Talking Pat Summitt: Down South, it matters whether you're Baptist or Methodist

If you grew up in the Bible Belt, then there's a good chance that you know the punch line to this old joke.

Question: How do you tell the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist in a Southern town?

Answer: The Methodist will say "Hi" to you at the liquor store, while the Baptist will stay silent.

That joke links up pretty well with another old Southern saying. In the typical Southern town or small city, church ties were supposedly linked to education. If you graduated from high school, you were a Baptist. If you had a college degree, you were a Methodist. If you had a law degree (or a sheepskin from a medical school) you were an Episcopalian.

Why bring all this up in a post linking to our new "Crossroads" podcast about University of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt, the trailblazing czarina who built the Lady Vols hoops empire? Click here to tune that in.

The link is actually pretty complex.

When I wrote my first post about the coverage of Summitt's death, at age 64 -- "The press missed this detail? Pat Summitt took a very timely walk into the waters of baptism" -- I noted that the mainstream press had missed an important passage in the official obituary posted at the Pat Summitt Foundation website, focusing on her faith and her relationship with her son Tyler (an only child, after six miscarriages).

She was most proud of one special moment they shared that outshines all the others. On May 5, 2012, Pat and Tyler were baptized together. On this day, they decided together to go public with their faith and professed their love for and acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. On this day, they created the ultimate and eternal memory, together.

Tyler added:

For 64 years, my mother first built her life upon a strong relationship with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Her foundation was also built upon love of her family and of her players, and love of the fundamentals of hard work which reflected her philosophy that "you win in life with people."

It helps to know that Pat Summitt grew up in rural Tennessee, Northwest of Nashville, and her family was very faithful in the local Methodist church. Tyler was baptized in a United Methodist church just outside Knoxville.

So what was that 2012 baptism service about? Well, in Knoxville, Tyler Summitt attends the massive, Southern Baptist megachurch called Faith Promise. His mother went to church with him there from time to time, especially after her 2011 Alzheimer's disease diagnosis.

So they were baptized together then. But note that Tyler said that her faith was a constant in her whole life.

In my Universal syndicate column this week, I talked with a United Methodist pastor who knew the Summitt family well and, in fact, baptized Tyler as an infant. Here's how that opened:

Once a year, Seymour United Methodist Church in Tennessee held a "Laity Day," in which folks from the pews would handle all the clergy stuff one Sunday -- including the sermon.
The year was 1984, early in the Rev. Charles Maynard's decade at this fledgling congregation near Knoxville. He already knew that one active member had a knack for motivational speaking, since she coached the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball team.
"This was before she turned into Pat Summitt, you know? For me, she was just a lady at church named Pat," said Maynard, now the district superintendent of the region's Maryville District. "I asked her to speak and she said she didn't feel comfortable doing that sort of thing. ...
"But the next year, she said 'yes.' She talked about teamwork and linked everything to people having their own roles in the body of Christ. It was all very biblical and she did a great job. I mean, she's Pat Summitt."
Things started changing after she coached the U.S. team to gold at the 1984 Olympics and the Lady Vols "started winning everything in sight," he said.
One thing didn't change. While Summitt's work demanded lots of time and travel, her family stayed as "active at church as the coach of a national powerhouse could possibly be," said Maynard. "It was pretty obvious that she had been raised in a Methodist church in rural Tennessee. It showed. Her faith went down deep."

Maynard, in some quotes I didn't have room for in the column, noted that growing up in the '50s and early '60s in a rural, Southern Methodist flock was, as folks down here would say, "really going to church." We're talking revival meetings, Gospel hymn sings, Bible camps, some of the best Sunday school materials anywhere and even some some fire and brimstone.

So Methodists were Methodists and Baptists were Baptists, but the Methodist heritage in the South is really deep -- especially in rural areas. At one time in American history, there were more Methodist churches than post offices.

The bottom line: Summitt's faith was both quiet and complex, but it was a constant. In my column, I noted several passages in her "Sum It Up" autobiography, written with the famous Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins.

... Summitt was blunt.
"Sometimes I wish God hadn't given me so many issues," she said.
Jenkins replied: "What kind of issues?"
"Personal issues," said Summitt. "I guess they made me who I am. I guess they made me better. One thing I've learned. ... How powerful God is."
Later in the book, Summitt said she realized that "none of us have a perfect life here on earth. ... We're not here to be completely satisfied. Nor are we in command — not even of our own bodies. We borrow, we don't own. I know that everything I've been given came as gifts from God, and He has a way of reminding us, 'This is my work.'"

Enjoy the podcast.

IMAGE: Group photo taken during a revival at a rural Methodist church in Virginia.

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