Bishop aims big in short tenure at UM Men
By Jim Patterson
Jan. 17, 2024 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UM News)
Bishop James E. Swanson Sr. has honed his elevator pitch to perfection in the early days of his tenure steering United Methodist Men on an interim basis.
“How do we get men away from the pancake breakfasts to being a Big Brother?” he asked — with a grin — during an interview with United Methodist News, referring to the youth mentoring program.
Moving beyond meetings and getting out into the community through Scouting and other ministries is key, he says, along with committing to authentic Christian discipleship.
Swanson wants to make progress rather than being a placeholder after the departure of Greg Arnold, who left in November after serving just more than two years. The retired bishop has committed to staying on through General Conference, which is set for April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is well familiar with United Methodist Men having served as president of the board from 2012 to 2022 while leading the Mississippi Conference.
Swanson talked about the future of the agency and the denomination as United Methodists grapple with the disaffiliation of a quarter of U.S. congregations.
You retired as a bishop on Jan. 1 of last year. Why did you decide to take on another full-time position so soon?
I was trying to back away. … But when Greg (Arnold) approached Bishop (Gary) Mueller and said to him, “I have got to step away from being general secretary,” some board members asked me, “Would I be willing to step into that position?”
I asked them to give me a couple of days to let me talk with my wife, because she has been very supportive of my ministry, but she was looking forward to me retiring. … She said to me, “I'm willing to allow you to do this as long as it's not going to be any more than six or seven months. You're in good health, and I don't want you to run yourself down so that you don't enjoy life.”
Arnold had a relatively short tenure in the job and brought a lot of excitement with his embrace of technology in particular. Can you tell us more about why he resigned?
It's nothing nefarious. He just asked us not to reveal all of it now, but it's for a very good reason. Greg was a master with technology and cast such an exciting vision of what (United Methodist Men) could become. … A lot of the work that Greg was doing, in particular bringing us up to date technologically, getting us involved with apps and websites and all that kind of stuff, and teaching men that you can have a solid ministry, even to a man who's 50 minutes from the Arctic Circle. Some of them are looking for material and ways to grow in Christ, and I think it's a season where men are more serious than ever before about their spiritual walk.
How does United Methodist Men fit into the church’s mission to be more relevant in people’s daily lives?
This is a real struggle that I have. How do we help the rest of the church see us as an asset, when for years … men were seen more as not cooperating with the change that needed to happen? And some of that may have been true. Because we were pretty much content with men's clubs. You come on a Saturday morning, you eat, sit around, you belch and you tell some jokes and you have some fun. But no movement toward true authentic Christian discipleship.
And so here we're men meeting who were supposed to be Wesleyan Christians but (there’s) no discipleship going on with them. … There are so many things that men can add to the life of the church. Just a quick statistic: We already know that when a man gives his life to Christ, or unites with the church, that you stand about a 75 percent to 80 percent chance that the rest of the family will come.
How will you try to do that?
I think The United Methodist Church needs men who are totally committed to Christ, totally committed to the church with all the church's beauty, but also with all the scars. That's what we need. … The man who sits at home, who is a member of the church but has given up on church, (if) I get him more involved, I get the spouse involved. I get the children more involved. He becomes a good role model for his son. It just changes the whole paradigm.
(Men need) to really understand and know that Christ is for them, not against them, and that the church can be a vehicle for that, because I do know that Jesus is more popular than the church. But the church has to come along with that and to present Christ in that positive direction for them.
You mentioned more involvement with Scouting and Big Brothers Big Sisters. What’s happening there?
Our director of Scouting Ministries (Steven Scheid), he's gotten so excited about it. We talked yesterday a little bit about how we might do some things.
We have not taken advantage of a program within Big Brothers Big Sisters called the Amachi Program. … It is basically designed for generational families that are caught up in generational imprisonment. You become a Big (Brother) to a kid whose father or mother is already serving time, and they are present to keep that kid from following in their same footsteps. The program is fairly successful, depending on the Big Sister or Big Brother being really committed. So those kinds of things we're trying to do. We’re looking at some other things, to try and take some stuff and revamp it, reshape and reposition it.
Will United Methodist Men become involved more with movements like Black Lives Matter?
The United Methodist Church is a worldwide church. We worked very hard for a number of years as a church to push America away from a life of discrimination and racism that was accepted. And yet it's still with us. … How can the NFL outdo us on racism? But they are. They're blatantly and boldly taking it on. Now, I don't know the specific programs, but at least on national television, when millions of people watch football games, they at least are willing to put it out that we want to eradicate racism as a part of football and sports in American society. …
Many of our younger men are really seeing that as a rallying cry. They really think that the church ought to be more involved in social justice. Now, what does that mean? Each group has got to decide for themselves. Every local men's chapter, what is the burning issue in our community that is contrary to Christ, that we need to at least address? … I do believe that a person who is committed to Christ should also be committed to eradicating domestic violence and should be committed to eradicating anything that dehumanizes people.
The disaffiliation of United Methodist churches because of disagreement over the role of LGBTQ people in the church is front and center right now. How does this affect United Methodist Men?
I really don't think the church has taken advantage of the “D” word of disaffiliation. Because I think it's an opportunity … for us to reset. We were already losing a number of people. A number of our churches were already closing. … But what has happened (is) too much moaning and groaning about it to the point where we don't seem to know where we're going from here other than we're angry. I know I'm saying that because I was hurt because we lost people, but we lost key people in our own lives, folks who we were reallyattached to, who we really love, who disagree with us. It's like a divorce.
How does the church take advantage of this?
First of all, bishops need to understand … we're supposed to cast vision. In so doing, we also have the opportunity to pass that vision on to our superintendents. But we have to go through some therapy, I think. I don't know who would do it, I really don't. But we need to come to grips with the hurt and the pain. We're trying to act as either it has not happened or it doesn't affect us. … We have not had growth, and I know folks don't want to talk about the growth because it scares them. But what organization or institution wants 40 years of decline?
What will UM Men be looking for in a new permanent top executive?
We're looking for someone who first of all has to be innovative. Secondly, he needs to be a really good team builder, because we are … realizing that the general secretary can't do it all. We have a team here now that we really do believe can catapult us into the future, so we need it to be someone who can work with a team. But also, a person who … buys into who we are as a church.
(They need to be) innovative around how we communicate our message, because that's going to be very important. … I want him to be a good communicator to be able to inspire men, because I think most men in the church know they need to be Christians. … I’ve had men as old as 80-something years old walk up to me and say, “I'm a good church man, but I don't know Jesus. Can you help me with that?” Men can fake it. You show up every Sunday, and it's like going to a card game to play.
Are you optimistic about the future of The United Methodist Church and United Methodist Men?
Maybe I'm too optimistic. I'm just part of that old generation of early baby boomers who … think we have a great church. … We have been in a downward spiral so long that we are refusing to look up at what we have accomplished.
There are things we have done well, and those things encourage me. We built hospitals, children's homes, senior citizen homes. We've built educational institutions like Duke (University). Syracuse (University) is really a United Methodist school. There’s Emory University and the (historically Black colleges and universities). We've done this. We did it before. And I think we can still do it.
Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.