By Melissa Lauber
Since 1784, when Francis Asbury put out the call for pastors to meet in Baltimore to create the Methodist Church, 35 men have served as a bishop in the Baltimore-Washington Conference or one of its predecessors. On Sept. 1, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling changed all that by becoming the first female bishop to serve the area.
Bishop Easterling was elected to the episcopacy at the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference on July 14, after serving as superintendent of the Metro Boston Hope District, and as pastor of Union, Pearl Street and Old West UMCs in Massachusetts. She was ordained a Deacon in 1995 and an Elder in 1997, having worked previously as a director of human resources and as an attorney.
Easterling was raised in the church by parents whose faith infused all parts of her life. God and the church are “truly a part of the fabric of my life, and I claim the Gospel as a living, breathing story,” she said.
Easterling remembers playing on the floor at church while her parents attended committee meetings and taught Bible study. She served the church “in every position one could imagine.” But it wasn’t until she was in her 20s, and living in Colorado, that she saw a woman associate pastor “preaching, leading and doing amazing work for God.”
Seeing a woman in this leadership role made her begin to wonder if that might be a way God could use her. “I think it opened me to being able to fully hear God’s call on my life,” she said.
That’s why having a female bishop is important. “It’s bigger than just me,” she said. “Often young people imagine who they can be by what they observe others doing. This is significant for that reason.”
While observing the historic milestone is cause for celebration, it produces strong feelings of humility and anticipation, Easterling said. “I look forward to how God will use us together to continue to be in mission and ministry in the Beloved Community in which the Baltimore-Washington Conference sits.”
Her first order of business, the new bishop said, is to listen and to learn. A leader who focuses on collaboration and consensus building, she is excited by the conference’s rich diversity and hearing the stories and learning about its more than 165,000 people, 632 churches and their ministries.
Building relationships and partnerships in churches and communities will be among her priorities.
The United Methodist Church is facing a number of challenges. Easterling is excited about working with BWC leaders to meet them head on.
“I think right now our fear about numbers, concerns that we don’t have the strength in numbers we once had, has become too dominant in our thinking,” Easterling said. “I really wish we’d spend our time instead focusing on the gifts of our Wesleyan heritage. Methodism was strongest when it was on the margins, helping the marginalized; when it was steeped in advocacy; when we delighted in exuberant worship; when we weren’t afraid to claim who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ, both in our worship and mission.”
The bishop shares the concerns of many mainstream church leaders about the increasing numbers of people who are claiming that God no longer plays a central role in their lives.
To those lay and clergy leaders working to help make the church seem more relevant, Bishop Easterling shares these thoughts: “We are not called to walk in fear, but to walk in faith,” she said. “People are still hungering and thirsting to have a deeper meaning in their lives and to find ways to make a difference in the world. We as a church simply need to be creative enough, flexible enough and resilient enough to find ways to connect to our communities.”
Easterling rejects the liberal/conservative labels some use to define United Methodist leaders. Instead, she assumes the description of “Christ-centered.”
In her preaching, which tends to be “justice-driven,” Easterling claims Scripture as her absolute foundation. She also proclaims, “we are all created in the image and likeness of God.” She laments how race, gender, religious identification, economics, sexual orientation, health or any other status can be used to diminish people. In the Bible, “time and time again,” she said, “we see Jesus Christ breaking through barriers and stepping beyond boundaries to recognize, lift and love people because of the image and likeness of God they reflect.”
For some, that makes her seem liberal, but she also believes in humbling herself before God and accepting the lordship of Christ in ways that make others view her as conservative.
“I see myself as one who is centered in Jesus Christ, one who tries to exegete and interpret Scriptures in light of how I see God moving in the world,” the bishop said. “We need to walk as Christ walked, love as Christ loved, and embrace as Christ embraced.”
This sometimes means taking risks, the bishop said. “We need to be good stewards of resources. We don’t need to be wasteful. But I don’t think to take risks for the sake of the Gospel, to start new initiatives, to try to reach new persons is, in any way, being wasteful with our resources.” It’s even okay if the church tries and fails, she said. “Because in failure, we learn how to succeed.”
Educated as an attorney, Easterling served a brief time as a prosecutor. She appreciates the law and its quest for justice. She also finds value in the Socratic method, using questions to get to the heart of a matter.
There are a few questions she hopes United Methodists will ask themselves: Are we being bold enough? Are we being courageous enough? Have we been looking too inward in terms of our time, our resources, our mission, or our ministry? Or, have we been doing what I believe God has been calling us to do, which is to constantly look outward into the community, into the world, and broadening the mission field?
Bishop Easterling is married to the Rev. Marion Easterling Jr., who, as of Sept. 1, began serving Wesley Grove UMC in Hanover. He formerly served Parkway UMC in Milton, Mass. They have two sons, Garret Walter and Miles Teronza.