An Interview with the Rev. Jeremy Smith on the eve of General Conference 2019

Renowned pastor and author Brian D. McLaren photographed next to United Methodist pastor and blogger Jeremy Smith at the latter’s church in 2017. Photo by Patrick Scriven for the PNW Conference.

When I first met the Rev. Jeremy Smith in person, an awkward joke about short stormtroopers ushered forth from my mouth unbidden. Such is the danger of finally meeting someone known only from afar, especially when you share a number of overlapping interests and passions.

It’s likely that I’m not the only person to have had a first-encounter with Jeremy via his popular blog Hacking Christianity. Since 2008, Smith has operated the site as a means of provoking conversation about faith in general, and The United Methodist Church specifically. Using the “lenses of progressive theology, technology, and geek culture,” the blog’s content and ethos incarnate both the author’s interest in how data is used to shape opinion, and his willingness to poke a few proverbial bears to push the Church forward.

Since Jeremy’s move to the Western Jurisdiction—serving Portland First United Methodist Church as Minister of Discipleship in 2012 and then Seattle First UMC as Senior Pastor in 2017—I’ve had additional opportunities to meet and work with him. His blog continues to provide insight, even on those occasions where I’ve had to sift through a fair amount of hyperbole to arrive at a shared truth. But if you appreciate a Church that is fully transparent, finding room for a blogging provocateur like Rev. Smith is a necessity, not an option.

Jeremy was kind enough to answer some questions for us over the busy weekend preceding the 2019 Special Session of General Conference. While some of what follows anticipates this imminent event in the life of the denomination, we also delve underneath to some of the values that keep him engaged in this work long term. We start off discussing a recent set of articles that you can find here: (Part 1 | Part 2)

You recently wrote about the impact of the Traditional(ist) Plan on the pensions of clergy persons who could be forced out by its potential passing. To do so, you used a whitepaper from Wespath beyond its originally intended purpose. As a communicator within the institution, let’s just say my approach would have been different, yet your provocation gave Wespath an opportunity to better inform delegates and the rest of the church, once they finally took advantage of it. This less cautious approach appears to be a feature rather than a bug in what you offer the Church through Hacking Christianity. Is this a fair take?

Each form of social media has a certain vehicle that it seems to run on best. Facebook runs on friends. Twitter runs on shame. Instagram runs on beauty. Snapchat runs on discretion. Blogs are really varied with limitless topics, but I believe most advocacy blogs run on outrage, on presenting longform arguments that the world should not be as it is. I embrace that outrage vehicle, but I do so with a twist: the provocations are used to educate the average United Methodist about our polity, theology, practices, and our history. By framing the title and lead content in a way that evokes emotion, the rest of the arcane or esoteric content is more easily understood.

Using your example, no one would click on a pensions white paper summary. But (checks stats) 18,000 people did see a post that credibly describes how pensions would be affected under one of the General Conference 2019 plans (and the content was confirmed two weeks later by an independent annual conference board). More people are educated in how our pensions work than would have been otherwise, and Wespath wisely took the traffic I was sending them to likewise educate the public.

The blog’s mission is to educate the public, advocate for inclusion of the oppressed, and to do so in a way that makes heavy content light-hearted and draws people in to do something about what they are reading. Every blog has a bias, and I’ve chosen to embrace mine and not claim otherwise.

One word that is often used to describe you is “prolific.” How do you keep up with the robust conversations, particularly about the upcoming special session, while attending to the responsibilities you have to a growing family and vital church, AND still having time to regularly wade in with your own perspective?

Hacking Christianity is a blog that for 11 years (as of the end of February) has offered progressive Christian commentary on The United Methodist Church and geek culture. Eleven years is a lot of time to hone a voice and make it flow easily. Some blog posts write themselves in quick spurts, and some take weeks or months to finally gather all the information needed for a good conversation. What I’ve built a reputation for is that each post will be informative and chock-full of data and commentary and snark, so that means while my frequency has gone down from previous years (“prolificiousness” started to go down about three years ago when our second daughter was born) the word count has stayed about the same. As to how I find the time…I just wake up early and allow the whole of my life to inform (and thus contribute to the writing of) the blog. Christ calls all of us to share the Gospel, and that includes our digital life too!

What tips would you offer to others who might want to start a blog or podcast?

When I lead trainings or workshops for seminaries, church groups, or advocacy efforts, I always start with voice: what voice do you want to portray? Does someone else have a voice like the one you want to put out there? If you put it out there and got negative feedback, would your voice have to change? How is Christ’s church bettered by having your voice out there?

I started my online voice with a religion forum that was pseudonymous: no one knew it was mine. I honed my voice over three years of religion conversations, and when I was ready, I launched the blog as my own authentic voice. That time in private and out of the limelight let me figure things out. For some people, anonymity allows them that same freedom. For others, they want the authenticity that comes from having your name attached to it from the start. Pick one and try it out.

Hacking Christianity, circa 2009.

When you have your voice, write or record a month’s worth of content before you launch. If you have a blog that is twice a week, launch the website with .5 months of content (four blog posts) and have four posts ready in the wings. If you have a weekly podcast, launch with two podcasts posted and have two already recorded. That way when you are doing the heavy advertising and marketing and disseminating you are not trying to create content at the same time.

I know you have some sensitivity to the amount of unearned privilege you have in the United States and in The United Methodist Church, and that there is no shortage of folks like you in the blogosphere. What practices do you engage in to check that privilege in your writing and to give space to other voices?

Look, there are a lot of straight white male clergy like me online. We dominate the digital space as much as we dominate the analog space. I learned early on that I don’t have to opine about everything, so I give preferential space on my blog to women and people of color and the LGBTQ community and give them the vehicle to offer their better-informed perspective. Especially when it comes to Methodist topics, we are not all in agreement. But by stepping back and putting great content by people who don’t reflect my narrow privilege, it betters the readers and it gives those voices trial runs before they launch their own blogs, articles, podcast, or efforts—which then I can link to and support. HX has become a clearinghouse for progressive Christian commentary, and thankfully it isn’t just all me anymore. 

You’ve lived and done ministry in three Jurisdictions and four Annual Conferences. What have you learned from working alongside United Methodists in these different contexts? How has this shaped your perspective especially as it pertains to The United Methodist Church in this current moment?

Gosh, a tough question. I think every region is so different, and yet we have so much in common that binds us together across the differences. I have a few sermons that I’ve preached in every church I’ve served in four states across three jurisdictions. Looking at how I’ve adapted them for the context, it strikes me how different they are. I really emphasized personal transformation in the Bible Belt. I really emphasized Justice and collaboration in the northwest. I really emphasized traditions in New England. I think each region has a different flavor to it, and the preacher’s job is to preach between the differences.

One other example is how associate pastors are regarded. When I was an associate in the Bible Belt, I was ridiculed for being #2 or the “Junior Pastor” and I bought into it with self-deprecating humor. When I was an associate at First UMC Portland, I brought some of that with me, but the congregation said “no, being an Associate is a calling, not a clowning.” Each region holds their pastors very differently, and so you have to earn trust or authority in different ways.

In advance of General Conference 2019, you have been public in your advocacy for the Simple Plan, perhaps with some openness to the One Church Plan as a step forward. As a pastor of a progressive church in downtown Seattle, would there be a substantive difference in what your church does if either pass?

A substantial portion of the worshipping congregation at First Church Seattle is LGBTQ. They often tell me of their joy at having found an inclusive church after years (or a lifetime) of searching, and they want everyone in their community to find one as well, wherever they are. That’s why I support the Simple Plan because it most efficiently eliminates the barriers to relationships and callings to ordained ministry. There is little difference between the Simple Plan and the One Church Plan for an open ministry conference like the Pacific Northwest or Oregon-Idaho.

No matter what plan passes, First Church will continue to advocate for LGBTQ inclusion across United Methodism. We have a highly transient congregation with members serving for a few years in the tech, education, or medical sector, and then moving away. We want to nurture and equip each one to be an advocate for progressive Christianity and inclusion of all people wherever they go, and we are grateful for other churches across the connection who have sent similar members our way to continue that work they began.

As a follow-up, I tend to think the Traditional(ist) plan has a Donald Trump-sized chance of being adopted in some form by the General Conference. What advice would you offer to leaders in progressive parts of the church as they speak into the moment that would follow?

We need an inclusive church for the kids’ sake, both ours and the ones born on the other side of the aisle…

We need to keep LGBTQ voices and persons front and center. This conference is about unity, yes, but it cannot be a unity that glosses over LGBTQ persons. My drive for an inclusive church is from an LGBTQ activist I heard 15 years ago in Boston: there will still be gay kids born to straight parents in whatever church there is, so we cannot allow oppression to reign anywhere. I can’t do anything about oppression in the Southern Baptist churches or the Catholic Churches: but I can do something about oppression in The United Methodist Church. We need an inclusive church for the kids’ sake, both ours and the ones born on the other side of the aisle, that they know they are beloved by God too. Any unity we create that includes such a named commitment has my vote.

I think leaders should draw from Matthew 10 and be wise as serpents that every avenue and tool is being used to promote the Tradtional(ist) Plan, and if we are not naming and opposing each of them, we will fall short. And yet we are called to be gentle as doves, drawing in the negative energy around the retributive aspects of the Tradtional(ist) Plan, and instead showing how even in its best form, it falls short of its goal: it will never eliminate LGBTQ persons from the life of the church, and it will not succeed in driving out progressive United Methodists. It’s a non-starter of anything new in The United Methodist Church.

You’ve dedicated a fair amount of your ministry (and free time) to advancing a progressive viewpoint in this conversation that will culminate in St. Louis. You’ll be in St. Louis as a reserve delegate and as blogger/communicator. What will have you dancing on the way to your flight back to Seattle?

Clarity is important. The current controversy over Hillsong church is that they say one thing but practice another. The UMC says one thing and practices another, and I think we will emerge with clarity of who we are as a church. While I hope and will advocate for the Simple Plan, the One Church plan allows each region to choose their witness, and I think that’s a step in the right direction and gives clarity to our task ahead. So, I would be dancing for either of those outcomes.

But more concretely, the morning after the last day of General Conference will be a worship service by the progressive and LGBTQ advocacy groups. I know no matter what the outcome is, that chaser after a sour experience of a Conference will revitalize my spirit. I think there’s a lesson there: when we end with worship where all are welcome around the table, there’s no way you cannot leave without a dance in your step. That even if the denomination has chosen to continue on the path of the oppressor, they cannot take away each one’s dignity and calling and connection to God. Watch it online at 9 AM Central on February 27th.

Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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