Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations

Jacqueline Rose-Tucker, North Georgia Conference

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. —Romans 12:2 (NRSV)

wellsprings_editorialcircleIn June 1989, I was appointed to the Calvary United Methodist Church. It was one of the first inner city churches to transition from a white congregation to a Black congregation as the city of Atlanta felt the impact of the “white flight”[1] phenomenon. In a sanctuary that seated more than six hundred, less than thirty people attended on Sunday mornings. When I arrived, the fellowship hall floor bore the evidence of a backed up septic system, the roof leaked, there was no air conditioning, the electrical wiring system was faulty, the gas was off, the power company was threatening disconnection, and the insurance had been cancelled. The community did not even realize that the congregation was no longer Caucasian, as it was distracted by increasing crime, economic depression, and transitional community issues, much of which stemmed from the large amount of rental property unmaintained by absentee landlords. The high school had a dropout rate of 70 percent, with teen pregnancy at epidemic levels. Topping it all off, the conference was considering the church for closure.

Even though the offering on my first Sunday offering was $268, and the church family was in disarray and at odds with one another, there were signs of hope. First, the General Board of Global Ministries Office of Church Development helped us secure insurance. The power company worked with us to get the bills down. I discovered a congregation with a deep desire to reach the young people of the community and to be a church with a future.

We started a men’s shelter, and continued in partnership with the Respite Daycare Center for developmentally delayed children, which was housed in our facility. We banded together to feed the families and the men in the shelter on Wednesday nights, increased attendance in Wednesday Bible Study, started a dance troupe for children and youth, partnered with the elementary and high schools, and started the first African American Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops in the inner city. We committed to providing a dynamic and relevant worship experience for the community. We were able to provide a food pantry, clothing pantry, and financial assistance. In essence, we saw the needs, and God blessed us with resources to meet the needs of the community. We overflowed with children. Not only did we see a 100 percent of our youth finish high school, but 99 percent went on to college. The teen pregnancy rate dropped to almost zero among our youth. Today, those youth still run this ministry and mission with the same fervor. During my nine year pastorate at Calvary, we moved to consistent worship attendance of more than one hundred forty, addressed the building issues, rewired, replaced the roof, cleaned out the fellowship hall, and pushed our focus outside the doors of the church. I now deem this church as one of the most vital churches that I have had the honor to pastor.

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[2] This mission is achieved through vital congregations that equip and empower people to be disciples of Jesus Christ in their homes and communities around the world. If we know this to be true, then what has hindered The United Methodist Church from living fully into its mission? We all know the litany of the last fifty years: declining average attendance and professions of faith, increases in church closings, and Lovett Weems’ “Death Tsunami” prediction. We have tried to address the issues through many strategies especially for racial/ethnic populations, such as: The Key: Strengthening the Ethnic Minority Local Church for Mission and Ministry[3], Strengthening the Black Church (an initiative that lasted twelve years, during which time we closed more African American churches than at any other time in our history); several ethnic ministry and language plans, including the Asian American Language Ministry, the Korean Ministry Plan, the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry, the Native American Comprehensive Plan, the Pacific Islander National Plan, and Strengthening the Black Church for the Twenty-first Century, and many more. Despite our best efforts over the last fifty years, decline has not even slowed.

The Council of Bishops commissioned the Call to Action report,[4] an in-depth study of The United Methodist Church, to explore the reasons for our decline and how we can become more proficient at living into our mission. They discovered that in the midst of all of the death and decline, some churches were still growing. As a result, they explored the ministry life of these congregations and what can be learned from them. Prior to this, most of our time, efforts, and resources targeted and were dedicated to declining churches.

It was discovered in the study that, by and large, we are a denomination of small congregations with fewer than seventy-five persons in weekly worship. Also, there is good news in that the vitality of the churches studied had little to do with their average worship attendance, number of persons joining, salary of the pastor, or size of the parking lot. They were vital, alive, thriving, and exciting places of God’s presence where people and pastors made decisions to be relevant to the communities in which they lived. Yes, some of them were large and mid-sized congregations, but this was not the norm. The norm was vitality.

One of the critical learnings that came out of the Call to Action study is that vitality is not related to the size of the congregation but what is going on within the church itself and how the congregation chooses to do mission and ministry to meet the needs of its community.

Some Recommendations

 

  • Ask all local churches to keep a record of their signs of vitality.
  • Share information gathered in critical areas that we know lead to healthy churches.
  • Begin experiments in replicating this healthy DNA throughout our denomination. [5]

In 2010, I served on the Seeds of Harvest Task Force, called by the Council of Bishops. The purpose of the task force was to take a closer look at the most critical elements we were measuring (adding specificity to the recommendations listed above), to discover if we might find a way to bring about a greater harvest of hope, new disciples and more diversity in our churches. At the time, I was serving as a district superintendent in the North Georgia Annual Conference, the largest US annual conference in terms of membership. It was my task to gain buy-in, from clergy and laity alike, to the recommendations of the task force.

I am convinced that thinking and acting according to the critical factors listed below will propel us into a hope-filled future. After all, Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (NRSV). According to the Vital Congregations website:[6]

Critical factors found in vital congregations:

  • Spirit-filled, forward-leaning communities of believers that welcome all people (see Galatians 3:28)
  • Places where disciples of Jesus Christ are made through the power of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 28:18-20)
  • Communities that serve, like Christ, through justice and mercy ministries (see Micah 6:8; Luke 4:17-21)

Characteristics of vital congregations:

  • Inviting and inspiring worship
  • Engaged disciples in mission and outreach
  • Gifted, empowered, and equipped lay leadership
  • Effective, equipped, and inspired clergy leadership
  • Small-group ministries
  • Strong children’s and youth ministries

There has been much debate among clergy and laity about this new direction of our church. For many minority populations and female clergy, there is a cloud of suspicion about whether this is another way of washing us out of ministry or putting more burden upon those who already feel that they may be in hopeless settings (i.e., areas of declining population, limited number of gifted leaders, economic recession, joblessness, inner-city violence, homelessness, dilapidated buildings and the like). Female clergy are serving, in many instances, small congregations that may not have any youth or children and are left to wonder whether they have been given the opportunity to lead vital congregations.

Still, I want to draw us back to the initial learning: Vital congregations are not related to size, resources, or location; they are related to a willingness of congregations to reach out beyond themselves and their perceived limitations to seek God-sized dreams for the community—their mission field. The renowned theologian, Karl Barth coined the phrase Missio Dei;[7] the Missionary God is a sending God. God’s plan is to reconcile the world to God’s self. Obeying Christ’s command to make disciples for the transformation of the world is the reason the church exists. The focus is on God’s activity; not our activity.

My hope is that we can move beyond the concept of pastors being CEOs and toward seeing ourselves as resident missionaries. If we focus on moving our congregations to be in ministry with our mission fields, then perhaps we can more fully embrace the hope that God has for each of us. To do this, we need to measure our vital signs in the same way we measure the health of a new-born baby, gauging our partnership with Christ to bring about God’s plan of redemption.

In Lovett Weems’ book, Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit, he writes: “Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit begins . . . with the needs of people and then focuses on meeting those needs through serving in the name of Christ.”[8] Thus, as female clergy, we undoubtedly lead, no matter the setting, some of the most vital congregations in The United Methodist Church. As long as our communities continue to present needs that call the church to work and service, we lead vital congregations. According to Karen Wilk, “Loving your neighbors isn’t about getting them to join you on Sundays. It’s about living your faith right where you are and BEING the church to the people around you.”[9]

Our task is to evaluate what we do best in our settings and get to work doing just that. If there are no children in the church, but there are children in the community, how can we help parents to see the need for the faith community’s involvement in their lives? How can we meet the needs of one of the fastest growing sectors in our society, those over the age of sixty-five? What is God calling us to do in the way of providing a more relevant worship service within our context? How can we be forward leaning? How are we growing the disciples we already have in our midst? It is vital that we meet the needs of a more secularized world and seek also to reach out to young adults who really need the opportunity to see how the love of Christ manifests in the hearts and minds of Christ followers.

Finally, we cannot have life and vitality without the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Agent of God in the World. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the Enabler. This is key because of the words of Christ, as recorded by Luke in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (NRSV). Because you have received the power of the Holy Spirit, you are empowered to lead vital congregations. Let us go into our congregations and our communities with a renewed passion for making disciples. Vitality will follow!


[1] White flight is a phenomenon found especially in the southern region of the U.S. in which Caucasians move away from areas being populated by racial/ethnic persons. The tipping point is usually 30 percent of racial/ethnic located within a community. While white flight still happens today, it was most drastic in 60s and 70s when segregation was outlawed.

[2] The United Methodist Book of Discipline 2012 (Nashville, United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), ¶120. The mission is based on Matthew 22:36-40; 28:18-20.

[3] The Key was a quadrennial emphasis from 1976–1980 to strengthen and develop ethnic local churches for mission and ministry.

[4] Read the Call to Action reports at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/call-to-action (accessed July 20, 2014).

[5] Ibid. Based on the Steering Committee Report recommendations.

[7] David Bosch, Transforming Mission Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (MaryKnoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 389.

[8] Lovett H. Weems Jr. Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 35.

[9] Karen Wilk. Don’t Invite Them to Church: Moving from a Come and See to a Go and Be Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2010), book description.

 

 

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