When Paul Black asked me to write a personal reflection on the demise of The United Methodist Reporter (UMR) headquartered in Dallas, Texas, I was flooded with memories from my association with UMR through the former Central Illinois Conference. It was inconceivable to me that the parent foundation of our conference newspaper from 1977 to 1996 had crumbled. It ceased publication May 31.
Central was one of the first conferences outside Texas to form a partnership with UMR for a weekly edition of The United Methodist Reporter. I was asked by the communications committee and Council on Ministries director to expand my communications tasks, which included becoming editor of the conference edition of UMR.
I had never heard of UMR. To me, Dallas was the Cowboys football team, which I supported because the coach taught a Methodist Sunday School class. It was also the home of my piano teacher when I was 10 years old on the coast of Alabama.
More importantly, I was not a journalist. These men knew that a novel I had written for young people had just been published, i.e. I could write. And I was already on the staff.
Spurgeon Dunnam III, editor and publisher of UMR, met with the communications committee a few weeks before a pre-publication first issue of CI/UMR was scheduled for October, 1977. He led the committee in writing a job description and policy/guidelines for publication.
“You must protect yourselves, the conference, and your editor before your first issue comes out,” Dunnam said, “and we’re not leaving today until these are written.” He divided the committee into two parts for a working lunch. He also distributed samples of documents from other annual conferences as aids. In the afternoon, the full committee approved what they had written over lunch, and few changes were needed for several years. What a gift from Dunnam!
From that day I never doubted, in the more than 20 years as editor, that the communications commission and UMR “had my back” as we say today.
The link between conference and national publications had distinct advantages:
One summer the UMR editor gave me an assignment to cover a Christian puppet conference in northeastern Ohio. With approval of the conference council director, I made the trip to Mt. Union College. Saturated with workshops, puppet shows, the puppeteers and puppets, my imagination took off. And, of all things, I fell for a yellow duck puppet and brought it home with me.
The articles on the national UMR pages and CI/UMR front page put me in touch with a pastor in our conference. Robert Jumonville, pastor near the Quad Cities at that time, called me and said that a puppet lived in a drawer of his filing cabinet and was building a swimming pool in his basement (the bottom file drawer). My hair stood on end.
I traveled to Robert’s church in connection with other conference business in his area. His puppet occasionally wrote or called after he met me, trying to help me name my yellow duck. Robert’s puppet enjoyed the article I wrote about him for CI/UMR. From that piece, other pastor puppeteers came forward—all from light, humorous features for good summer reading in The United Methodist Reporter.
That kind of networking gave me great joy, first of all, with the pastors and church members here, and CI/UMR assistants, who made the paper successful. The bishops who wrote weekly columns provided insight, inspiration, and grace to us all. Many of their columns were picked up in the national edition (inside pages of CI/UMR). After his retirement, Bishop Woodie W. White, our bishop 1984-1992, was invited to continue his column monthly in UMR. White’s final essay appeared in May, the last month of UMR publication.
My passionate hope is that UMR will first come back on the internet (see sidebar) and then one day return to print media. We need a denominational newspaper, despite changing forces in our culture, to help United Methodists belong to one another through their stories of faith and action..
It is my view that our link with UMR for those 20-plus years gave our conference readers a broader perspective of the global nature and mission of The United Methodist Church and our relationship to and within it. I also believe that CI/UMR and The Connection, the former Southern Illinois Conference newspaper, worked together and separately to support effectively the leaders of both conferences to bring about the merger of Central and Southern into Illinois Great Rivers Conference in 1996.
These personal experiences were enriched by local, conference, national, and denominational communicators, editors, reporters, photographers, pastors, staff colleagues, and United Methodists here and worldwide. I hold them in my heart forever. They made me into a journalist/editor who listened to God calling me into this special lay ministry.
When Paul Black asked me to write this piece, I was laid up in a therapy facility following total knee replacement. I replied to him a month or so later. I had missed his July deadline. Oh, the woes of editors.
(Bettie Wilson Story, conference communications staff person for the former Central Illinois Conference and the Illinois Great Rivers Conference from 1974 to 1998, is an award-winning writer and member of the United Methodist Association of Communicators)