Interpreter: A fond farewell
For nearly five decades, the multi-award winning Interpreter magazine has been a primary source of inspiration and information for United Methodist church leaders. With this issue, the magazine goes the way of LIFE, Popular Photography, Mademoiselle and National Lampoon as it ceases publication.
Looking back over the years, change has been one of the periodical's hallmarks.
When the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church united in 1968, each had its own program journal — Spotlight and The Methodist Story. The 1968 Uniting Conference decreed that there should be "a free program journal for pastors and local church leaders." In May 1968, the two journals became one.
"With this issue, the United Methodist Church unveils the new program journal — the first merged publication in the new church. ... You hold in your hand the first issue of Methodist Story-Spotlight. Its purpose is the same as its predecessors: to help you do your job in your church."
Ralph E. Baker, who was the new magazine's first managing editor, said the name "became rather cumbersome, so they hunted around for an easier way to identify the publication." They decided on The Interpreter, despite finding another publication — published by the Idaho State Penitentiary — with the same name.
The Interpreter debuted in January 1969, the same month Richard Nixon became President and the Beatles performed in public for the last time. The periodical, mailed to an estimated 325,000 pastors and laypeople, continued in the tradition of its predecessors.
Encourage creativity in local churches
The Interpreter had an editorial advisory group with representatives from each of the general agencies. The magazine contained easy-order coupons for resources related to program themes that were available from the various boards and agencies.
A stated objective of the journal was to encourage creative program planning by local church leaders. A program planning issue became an annual tradition.
Baker, who later became editor, said one of the most "radically different" issues was the May 1976 issue that included an insert titled "The Adventures of Otto Plan." Illustrated with cartoon characters, it presented a step-by-step primer for church planning, complete with work sheets.
"That actually was one of the more popular issues," said Baker. "We had a lot requests for reprints of that, both in English and Spanish. As long as we had copies, people ordered them."
One constant throughout the publication's entire run has been the ever-popular "It Worked for Us," which showcases success stories from local churches. In response to reader demand, there was even a special volume compiled of 110 of the best ideas from a 15-year period. The Best of It Worked for Us noted that not only was the section the best-liked department in the magazine, it also generated the most reader mail because churches with success stories want and need a forum to share those stories.
1980s: New formats, content
In 1986, United Methodist Communications, including the magazine staff, made a move from Dayton, Ohio, to Nashville, Tennessee, and the magazine moved to a more contemporary look. Based on a Gallup study that said the magazine could use some "strengthening," a task force instituted changes, including upgrading the contents to make the copy more inviting with human interest, anecdotes and examples of programs that have been successful in local churches.
At the end of 1988, The Interpreter rolled out a more colorful layout, featuring a full-color photo of two plaid-clad children on the cover, with one lighting an Advent candle. A few inside pages also contained color photos, though most were still black-and-white.
"The format became more contemporary as time went on," said Baker. "As we progressed, we became open to some of the newer ideas in publishing. Actually, The Interpreter was one of the early magazines in computer layout."
"It was very modern for the era," said Joy Bossmann of Beavercreek, Ohio, now age 92, who recalls the magazine from a time when she was very active in the local church through Sunday school and as chair of the ministry councils.
The Rev. Daniel Jones, a retired pastor living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, became a reader in the early 90s while serving as lay leader of Chestnut Street United Methodist Church. "Especially as a lay leader, I depended on it for guidance for Laity Sunday and other special Sundays," he said. "It was very helpful to me." Later, as a pastor, he continued to use it for ideas and even conversation starters —"things I could discuss with folks when I was out visiting."
1990s: New name, new focus
With the January 1992 issue, "The" was dropped from the nameplate and the magazine became simply Interpreter. Three years later, United Methodist Communications decided to take Interpreter further in a new direction. Garlinda Burton, fresh out of graduate school and "itching to work for a magazine," became the new editor.
"I had some very specific ideas about how to make it what I thought would be more populist ... with kind of a People magazine approach to it," said Burton. "That was my model, really, People magazine. We added some feature stories and made it not so much agency-driven, but topic-driven."
Burton thought the magazine could use more content showing how local churches were making things happen. New departments debuted, including Potluck, "a collection of short, bright stories about people, churches and trends" and Witnesses, "a salute to people who transform their faith from Sunday worship to weekday actions."
"I had a feature called ‘One of Us,' which focused on one or two United Methodists who were doing interesting things. I remember the story of a young woman who started a gun buy-back in her community to get guns off the street," said Burton. "There was a story of a United Methodist pastor whose son had been murdered, He forgave the young man who murdered his son. Eventually, the young man got out of jail, and the pastor performed his wedding ceremony."
Burton said she loved learning about the history of the UMC's worship and liturgy. "We had a couple of features, one was ‘Why We Do That' and one was ‘United Methodism 101.' ... I think it was helpful for people to understand the why of our rich traditions, not just tradition for tradition's sake. I wanted them to understand the meaning of the traditions and be able to teach that along with understanding the biblical teachings."
Digital format introduced
The magazine got another makeover at the beginning of 2007, following a year-long research effort aimed at better meeting readers' needs. The redesigned magazine featured a new, more visually appealing format and a new nameplate. There was also a new emphasis on nurturing leadership skills among potential church leaders, including the introduction of a new department called "Leadership Link."
"We did we did a very comprehensive re-design," said the Rev. Kathy Noble, current and long-time editor. "We started working with what is now GUILDHOUSE Group (to design the magazine), and they have contributed immeasurably to the quality."
In 2009, United Methodist Communications announced the launch of a digital version, as well as the printed version of the magazine. "People are using media today in so many different ways and many different forms. It's necessary to provide information in multiple channels," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, who was general secretary of United Methodist Communications and publisher at that time.
More recently, the digital edition became available in three different versions. "People can read the stories on the website, but we also produce it in a downloadable format. Some folks want Interpreter digitally, but they want to be able to read it offline, or don't always have good Internet connections," said Noble. "They can read through what we call the ISSUU edition, in which the pages look like a print magazine, so they still get the design elements."
Noble said her favorite part of the magazine has been the cover packages, each of which takes an in-depth look at ideas or resources addressing a particular topic.
"We can take a concept, an idea, an issue or a ministry and explore several different angles," said Noble. "We ask ourselves, ‘What are some good stories to support the theme? What is going to be helpful and interesting to readers? Is there a way we can challenge people to become part of this?'"
Another of Noble's favorites was the creation of a new department – as part of an effort to make the magazine more member-oriented – called, "We asked, ‘...' You said, ‘...'" about four years ago. Subscribers receive a question via email and an invitation to respond. Generally, the magazine receives about 250-300 responses, a few of which are used in the magazine and many more on the website.
"Questions that brought the most responses included, ‘What is your favorite Scripture and why?' and ‘What are your hopes for the church in the coming year?'" said Noble. "When we asked people how they had received care from their congregations, many of the responses were extremely touching. As much as possible, we've tied the question to the cover package and sometimes incorporated some of the answers into one or more of those articles."
Noble said whenever a program of the general church is the story topic, "we've worked to make the local church the starting point. We ask ourselves how does this affect or support the ministry of the local church?"
Joy Uthoff of Ives Chapel United Methodist Church in Baldwin City, Kansas, has been an avid reader of Interpreter for more than 25 years. As a pastor's wife and someone who has played many different local church roles, she said the magazine provides a good learning experience and helps her keep up with the connectional system of The United Methodist Church.
"You go beyond the local to the global," she said. "You kind of feel like a part of a whole by reading some of those articles. These are some of the reasons why we are United Methodists. It really does help educate us all on our whole standing.
"It has been a very wonderful helpful resource," she said. "Thank you for the years we have been given this publication."
Diane Degnan is director of public information at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.