The preacher was in trouble. It’s hard to take the life out of the story of Jonah, but somehow he had. Struggling preachers are not unusual. We’ve all had a Sunday. Or several. But in early 19th-century Methodism, including the AME branch of Methodism, (of which this preacher was a part), the official preachers had a back-up—exhorters—and Jarena Lee was just such a person.
Listening to that poor preacher, Jarena was convicted by “supernatural impulse” to stand and expound on the same text. It was a daring act because it sure looked like preaching. And women didn’t preach in those days, (although a number of Methodist women had taken the lead in what looked very much like preaching roles in Wesley’s movement, though they never had the title).
Jarena certainly thought she had crossed a line:
“I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that now he as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.”*
Jarena was a forerunner of all the women who now have their calls recognized in denominations like my own—the United Methodist Church. But something else gets my attention in this exchange—the role of insiders and outsiders in a local church.
Early Methodism was on the move. Its circuit-riding preachers traveled large circuits and they were frequently reassigned to new circuits on an annual basis. They were not meant to become enmeshed in a particular church or community. They had “nothing to do but save souls,” as John Wesley put it, and to organize small groups to continue the work of growing in holiness. They couldn’t help but be considered outsiders, or in the lingo of the Eastern Shore where I live, ‘come heres.’
The exhorters were the insiders, the lay leaders who kept the Methodist societies going when the preachers weren’t around. They were the ones who could encourage and inspire. To use a modern word, they were the ones who could contextualize the message that the preachers proclaimed. It was a role that men and women fulfilled.
Even when the preachers were leading the worship, the exhorters would supplement their sermons in the way that Jarena Lee did, sometimes offering fiery, charismatic, and evangelistic calls after the preacher did his best. One Methodist exhorter, Thomas Saunders noted, “It is common with us for men and women to fall down as dead under an exhortation,” accompanied by numerous conversions.**
Methodism has changed since the days of Jarena Lee. Our clergy now settle in and are encouraged to become real residents in the communities that they serve, even if they still retain their membership in the larger Annual Conference. Lay servants, lay speakers, and certified lay ministers are the heirs of the exhorters. Women and people of color now take on leadership in all these roles, hopefully without worry that their call from God might lead to their expulsion from the church.
The insight that early Methodism had, though, that ought to be retained is that a vital and healthy church depends on the interlocking wisdom of insiders and outsiders. Outsiders bring new ideas and a broader vision of the Church. People in the community bring a knowledge of the history and deep currents of a particular place. Both have gifts to give.
So many of the tensions in rural America these days relate to how much agency local communities have in determining their future. With declining populations, changing economies, and other challenges, small towns begin to doubt their capacity for building a vibrant community like they remember they once were.
It’s the same for churches. But the Methodist genius of connecting the native capacities of the local and the animating energy of the committed “traveler in the midst” still has the potential to renew the Church. It’s how God moved Jarena Lee.