Bishop Williamston Inspires Louisiana United Methodists to Get Up Off the Mat

Mark Lambert
June 14, 2023
It is probably safe to say that in the history of the United Methodist Church, no dog-tag-wearing, Army-boot-clad bishop has ever concluded an episcopal address by clutching a rolled-up mat and beseeching delegates to “get up and go home.”

Maybe you had to be there because on Wednesday in Baton Rouge, the first full day of the 2023 Annual Conference, it seemed exactly the right thing to do.

Louisiana Conference Bishop Delores J. Williamston’s 25-minute episcopal address was a spirited booster shot for the gathered clergy and laity, and it took direct aim at the elephant in the room: This is the first Annual Conference since dozens of former UMC congregations voted to disaffiliate, leaving a noticeably smaller conference at the annual gathering.

However, those who expected Bishop Williamston to deliver a wistful, sepia-toned reflection of “what used to be” had misjudged the retired Kansas Army National Guard veteran.

Instead, she delivered a rousing exhortation that the 280-plus churches that remain United Methodists will be “fueled by the Holy Spirit” to move forward.

“We are 280 churches strong,” she said as shouts of “Amen!” and “Preach!” filled the room. “We have 280 reasons for hope!”

Bishop Williamston’s sermon was rooted in Mark 2:1-12, the story of the paralyzed man lying on a mat who was taken to Jesus for healing. The people carrying the paralyzed man couldn’t get through the crowded house to reach Jesus, so they got on the roof, cut a hole through the ceiling, and lowered the man so Jesus could see him.

“I believe we are on that mat, a mat of paralysis that has paralyzed the United Methodist Church and us for decades,” the bishop said, citing Covid, political divisiveness, gun violence, storm fatigue, and disaffiliation. “All this paralysis sounds like a report from Eeyore.”

But Bishop Williamston quickly switched tone, saying it is “time to make a swift transition, to change our paralysis with a dose of hope as we lower ourselves back down in front of Jesus Christ…It is time for us here, the Louisiana disciples of the United Methodist Church, to raise the ceiling of our hope.”

In the Bible, Jesus healed the paralyzed man by telling him, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” Bishop Williamston pounced on the theme, saying, “We, the United Methodist Church, must get up from our mat and transition and walk. It is time, church, to move!”

The Louisiana Conference is busy growing the church, she said, meeting with groups in Ruston, Monroe, and St. Tammany, where churches have disaffiliated to “strengthen the United Methodist witness.” The conference is working to strengthen “our ethnic and Black United Methodist churches and build enduring relationships.”
More positive signs of growth are happening in Alexandria, Ponchatoula, Covington, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, and Lafayette, she said.

“The vision I see for this conference and the denomination is that we will set our sights on Jesus Christ as we march forward in hope, in a new day and a new dawn,” she said.

It is understandable that many United Methodists miss friends who are in churches that disaffiliated, but the bishop signaled a defiant note to anyone with designs on siphoning away any more United Methodists.

“We can no longer allow others to fish from our baskets again!” she said to applause and joyful shouts.

At that point, Bishop Williamston reached down and grabbed a rolled mat that was bound with string. “I’m glad we will pick up our mats and walk,” she said, marching across the stage in her combat boots as sustained waves of applause rose through the ballroom. “We will walk! We’ve got to pick up our mats and walk!”

More “amens” rang out as people spontaneously rose to their feet and the applause intensified.

“Will you pick up your mat and go? It is time to be the United Methodist Church!”

Throughout the room, more clergy and laity rose to their feet, not in a perfunctory fashion, but in scattered groups as they were organically moved. By the time Bishop Williamston wrapped up her address, the ballroom in Baton Rouge room rose in applause.

“Let us walk together! We’ve got this! We’ve got this!” she said, her boots thundering on the stage. “We’ve got everything we need!”
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