United Methodist Bishop, Dale White was in Tehran, trying to get mail to American hostages, the night of the wild Iranian student demonstration here late last month.

A few days later the American churchman got some "joking" threats from a Tehran cab driver, who said his brother had been beaten in the Washington melee. "But fortunately he was in a good mood so it turned out okay," White recalled.

At about the same time some 3,000 miles away, another Methodist pastor, the Rev. John Adams, was prowling streets and jails and offices of Washington, struggling to cool the demonstrations here before they could further jeopardize the hostages in Iran.

From the beginning of the hostage crisis, a number of church groups have sought ways of of ministering to its varied victims. But activists within the United Methodist Church seem to have ended up more deeply involved in the volatile crisis -- to the dismay of some of the rank and file in the pews.

It was in January that Adams, who works for the 9.7 million-member denomination's Board of Church and Society, here in Washington, launched the hostage mail project.

Even though hopes were high then that the hostages might be released sson, the lanky, 57-year-old clergyman worried about their isolation from their loved one.

"I was a bomber pilot in World War II and was a prisoner of war for nine months and in that time I got three letters," he said. "I read those letters until they were translucent."

Together with representatives of the International Indian Treaty Council, whose goodwill Adams earned during the conflict at Wounded Knee, S.D., seven years ago, Adams flew to Tehran in January with several duffle bags full of letters and parcels, returned with letters for families here.

"Up until that time only five letters had been received by the families in more than 60 days," Adams said.

One of the conditions imposed by the Iranian students holding the American's hostage was that letters to families in this country must be delivered by means other than U.S. Postal Service.

"They [the students] felt every hostage family had a [surveillance] cover on them," Adams explained. "They don't want the mail going to the State Department."

These restrictions make the effort one of the costliest postal services ever. The first letters from the hostages went to families in 26 states and Adams estimates the delivery cost at about $35 or $40 per letter.

He has no set budget for the service. "We just kind of beg around," he said. "We hitchike on anything we can hitchike on," including the trip made by Ramsey Clark and others earlier this summer.

The ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages in April, plus the political turmoil within Iran itself, pervented mail exchanges in recent months, until White's trip late last month. Even then, said White, the United Methodist bishop of New Jersey, "we had a great deal of difficulty clearing the Iranian customs."

The three large duffle bags, with "Hostage Mail Exchange" stenciled on them, contained a lot of packages, he said. "It was so much that it boggled the minds of the customs people. They put them [the bags] back in storage." t

White, who visited Iran last Christmas, with a group of American clergy, was able to contact the students who hold the Americans hostage and they "took responsibility" for the mail, the bishop said.

But White and Georgetown University professor Tom Ricks were not allowed to see any of the hostages, nor recieve any mail for the families back home.

"The students said the situation was too difficult for them, that they could not go out to the provinces [to where the hostages reportedly have been dispersed] without being watched by hostile elements," White said.

He added that "they said, 'We'd like to do anything we can to make their [the hostages'] stay more human, but our first and principal responsibility is to get them home safe and sound.'"

Iranians studying in this country "have been instrumental" in the mail exchange, Adams said. It was because of the contacts Adams had make in the connection that the students here appealed to him for help after 192 Iraninas were arrested in the July 27 demonstration.

Adams, who believes the church should be on the first firing lines as well as in the sanctuary, has had more than a decade of experience in mediating social conflicts.

"I felt the ramification of what was happening here in the national capital were awesome," he said of the Iranian protests.

Negotiating with D.C. Department of Corrections officials, Adams helped obtain attorneys for the arrested Iranians, who had refused to identify themselves.

Later, when one of the Iranians, under indictment for assault, was held on a $25,000 bond. Adams arranged for his release in the minister's custody instead of the bond. Adams agreed to be locked in the van with the prisoner on the trip from the Otisville, N.Y., prison to LaGuardia airport.

An erroneous TV report that he had spent $25,000 of the church funds for bail for the Iranian brought a torrent of protest, church officials said. In fact, Adams said, he had spent about $200 of church funds for cabs to take demonstrators from the Islamic Center last Friday when charter bus drivers refused to transport them.

Adams doesn't worry too much about being "used," by the protestors as one of his critics charged. "The church is a servant church," he said. "It is meant to be used."