By Jeff Finley

According to the Free Methodist Church USA’s Book of Discipline, “Following the election of the bishops, the Bishops Search Committee shall convene to name a Lead Bishop and bring its recommendation to the General Conference for its affirmation prior to the conclusion of the General Conference.”

At General Conference 2019, that title went to Matt Whitehead after he was elected for the first time to the Board of Bishops alongside Linda Adams and Keith Cowart. Whitehead previously served for 20 years as the superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference after 16 years as a lead pastor in Washington state, and he currently serves conferences in the Western United States and also oversees Free Methodist ministries in Africa and Asia.


“We believe that God gave us this understanding that the role of the denomination is to ignite a Spirit-fueled movement that catalyzes the multiplication of leaders and churches.” 


“Bishop Linda, Bishop Keith, and I really over the last three and a half — almost four — years have had this vision of helping to continue to identify what it means to be Free Methodist, and so we developed The Free Methodist Way, which has been so encouraging to see people respond,” said Whitehead on a new episode of “The Light + Life Podcast” in an interview with host Brett Heintzman. “We believe that God gave us this understanding that the role of the denomination is to ignite a Spirit-fueled movement that catalyzes the multiplication of leaders and churches, and we really believe that’s a word from the Lord for the Free Methodist Church.”

With General Conference 2023 approaching, Whitehead expressed excitement about “the potential of continuing to see that embedded into the DNA of our family, to live out what does it mean to really operationalize The Free Methodist Way, and this vision is really exciting as I think about the potential of continuing over these next four years, in this next quadrennium, to really see that vision that God’s given us, and that identity clarity come to fruition.”


When asked about the greatest challenge facing the denomination, Whitehead said multiple challenges exist, but “the number one thing on my heart is really embedding evangelism and discipleship into the Free Methodist Church culture. … There are places that are healthy and growing and seeing spiritual renewal and seeing vitality, but I also know that there are places where that is not the reality.”


“I believe that the other issues that are on the horizon will fall into place as we make this commitment to share the good news of Jesus.” 


He also mentioned the Free Methodist Vision Frame’s “four value statements that I just love because I think they further define what it means to be Free Methodist — that we would show up dependent, make it simple, lead with courage, and live it together. I think if we can do that in the reality of saying evangelism and discipleship are at the core of who we are and we want to continue to invest in those, I believe that the other issues that are on the horizon will fall into place as we make this commitment to share the good news of Jesus and to invite people to grow deep in their knowledge and love of Christ as we go forward.”

When asked about one of his personal leadership challenges and how he led through it, Whitehead referenced “the situation at Seattle Pacific University where I’ve been a trustee for a number of years.” He explained, “The details have been widely publicized, but the SPU Board and the Free Methodist Church have taken a stand in support of an orthodox view of Christian marriage and human sexuality, which has really resulted in a barrage of criticism toward not only the board and the denomination, but toward me personally.”

This has led to the leadership challenge of needing to be able “to be criticized and not respond, to be able to have my reputation questioned and not feel like I have to defend myself,” Whitehead said. “Someone said that defensiveness is only good in driving.”

He added that the situation has improved and noted the election of Deana Porterfield, the president of Roberts Wesleyan University and Northeastern Seminary since 2014, as Seattle Pacific’s next president.

He quoted the adage “never waste a crisis” and said this crisis “has been good for those of us who have been in the middle of it. It’s been very difficult personally, but I also see the hand of God in it, and I think it’s forced me to my knees. It’s forced me to be more dependent upon the Lord and just say, ‘You know, Father, my reputation is in your hands. You know my heart in this. You know my love for SPU students and faculty and staff, and yet we will not compromise on what it means to submit to the authority of God’s Word, to an understanding of Christian biblical marriage and human sexuality.”

Whitehead said he knows “hundreds of people were praying for the SPU Board.” The effect of that prayer is clear now, “but in the middle of the storm, it’s easy to lose perspective, and I wish I could say that I was hopeful and positive and encouraged every day. I wasn’t. It was very challenging, and yet I knew that God was at work.” The stance of the university trustees and denomination “was an appropriate, biblical thing to do, but it was challenging, and it was difficult.”

Love, Truth, Gospel

Of course, sexuality is not only an issue in academia. In questions also asked of other bishop nominees, Heintzman said, “Do you fully align with our traditional sexual ethic believing that marriage and sexual union are reserved for one man and one woman? … How do we learn to love our neighbor regardless of sexual orientation and yet minister the truth of the gospel?”


“Culture doesn’t dictate the way we see the Scriptures. God’s Word is the foundation.” 


In response to the first question, Whitehead said, “Yes, absolutely, no question, because it isn’t just an issue of human sexuality. It’s really an issue of the authority of Scripture and our belief that God’s Word speaks into culture and helps us to know how to respond and gives us a roadmap, and not the other way around. Culture doesn’t dictate the way we see the Scriptures. God’s Word is the foundation.”

Life in this diverse world requires “that balance of holding to a biblical perspective but also loving people as Christ would love them and, while making that commitment, to remain true to biblical principles,” he said.

He referenced Superintendent Bruce N.G. Cromwell’s book title, “Loving From Where We Stand,” and called it “a really appropriate word picture, not only about this issue but a lot of other things — a lot of other questions that the church is being forced to deal with.”

He explained, “We want to love. We want to encourage people to come to know Jesus. We want to walk with them in the reality as the Holy Spirit reveals to them the places of their own sinfulness, and yet we dare not compromise the authority of God’s Word and its ability to speak into every corner of our lives. I think that issue of the ability to love from where we stand is so important for the church to understand and for the church to be a welcoming place for people who are seeking, struggling and trying to find a church home.”

Free Methodist Future

When asked about his preferred future for the denomination, Whitehead said he believes the next four years will bring both challenges and “great kingdom opportunities as well,” and he would like to see Free Methodists live out The Free Methodist Way and Vision Frame. He added that his preferred future is “conditional on our complete and total dependence on the Spirit of God to guide us, convict us, empower us, fill us. That’s the only way that we’re going to reach this divided world.”


“The denomination’s future is bright.” 


He expressed excitement about growth taking place within Free Methodist conferences in the United States. Multiplication is “becoming a part of our DNA once again.” The denomination’s future “is bright, but we have to continue to make the necessary decisions that will help that to happen,” Whitehead said. “As the Apostle Paul said, there are great doors of effective kingdom ministry in front of us.”

He said Free Methodists need to empower pastors and local church leaders to welcome people in their context, share the gospel, and disciple new believers “under that sense of a total dependence on the Spirit of God to help us see those places where we need to alter systems and change organizational structure, to be the most effective that we can be for the future for God’s kingdom.”

When asked about God-given visions, dreams or words, Whitehead said both he and his wife, Melanie, “believe we have a green light to go forward in this process. … The visions, dreams and words I get from the Lord are just simply to continue to submit my will to His will, to continue to listen, to be able to tune my heart and tune out the distractions.”

Click here to listen to the full podcast, watch a six-minute video featuring Bishop Matt Whitehead, and learn more about all of the bishop nominees.