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SPIRITUAL LIFE

Methodist bishop keeping the faith

According to the Gallup poll, George W. Bush and US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton were the most admired man and woman in America last year. Both Methodists, they talk about how their religious faith molds their lives and politics.

Peter D. Weaver, the new bishop for the Lawrence-headquartered New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, proudly cites Gallup's findings to honor the president and former first lady for their testimony of faith. That faith, he says, can put people ''in touch with the presence of God through Jesus Christ, which in my own personal experience is transforming."

Indeed, at a time when his and other mainline denominations are losing members and wrestling with tight finances, Weaver is banking on PDFs -- public displays of faith, through vibrant congregations and their service to communities -- to help him open more churches.

That would reverse recent trends. Weaver's conference, composed of the New England states except Vermont and parts of Connecticut, has 101,000 members, 49,000 of them in Massachusetts. That's down roughly 10 percent from a decade ago.

But Weaver, 59, who has been on the job since Sept. 1, believes that if the church excites its members and its community by living its faith, the problem of declining membership, and the attendant financial squeeze, will right itself. His former assignment as bishop, the Philadelphia-area conference, added 30 new congregations in recent years, he said in an interview this week.

He also cited two Pittsburgh-area churches he served -- one poor, one affluent -- where membership and budgets grew after the congregations joined together for prayer and fellowship.

''All the polls say there's tremendous spiritual hunger in this society," said Weaver, who is also president of the Methodist church's Council of Bishops, with members from the United States, Africa, Europe, and Asia.

He says he experienced faith's transforming power during his student days in Pittsburgh. ''I felt lonely and marginalized," he said. ''I grew up in a city high school where, as happens in many places, people made fun of you, and where I got beat up several times."

He said his devout family [his father was a Methodist pastor] and a church youth group gave him a sense of belonging that overcame his despair.

He dropped plans to become a lawyer and chose ministry in college, after hearing an inspirational pastor preach. And while he swears it wasn't planned, the middle names he and his former wife gave their three daughters testify to Christian virtues: Faith, Hope, and Joy.

Practicing what he preaches, Weaver is doing a lot of outreach these days. He plans to visit all 550 churches and other facilities in his conference during his first year as bishop. Traveling to communities of the faithful has been part of a Christian leader's job description at least since Paul.

As he roamed Monday from North Scituate, R.I., to Taunton, Weaver, dressed in a navy blazer, gray slacks, tie, and black tasseled loafers, looked as much like a prep school headmaster as an evangelizing bishop.

But from the church camp on 233 grassy acres in North Scituate to a sandstone retirement and nursing home in urban East Providence, he prayed, broke bread with his brethren, and exhorted them to continue their service of faith.

His public persona combines listening and self-deprecating humor. He told trustees at the retirement home that their work in health care followed the footsteps of a founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who wrote a book on medicine, albeit one with remedies that might not pass modern muster.

''I've tried one he suggested -- lemon to get your hair to grow back," he said, patting his bald pate.

He also uses what might be called profound whimsy, as at a Maine church last summer, where he stood barefoot at the altar and urged the congregation to take off their shoes and wiggle their toes with him. It was a way, he recalled, to ''strip off all the pretense."

Weaver knows his conference's relatively small membership means its influence relies on using ecumenism as a lever to move larger forces. Closeted in a small computer room at the retirement home, he chatted with the Rev. John E. Holt, a Methodist pastor who heads the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.

Weaver paid close attention as Holt mapped the state's political and religious terrain for him: ''You're not Italian and Catholic; you're not in Rhode Island government."

Weaver replied that he partnered with Catholic officials in his last assignment on issues of mutual interest.

''I've worked with a lot of bishops," Holt said later, ''and I was impressed with his openness . . . and willingness to get in the trenches with us."

Editor's note: This marks the return of the Spiritual Life column, which will appear on Saturdays in the Globe. Readers with story ideas, questions, or comments can send e-mail to spiritual@globe.com.

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