The most mild-mannered rebel you’ll ever meet is Ted Dotts.
It’s easy to recognize the stanza of spunk in his note-sized musician wife, Betty, who plays the organ like she lives life: full-bodied, fast-moving, bold. Her friendly brown eyes glint and West-Texas drawl strengthens when provoked by injustice.
But Ted disguises his emotions with kind, spectacled eyes and smile wrinkles that flank his mouth. His wisdom and gentle grace draw people to him like an orphan to a hot meal, filling their souls with warmth, acceptance, and hope. His soft voice and sensible, heartfelt words keeps listeners focused, wanting to digest every morsel.
And yet controversy seems to have stalked him like a corn field, which is no small feat considering the abundance of roles he’s filled in his 79 years: preacher, district superintendent, counselor, radio host, janitor, ethicist, carpet layer, scholar, and corporal, to name a few.
He’s worn more hats than a grandstand of Kentucky Derby spectators, but the one that seems to be tattooed to his and Betty’s heads is that of activist.
You won’t see them spewing propaganda on television, though Ted hosts the weekly radio show, “Faith Matters,” on KTTZ-FM, and the couple have been oft-quoted by media.
You won’t find them shaking their fists in anger at a protest. In fact, Betty mentored Lubbockites to offset the strident Fred Phelps followers with smiles in 2003, making the “Christians” appear less “Christ-like” than the “sinners.”
You won’t hear them arguing with their dissidents. Ted prefers to listen generously, speak thoughtfully, and allow for uncomfortable silence.
Instead, Ted and Betty prefer to change the world with love. In every role, they live out the Jesus’ teaching of love, grace, and service to those on the cusp of society. And they manage to lead others toward those principles, whether the followers realize it or not.
Ted learned great lessons in leadership while serving two years in the Army. His initial impression was that soldiers followed orders automatically because they were trained. But he soon learned there was much more to it.
“You must lead, not order, or they will find a way to resist,” the former squad leader said. “I learned that a leader should never get too far out in front. You want to be with the people helping them to move—not out by yourself, removed from them.”
He began applying those lessons at his first appointment as a Methodist preacher in Ropesville, Texas, in 1964. The farming community depended on migrant labor, who lived in 10×10 rooms packed in long, tin barracks. Every room had a gas jet, but every two rooms had to share an outdoor water spout. The entire family worked, the husband at the gin and the wife and kids in the cotton fields.
“I started visiting in the gin camp,” he recalled. “The children were being punished at the public school because they spoke Spanish and when they came without shoes. So we collected money at church for shoes. It made the farmers uncomfortable. They felt guilty because they weren’t paying their workers enough to buy shoes for their children. Betty enlisted some of the women to teach the children social manners. They washed their hair for lice. Tension was building between the Dotts and the community.”
But by Christmas, the congregation purchased gifts and had a party at the community center for the several dozen migrant children. “The meanest guy in town was Santa!” Ted said, still thrilled with the members’ growth.
So Ted led them a little further. The next Christmas they held the party at the church building.
“The congregants weren’t too happy about the ‘dirty Mexicans’ being in the church. It was a slow movement.”
Yet tears flowed when the Dotts were assigned to St. James Methodist Church in Abilene two years later by the bishop, who had an inkling they would fit well with the group wanting a more progressive church.
It was 1966, just after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and in the midst of the Vietnam War. Ted nudged them, too, out of their comfort zone. He had the audacity of inviting a Catholic priest to speak at their worship. He questioned the Vietnam War. And, as Methodist clergy are called to do, he visited the jails.
“Now, often when a pastor visits, it elicits hostility from the jailors—it’s the us against them mentality. The sheriff happened to be a member of our church. To get me corrected, he showed me the huge supply of riot gear he had purchased with county funds. He was expecting a riot by the blacks in Abilene. I thought, ‘My gracious! I have to do something!’ So I got the pastors of the three black Methodist churches and one Hispanic church to agree to meet together once a month on Sunday evening.”
The worship service quickly became a safe place for the blacks and Hispanics to tell stories about the cruelty they’d endured because of racism, which lessened the tension and eased the pain.
Ted’s appointment as superintendent of the Northwest Texas Conference in 1970 created a stir. For one thing, at 34 years old he was the youngest one they’d known in a position that usually was filled by a man at least two decades older. For another, the pastors at the 37 churches he oversaw were jealous they’d been passed over. Finally, his predilection to minister to and accept those the overwhelmingly white, middle-class congregations tended to ignore was sure to cause some squirming in the pews.
“The district was laced with fundamentalism,” Ted explained. “The bishop appointed me so there would be representation of another view. He thought my appointment would create a sliver a change.”
Race, gender, and scandal also figured into the storm.
“The segmented sore was getting worse. We had a drive to integrate. There were few blacks in the northern panhandle, but from [the outcry], you would have thought there were many.”
The ordination of women as pastors was just over a decade old and was slow to gain positive traction. And Ted and the bishop exposed a very popular preacher who had embezzled $80,000.
But for all the hot buttons Ted and Betty lovingly pushed, nothing tore apart a church like the issue of same-sex relationships at St. John’s UMC in Lubbock, which Ted pastored for 17 years. The church sat across the street from Texas Tech University and naturally attracted professors and students. Politicians and wealthy Lubbockites also attended the large, thriving congregation.
As Ted visited with struggling congregants and desperate citizens in turmoil about being gay or having a gay family member, he began to notice contradiction.
“I was raised in a pretty conservative culture regarding same-sex love,” he said. “The conventional [thinking]—‘All gays are this way’—said there must be something terribly wrong with gay people, and it had to do with sex. They must be working a scheme to be wildly permissive sexually. But when they came, how could you be upset with them? Some of them were sterling characters. I could name 6, 7, 10 who are not that way. So I began to develop a sense that something must be wrong with the conventional. Then you have to oppose the conventional.”
As Ted’s impression of gays began to change, he immediately went to the Scriptures.
“I had studied Hebrew and Greek, so I knew the original tongues the Scriptures were written in,” he said. “The more I studied them, I realized the Bible doesn’t say a single word about it. People mention six Scriptures, but those Scriptures aren’t talking about homosexuality any more than they are talking about electric lights. What they were talking about is how we love one another, and that is basic to the Bible.”
Ted left St. John’s when he was appointed medical ethicist at Methodist Hospital in 1992. In his final sermon—still leading, still advancing social injustices—he expressed hope that St. John’s would be coming a reconciling church, a program in which local churches declare their support for the concerns of lesbians and gay men. The current iteration of the movement is the Reconciling Ministries Network, which boasts more than 500 congregations in 2014.
A national PFLAG leader asked the Dotts to start a chapter in Lubbock, which they did in early 1993 to much opposition. Local media would not carry the public service announcements. Ted and Betty faced opposition from ministerial peers, long-time friends, and the community at large—not surprising, considering that Lubbock has ranked as high as the third most conservative city in the nation based on voting records.
Betty’s view of God ever since she was a young child, the daughter of a Methodist minister, no doubt played a role in her ability to accept all people.
“I was very committed early on,” she said. “At 6 years old, I told Mom I wanted to join the church. Life centered around church, but not in a negative or bad way. At the center of the idea was, this is a loving God, not judgmental. Never ‘You better behave or God’s gonna get you, or you’re going to hell.’ But He was a loving God—you are loved—so there is a great expectation to do your best, to dedicate yourself, sacrifice time and money.”
Bobby McMillan, St. John’s next pastor who was on his own journey toward reconciling, allowed the group to meet at the church building. By the time the church overwhelmingly voted—by an 85% majority of those present and voting—in 1998 to become reconciling after four years of deliberate discussion, the richest members and politicians had left.
“That changed the character of the church,” Ted said. “People were leaving, not coming. There were fewer people at worship, much less money, plus the pain of people leaving. They were usually not up front—they would slink out—which probably made it more hurtful.”
In the end, St. John’s stabilized into a thriving, socially conscious congregation that feeds the hungry, helps the poor, clothes the cold, houses the homeless, encourages the downtrodden, and actively welcomes and supports the persecuted.
You’d think, with all of the contention Ted has encountered, he’d be immune to its effects. But his humanity—and humility—indicate otherwise.
“Controversy shrivels me up, because with it I am up against disapproval,” he said. “Disapproval is probably the most powerful weapon as long as we’re susceptible to it. So I shrivel up, back off, quit. It happened more often when I was younger than it does when I’m older, but I can still get caught in it.
“Ideally, you use someone—I use Jesus—so that disapproval can’t have the last word. It’s a constant struggle for all of us. It’s our temptation to freak out in the face of disapproval.”
Doesn’t sound too much like a bold insurgent but rather a person who works every day to live out his ideals. In the end, however, the result is much better.