Wesleyan Pilgrimage Inspires Rev. Frank and Brenda Coats
Rev. Frank Coats, St. Matthew’s UMC, Houston, shares how his recent Wesleyan Pilgrimage, designed and planned by the General Board of Discipleship, was a life-changing 10 days that revitalized and restored his ministry perspective.
On July 13, Rev. Frank Coats and his wife Brenda landed in London to join 34 other ‘pilgrims’ on a 10-day pilgrimage planned by the General Board of Discipleship. He is in his 12th year of appointment as a Methodist pastor and 6th year at St. Matthew’s UMC in Houston. Shares Frank, “The ages of pilgrims ranged from folks who had retired from long ministries to young people just starting out, many still provisional members of their annual conferences from all over North America: Missouri, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Ohio, Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, Iowa, Tennessee, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, the Great Plains, Rio Grande and Texas.”
He believes it is important for leaders to be refreshed and revitalized. Adds Frank, “The folks who made the trip possible for us did so because they had seen too many clergy burn out and they did not want that to happen to us. As soon as we boarded that airplane, we were in for a life-changing 10 days.”
Each of the travelers – including the two leaders – were asked what they hoped for during the pilgrimage. Some wanted to have a deeper understanding of Wesleyan theology and some wanted to get in touch with their theological roots, and to see where Methodism began. “My hope was that I would once again become an ardent disciple of Jesus, and not the religious professional I saw myself becoming,” he explains.
Expert Guides Enriched the Experience
Pilgrimage leaders included Steve Manskar, D.Min., the Director of Wesleyan Leadership with the General Board of Discipleship and Paul W. Chilcote, Ph.D., Academic Dean and Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary. Adds Frank, “Victoria Rebeck, the Director of Provisional Members and Deacon Ministry Development with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, taught us more about the role of a deacon.”
The journals provided encouraged participants to immerse themselves in the ministry, theology and spirituality of John and Charles Wesley through daily prayer, visiting historic sites, plenary and small group sessions and insisted that the pilgrims “Have fun!”??
Learning the Legacy
Notes Frank, “We began each day with Morning Prayer and Eucharist and ended each night with Compline. We sang Charles Wesley hymns, many of us learning some of these hymns for the first time and forming a deeper appreciation for the depth of his poetry. Paul Chilcote has written a number of books on the Wesleys and we prayed each day a prayer adapted from his book, Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit, in which he wrote 52 prayers based on John Wesley sermons – a book I highly recommend!”
For 10 days, all were indeed immersed in the story and heritage of the Wesleys, he adds, “in the story of these young men who so sincerely wanted to know more of God in a world where much attention was paid to forms of godliness but little to substance. They wondered, where were the transformed lives? What difference did Christ make in their lives and in the lives of those around them? These were the same questions I wrestled with before the trip. We preach that everyone is welcome, but welcome to what? Welcome to witness and experience the transforming love of God, not just something but everything.”
Based in Salisbury, and residing primarily at Sarum College, the pilgrims traveled, by coach and by foot, studying in small groups and as a body. “The beautiful Salisbury Cathedral stood right outside our window, and we heard the bells mark the hours,” he shares. “This can scarcely be described by someone who grew up in Pasadena, Texas. But suffice it to say we have a long, long and magnificent, history of the faith.”
At Swanwick, staying at the Hayes Conference Centre, the Coats heard a lecture on “Mission-shaped Discipleship” from Dr. Phil Meadows, lecturer in Missiology and Wesleyan Studies at Cliff College. “We talked about practices, about seeking holiness, about Scripture and fasting and being immersed in prayer.” Adds Frank, “Here was a turning point for me, and for Brenda.”
They traveled to Epworth, where John and Charles Wesley were born and spent their formative years. Recalls Frank, “We saw the font where they were baptized and saw the chalice they used at St. Andrew's Church. We saw Samuel Wesley's tomb, where John preached when he was denied the pulpit. We saw Bristol and the New Room where Methodism started moving out across the country. We toured the home of Charles Wesley, and climbed to the third floor room that was his study. We saw Bath and the Kingswood School, still ongoing and still educating children and shaping generations. “
After moving on to London, Frank and Brenda saw the Methodist Central Hall, where the first meetings of the United Nations took place after World War II. (Bombs did not destroy Methodist Central Hall and St. Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz.) On a walking tour, the group came to the site marked as Wesley's Aldersgate experience, just outside a museum. Because of the bomb damage, the exact site is no longer known. Shares Frank, “Spontaneously one of the pilgrims started Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing and we all joined in. Paul Chilcote led us in a prayer at that site -- where God moved in a heart and touched the lives of millions.”
“We stood in pulpits where Wesley preached, and saw rooms where he stayed. The history we learned became vivid, life-giving. We walked through John Wesley's home, and saw his kneeling rail where he studied and prayed just off his bedroom and we were allowed to kneel and pray there ourselves,” he adds. Wesley Chapel is on the same premises, and just outside is John Wesley's tomb. “For many of us, after being immersed in the Wesleys for so long, seeing the tomb was a deeply emotional experience. “
Each of the pilgrims has their own story. “My wife Brenda now understood Wesleyan theology of heart and mind better than I ever could explain it to her, “ he shares. “Neither of us grew up United Methodist, and she was hearing and understanding some things for the first time. And I had a deeper sense of purpose for the work of the ministry.”
Another younger pilgrim said he came discouraged over the infighting of the church, and wondered if he wanted to stay a United Methodist. Adds Frank, “The pilgrimage helped him determine we had a theology worth fighting for, and he was going to stay.”
Frank believes that many UMC churches and discussions among colleagues indicate, “We no longer have the main thing - the main thing. At least from my perspective, we drift to secondary arguments. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in The Screwtape Letters. The older devil told the younger he did not need to get his charge to renounce the faith; he only needed to get him involved in a cause. Soon the cause would overtake the primary. Lewis was writing about the peace movement in those days before World War II, but we can fill in our own causes now that have overshadowed our purpose of spreading Scriptural holiness throughout the land.”
This experience is having a lasting impact on the Coats. “At least for me,” he adds, “I am clearer than I have been in years of what I want to do with my time and chance at ministry as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. This trip has been life-changing for many, and can be life-changing for many more. I hope the seeds planted will call us back to our roots as a movement to spread the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a cold and hurting world, and that we will seek personal holiness of heart and life as we seek to lead.”
One of the leadership lessons taken to heart came from the example of Paul imitating Christ. “I want to imitate the zeal of the Wesley’s but be more intentional in my Christian practices, including fasting and focusing on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world to the glory of God. And I am gathering people around me to help me do that.”
The first week back, he preached on the great Charles Wesley hymn that he had never heard before, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown." Adds Frank, “It's in the hymnal, with massive amounts of verses, but well worth reading for your devotions. I am now doing a sermon series on the General Rules. Actually, I am more excited about what I am doing than I have been in a long time, and that is an incredible gift and grace from God.”
For more information on the GBOD Wesleyan Pilgrimage Tour: http://www.gbod.org/leadership-resources/wesleyan-pilgrimage-in-england