First United Methodist Church is located at 203 Wisconsin Ave. MIKE DEVRIES — The Capital Times

Last month, the United Methodist Church issued an unprecedented, provocative call to its 7.8 million U.S. members, including the 81,655 in Wisconsin: give up alcohol for Lent.

The challenge, borne of concern over alcohol abuse in society and among church members, confronted what one top church official called "the elephant in the room."

As Christians celebrate Easter on Sunday, and with the 40-day Lenten period over, church leaders are evaluating the idea's success. In Wisconsin, the challenge gained little traction. It was among many states where no churches officially signed up to participate.

"Perhaps Wisconsin and beer are a little too close together," said Wayne Rhodes, spokesman for the church's General Board of Church & Society, which issued the call and is one of four general program boards of the national church.

Some United Methodist pastors in Wisconsin said they liked the idea but didn't know about the challenge early enough to adequately implement it. Others said the concept really didn't fit their approach to Lent.

"The idea of giving something up for Lent — I can't remember the last time we stressed that here," said the Rev. Keith Schroerlucke, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Madison. "If there are things we need to give up, we shouldn't be giving them up for just six weeks."

Period of reflection

Lent is the period of penance and fasting preceding Easter, the Christian celebration of Christ's resurrection from the dead. Lenten observances are common among Catholics and Anglicans, less so among Protestants.

For many Christians, purifying their minds and hearts through self-denial helps prepare them to celebrate Christ's resurrection. Others focus more on Bible study or self-reflection.

"It's a time to focus on becoming a better disciple of Jesus Christ," said the Rev. Fran Deaner, pastor of Bashford United Methodist Church in Madison.

At Albany United Methodist Church in Albany, about 30 miles south of Madison, parishioners discuss the tradition of self-denial during Lent but don't make it a focus, said the Rev. Patricia Soddy. She's unlikely in the future to promote an alcohol-free Lent, she said.

"I don't try to brush (alcoholism) under the rug, but I don't give it any more emphasis than any other problem in society — adultery, drug abuse, pornography," she said. "Being a responsible Christian is something we teach all year long."

‘Permission' to talk

The United Methodist Church encourages abstinence. Members who drink are urged to do so "judiciously and with Scripture as a guide," said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, director of the work area on alcohol, other addictions and health care for the General Board of Church & Society.

The idea for the challenge came from Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., which undertook an alcohol-free Lent two years ago, Abrams said. Parishioners there raised $34,000 in 2009 for local substance abuse programs by donating money they would have spent on alcohol to a "spirit fund," and seven members sought treatment for alcoholism, said the Rev. James Howell, lead pastor.

Last year, the challenge was broadened to the city of Charlotte. This year, 42 churches in 20 states signed up to participate through a national website, a sliver of the country's 33,614 United Methodist churches.

Abrams said she wasn't disappointed by the number and that other churches and individuals likely participated informally.

"We have a very difficult time talking about alcohol in a transparent way in the church," she said. "It's like the elephant in the room. This gave some churches permission, for the first time, to discuss a lot of issues related to alcohol."

She called this year's effort a "soft launch" and said the church likely will promote the idea more next year.

Howell sounded less enthusiastic about trying again. He called the number of participating churches "not very good" and said he's "not sure there's a meaningful way to do this as a national church."

‘Intriguing idea'

The Rev. Steve Hanusa, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Sheboygan, is a former clinical social worker who has worked on nationwide church initiatives to address addiction issues.

"It was an intriguing idea," he said of the alcohol-free Lent challenge. "I like the significance of sacrifice as a reminder of what the Lenten season is about."

His church did not participate because Hanusa said he didn't have time to fully integrate the challenge into his Lenten services. He said he'll consider participating next year, as did the Rev. Harold Zimmick, lead pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Madison.

"I would do it because I really see a lot of the devastation and brokenness in families that comes from alcohol," Zimmick said.