you have to offer them?
This is important. Someone took time to care about me when I was young, that’s why I’m in the church. I can do no less. When I was very, very little, clergy and laypersons made space for me to be involved in the church. They helped me, they assisted me, they corrected me. I’ve always been persuaded I need to pay back.
When I was growing up, Methodists went to Methodist churches. Today, people either go to the church that meets their needs or they hear something about a place that sounds exciting. People shop around. We need to be relevant. But I also think we ought not, out of our desperation, lower our expectations of young people. We need to give them something of meaning, of significance, that they can take ownership of. And, I don’t think we need to be apologetic about it.
Tell me about how, over the past 42 years of ministry, your ideas about God have changed? How are you different today, spiritually, then you were when you started as a pastor?
I tend to see God in the faces of people that I meet. And so, I would say my perceptions of God have changed as I have grown and been exposed to other cultures, people from around the world. It’s become less complicated. It’s seeing God, seeing the holy, in the faces of others.
Is there anything you haven’t done, in the area of mission and ministry, that you wish you had done or that you’re still looking forward to?
I can say personally, that I really did not take enough time to sit down and do journaling the way I have always wanted to. I’m committed to doing that now in a more disciplined way. I have also not written my story in a way that I can share it. I do think there are some things in my story that would be helpful to persons, especially to young people.
I think a lot of young people assume that because I am a bishop, that I’ve always had it good, that I’ve always been the nice boy sitting in the pew or going to the seminary and those kinds of things. But there was a point when I was called “a hell-raiser” in the church because I was fighting for social justice. There is a book by Bishop William Cannon in which he talks about the Youth Task Force, a group advocating for civil rights. This was a group that, at the 1970 special session of General Conference, actually took over a room where the Council of Bishops met. I was the chairperson of that group at that time. We were basically demanding rights for young African-Americans. In his book, he was not accurate in his reporting. From his perspective we were disrespectful. He claimed we knocked down a bishop, which was not true. The bishop slipped. But the good thing was there were bishops in that room who supported and encouraged us to do what we did because they thought that was the only way our voices would be heard.
People talk about the BWC being a diverse conference. Have we arrived at a point where we can sit back and be satisfied or are there still struggles ahead?
In our conference and in our denomination, there was a point between the 70s and the 80s, in which we were on the cutting edge of inclusiveness and diversity. People from different denominations were trying to model us. We had started GCORR and other groups. But I think somewhere along the journey, we became comfortable. I think we thought we had accomplished our task. There are folks who are saying, “Okay, we’ve done that; we’re inclusive.”
We may be inclusive at the General Church level. But when you get to where the rubber hits the road, which is the local churches, I think we have not done a good job. That is a troubling thing for me to leave. Although I think we have a good number of what I would consider to be diverse congregations, we still don’t have enough. We have to work at that. We still need to find ways in which we can make changes so that the 11 o’clock hour is not the most segregated in America.
What kind of things have you done, during the past four years, but also during your entire ministry, that you look back upon as highlights? What will your legacy be?
Well, outside of the prayer piece, I’ve been thinking about this – stewardship. I’ve always enjoyed having that as part of my ministry for some reason. It probably started in my second appointment at Jones Memorial. I followed a pastor who was known as someone who got churches to do things financially. I was kind of thrust into an expectation. I was told they wanted to build a sanctuary. And I realized we didn’t have all the income. The blessing came during those very same years. The General Board of Discipleship was looking for persons to be, what they called, Stewardship Associates. I became one and was able to apply those gifts and those skills to my local churches.
What I kind of enjoyed was stewardship education; but not from the sense of hitting people over the head with “give, give, give,” but looking at our stewardship as a spiritual issue, and not necessarily just the dollars. That I thoroughly enjoyed. As a matter of fact, my DMin was kind of on that area, dealing with the spirituality of stewardship, that whole piece.
As I look back over my time as a bishop in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, they were weak in stewardship. When I got there they were in the bottom five in terms of General Church giving. I used to do stewardship workshops as a bishop in that conference and I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I would stand, people would tell me, “oh, they’re going to beat you up on that, they don’t want the bishop telling them about their money.” But those sessions became like revival services. They became a platform for preaching. It was a teaching moment but it was also a moment for them to see that stewardship wasn’t about me scolding people. It was something to look at spiritually – why do we give?
This year, the BWC reached a 15-year high in apportionment giving. I think this reflects well on our stewardship. Baltimore-Washington has always been kind of strong dollar-wise, but we still need to be working at our spirituality.
What about Barbara, your wife? How has it been having her as a partner throughout this ministry?
She’s kept me steady. She’s there as a presence when I need to have someone who I can turn to. Not necessarily to discuss what’s going on in the church but to be a kind of rock, someone I could kind of bounce things off of. And I have to say she has been the one who has made sure the house, that the things I need, the care for the children, all those things were cared for so that I could be set free to do the work.
Every time you’re with a group, you seem to say, “thank you.” What words of thanks or gratitude would you want to share with the people of the conference?
I say that, the thank you, because I don’t think people hear it enough. I don’t think that we affirm what people do enough. What I’ve discovered is that something as simple as saying thank you to a group, thank you to an individual, the blessings you get in return are just unbelievable. What it does is it makes people think they can do something that they may not have thought of doing. It’s a simple two words, but it tends to hit people in an unexpected way, I’ve discovered. Even the people who don’t want to hear it, it kind of calms the spirit, makes them a little bit more gentle.
As you leave, are there things you’re grateful for?
I’m grateful for the people who have been in my life. I’m grateful that God gave me these experiences. I never thought I would have the adventures that I have gone on. The things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, the experiences, the challenges have all been blessings.
In the big picture, when you look back over your ministry, what do you hope your legacy will be? Can you share one or two things?
One or two things? That I tried to be an encourager, to help others to reach their potential. I guess this may be kind of similar, I would say I was a leader, but I was a leader who believed in sharing in the vision and decision-making process with the people I led. I also believe in bringing other leaders along with me.
I just simply love, I love people, but I have a high expectation of people and my high expectations push people to do what they thought they couldn’t do. I think if you have low expectations as a leader, you get low results. So, I had high expectations of our conference. With Imagine No Malaria, for example, I had high expectations and we reached our goal of $2.1 million. Because at least for me, if you don’t believe it, it just doesn’t happen. I just have to believe it, feel it and know that God will help me get it through.
As you prepare to leave, what’s your prayer for the people of the conference?
I pray that the people will keep building relationships among themselves, that the conference does not go back to being isolated into theological camps, but that we always look at what we have in common and we start from there. Our starting point is always Jesus Christ and our mission, regardless of where we stand, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I firmly believe there is room enough for all of us at the table. But I think as an annual conference if we ever get caught letting political ideologies drive us, instead of theological thinking, then we will no longer be the church, we’ll become just a social club. Our conference focuses on Jesus Christ. That’s what we’ve got in common.
I think the hot button issue right now is human sexuality. The reality is that there are LGBT persons in our homes, our churches and our communities. The issue is how do we determine how we live together. I think we can. Most of this is simply we’ve isolated ourselves, we’ve built up walls. We have to talk to each other. Until you know me, you’re not going to trust me.
As always, it goes back again to relationships. Until I have broken bread with you and sat at table with you, or looked at you eye-to-eye, it’s hard for me to feel your pain and begin to try to live into what you’re experiencing. We are the church. I pray we live, in our sanctuaries and the world, as beloved children of God.
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