By Rev. Dr. Sunny Brown Farley

There are no failed experiments in the laboratories of ministry in the Texas Annual Conference.

Rev. Melissa Maher, whose role is to lead the TAC in new church starts or “labs,” said this is a time of “creative, vulnerable, and hard work” for church leaders and she predicts the efforts will lead us to one of Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey’s visions for the conference: Revitalization.

Maher has been appointed by the bishop to serve as the Director of New Ministry Strategies and has spent her first five months getting to know the leaders of the new church labs in places like Bryan, Baytown and Jacksonville.

Most of these faith communities formed to meet the needs of United Methodists in areas where disaffiliations left them with no UMC congregations in which to worship. Some of these are in urban contexts, others in rural contexts and some may be the only UMCs in a county.

While these new faith communities are developing, our existing congregations are shifting to meet changing dynamics, too. Our current reality might best be understood in light of what Maher refers to as the “parable of the border collie.”

In this parable, an older couple discovers a border collie on their porch one hot summer day. First reaction, they are too tired to adopt this dog. But the next thing you know, they have a border collie named Rusty sleeping inside.

“Sometimes opportunities present themselves on our front porch and they may not be what we would have imagined but they are before us. This couple found they had the energy because they had the love,” Maher said. “As an annual conference, we are at a crossroads – looking back at what has been and the invitation to step courageously into the ‘next. I hope we can revitalize our calling to the gospel of love.’”

She said we fondly remember the past as we “experiment with new ways of evangelism, new pathways of forming relationships and new expressions of church.”

The strategies for each lab will be unique to its context. In Baytown and Mont Belvieu, the congregation is multi-generational and meets in a barn. In Jacksonville, the congregation meets in the chapel on a family farm.

“Just as the people of God were called into the wilderness to be re-formed and the church in Acts was compelled by the Spirit into new places to reach new people, we are being called. How will we respond?” Maher asked. “No program or strategy will lead us there. A vibrant, connectional prayer life partnered with non-competitive spirit of ministry and willingness to move beyond the sanctuary is the invitation. This has been part of my heart and calling as a pastor since my Wesley Foundation days at Louisiana Tech.”

In the new year, Maher plans to hold meetings across the annual conference to share what is happening around the conference in the way of new ministry strategies and to listen to church leaders so she can help determine ways to best meet their needs. There will be opportunities for partnerships between the conference and congregations and meetings for conversations about innovation and experiments of fresh expressions of church.

“Bishop Harvey called us at Annual Conference to revive, renew, reinvigorate, reimagine. Every church is called to revitalize and renew in the spirit of the Great Commandment and Great Commission. Let’s go!” Maher said.

To learn more or engage your congregation in experiments of reaching new people in new ways, contact Maher at  or 713-533-3726.

To learn more about the new church labs, check out: