By Jeff Finley
Along with serving as The River Conference superintendent since 2018, Michael Traylor has many years of experience as a pastor and as a medical doctor. Now his calling includes a new role — Free Methodist Church USA bishop nominee.
“I am really excited about participating with a team of bishops who are radically and relentlessly devoted to leading and launching kingdom movements, and I have felt like our current Board of Bishops have really laid down the foundation for that,” Traylor said on a new episode of “The Light + Life Podcast” in response to a question from host Brett Heintzman about what excites Traylor about potentially serving as a bishop. “It’s just a compelling thing to want to be part of.”
Eight bishop nominees are being considered by delegates who will vote during General Conference 2023, which will be held July 25–28 in Orlando, Florida. According to the denomination’s Book of Discipline, “The General Conference shall elect by ballot two or more traveling elders as bishops to serve as the pastoral overseers of various areas of the denomination who shall constitute the Board of Bishops. … The number of bishops to be elected will be established by General Conference action and remains in effect until changed by a subsequent General Conference action.”
Approximately a year and a half ago, Traylor said, he heard a particularly memorable statement from Reach Conference Co-Superintendent and Sage Hills Church Lead Pastor Mike Wilson: “We can either structure ourselves to preserve who we have, or to reach those we desire to engage.” Traylor reflected, “We can develop processes to maintain the status quo, or we can develop processes to fulfill our calling. It’s that latter that really, really, really animates me. A movement really is defined as an organized and sustained challenge to the status quo, so participating as a catalyst for change is consistent with my apostolic and prophetic gifts. But it’s not change for change’s sake but change for the sake of the gospel. I see that happening, and I feel like I can contribute to that continued process.”
When asked whether God has given him any visions, dreams or words about being a bishop nominee or for the church, Traylor shared about studying the book of Ezra last fall. During a time of prayer about the bishop selection process, his reading included “this text that the Holy Spirit just amplified for me that made a difference.”
He read Ezra 7:28 that includes this statement: “Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage.”
“I felt like the Lord was saying, ‘You know I’m with you, Mike, and I need you to take courage and actually do this. I know you’re afraid,’” Traylor said.
When asked about the greatest challenge facing the denomination, Traylor replied, “We do have multiple challenges — many that we actually share with the greater church family, and there are problems with biblical illiteracy, nominal identification and decline in membership, and a lack of intentional discipleship processes.”
“Our vision is literally to promote wholeness through biblically healthy communities of holy people.”
While those challenges are shared by other Christians, Traylor said Free Methodists’ biggest challenge “in our current stage of development is a failure to understand our unique calling to catalyze a movement that contextualizes the kingdom-expanding, cross-cultural, community-building apostolic movement that we call the kingdom of God. Our vision is literally to promote wholeness through biblically healthy communities of holy people. It’s those communities or societies that are going to be the agents of wholeness.”
He said the early church “had a mandate to build holy and healthy communities comprised of people from every ethnicity, every culture, socioeconomic status, every political affiliation.” These people brought “spiritual and cultural capital that added to the wholeness of the group.” Contemporary Christians, however, may “see cultural and ethnically different folks as having cultural deficiencies.” Instead of seeing people with differences as adding to the church, we may believe that “we have to add something to them.”
He said Ephesians 4 “tells us that we’re to conduct ourselves with all humility, gentleness and patience, accepting one another with love. When our local churches engage in the greater communities, it should be with a cultural humility that other cultural expressions have spiritual and cultural capital that promotes wholeness. It should proceed with gentleness and patience, understanding that relationship building takes time, intentionality and vulnerability — a whole bunch of grace.”
When asked to share about one of his personal leadership challenges and how he led through it, Traylor discussed a period when he and his wife, Amelia Cleveland-Traylor, began as co-superintendents. Within a month, several crises started in different congregations.
“Because we had just started, we did not have a relationship with any of these churches that we had to go into, and some of these were accusations against some leaders that were well-loved in those communities,” said Traylor who was “thankful that we had really godly leaders who could mentor us through the process.”
With guidance from Bishop Emeritus Matthew Thomas along with deep prayer and reflection, Traylor said, they grew in their ability to “get to the truth and then develop a godly, loving way of proceeding.”
Love and the Gospel
Heintzman asked, “Do you as a bishop nominee fully align with our traditional sexual ethic, believing that marriage and sexual union are reserved for one man and one woman?” He next asked, “How do we learn to love our neighbor regardless of sexual orientation and yet minister the truth of the gospel?”
“First of all, I support the biblical definition of marriage between one man and one woman. I would say as I answer this question that I think our current position or ethic needs further depth,” said Traylor, who explained that the denomination’s statement on sexuality intimacy reflects nuance and history that may not be apparent to the reader. “It is the result of conversation that has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
“What does love require of us?”
Traylor discussed changing perspectives in church history and, while the Free Methodist Church is not part of the “gay-affirming movement” that accepts same-sex partnerships, support exists for the concept that “LGBTQ as an identity can be consistent with discipleship as long as it’s been combined with celibacy.”
Discussion, however, shouldn’t replace contact with people.
“Ideologies or theological stands and position papers are incredibly useful, but the truth is that they require very little of us. Relationships, particularly if we take the great command seriously though, require everything,” Traylor said. “I was participating in our district leader meeting, and Pastor James Leman was talking about the process that his church, Spokane First Free Methodist Church, has developed regarding approaches for ministering to and among people with different lifestyles. And the question is this deeply biblical question that forms everything that they do, and here’s the question: What does love require of us?”
Traylor noted, “We love it when we share the gospel, and the gospel was made with people with every kind of sexual orientation possible and that the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives afterwards is what leads us all. We’re all on this journey of sanctification, of being more like Jesus, and we do that together.”
Free Methodist Future
When asked what he sees as the preferred future of the denomination, Traylor said he sees “a movement of God that engages and reflects the incredible diversity of the United States.”
He said the few denominations experiencing grow within the United States are seeing that growth “almost all coming from churches of color.” He emphasized he is “not saying that churches of color are the rescue for the Free Methodist Church,” but our nation is becoming increasingly diverse, and churches should reflect the surrounding diversity if we’re effectively engaging communities.
“One of the hardest things about becoming more diverse is that it means expanding our theological and social imagination in a way that we remember our founding narratives,” said Traylor, who added that as more diverse voices are brought into leadership, “I think you’ll see a richer and more beautiful expression of that original founding there.”
Traylor said that although people with apostolic or prophetic calling may be seen as negative, “overall, I have a very positive view of the Free Methodist Church and the direction that we’re going.”
He believes that “we, the Free Methodist Church, must courageously engage our organizational fears.” For example, we should not let political narratives prevent us from ministering to immigrants.
“Scripture tells us that perfect love — or the great commandment to love — casts out fear, and it also casts out all the limitations on being the movement of God that we are created to be,” Traylor said. “We paint this extravagant hope in order to live out an extravagant love.”