Rethinking Rural Ministry: What's a "S.M.A.C.U.M?"

Date Posted: 1/24/2012

What might a District Superintendent do in these challenging times?

If that District Superintendent is a solutions-minded maverick thinker like Jerry Pennington, he might begin experimenting with some new ideas and ways to do ministry.


Explains Pennington, “The more I learned about the uniqueness of my giant district full of small churches, the more I wanted to find ways to celebrate that uniqueness and help them venture out and rediscover their passions without the pressure of fitting into the model of a mid-size or large church.”


Innovative approach: return to the WESLEYAN WAY of small home fellowships and shared ministry. While experiments are more commonly associated with science labs than churches, a few years ago, Pennington began experimenting with his sprawling rural district by restructuring his district as if it were a conference. His objective: to provide financial support, leadership and facilitation for rural ministry. In recent months he has rallied elders to serve in a new role called Facilitating Elders to work in 10 sub-districts within the East District and created a “district cabinet.”


Those experiments involve several different “MODELS” for ministry and several are starting to demonstrate new energy and ministry fruitfulness.


S.M.A.C.U.M. celebrates first year of joint covenant

One of Pennington’s first “guinea pigs” in his experiment was Reverend Becky Love, pastor of Diboll First Methodist. For over a year, she has served in the hands-on role of an innovative position called a Supervising Elder by overseeing the creation of S.M.A.C.U.M: the Shared Ministry of Angelina County United Methodists.


“This Shared Ministry concept brings four churches within 10 miles of each other into a covenant to join forces to do what no single church could do as well on their own,” explains Love. The four churches include Ryan’s Chapel (25 members on Sunday), First Diboll (90 attendance), Burke UMC (19) and St. Paul’s in Lufkin (30 members).


Under Love’s guidance, the four churches came together for Charge Conference in September and formalized their covenant by signing it as a commitment to continue working together by seeking to know God’s will and acknowledge the assets and resources each church has to offer.


The document states, “We adopt this because of our mutual care for all of God’s people in our common mission field. Therefore, as we identify opportunities for joint ministry, together we will employ our God-given gifts and graces to develop programs that bring witness to God’s love.”


Shaky Beginnings

When Pennington first broached the concept of trying a new experiment called Shared Ministry, there may have been a bit of “kicking and screaming” on the inside as evidenced by mixed reactions from members from each church. “All 12 of us at Burke UMC were stressed and scared of the idea at first,” admits Pam Burnett, who now serves as the 2012 secretary on the SMACUM Council.


“We were leery about being shut down and merged, or losing our church identity - but now that I look back over the first year I see how much ground we covered by combining our resources and volunteers as a four-some,” she explains. “Our churches are still our churches, but we are jelling and working together and reaching a lot more people than we could have as individual churches.”


“I would say we all experienced a breakthrough moment when we met at each others churches during Holy Week and Easter - sharing the responsibility for leading worship at Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Sunrise Services and Easter services,” notes Supervising Elder Becky Love.


Later in the year, all four churches sponsored a joint Advent service that Burnett describes as awesome.” “It worked well for one church to help with the stone soup supper, another do a puppet show, another host special music with their children’s choir, and the fourth church would perform a skit about the meaning of the symbols of Christmas.” In addition, Burnett spearheaded a toy drive on behalf of S.M.A.C.U.M. at Christmas that provided clothing and toys to 370 local children, “which was no small undertaking!”


She adds, “We still talk to the families that we adopted, and hope they will someday find a church where they feel comfortable – doesn’t matter where that is, as long as they are in church and getting what they need.”


“This brotherhood/ sisterhood among our four churches has been extremely energizing for me,” she admits. “After our S.M.A.C.U.M. Council officers and representatives meet monthly, we leave our  meetings with all kinds of ideas, projects and plans to tackles a team.”


Modern Day “Raving Fans”

On the topic of “Shared Ministry,” Ryan Chapel member Daniel Hagan went from skeptic to raving fan status over the last year. “Daniel is so pumped up about it, he can talk for an hour non-stop, if given the chance,” says District Superintendent Jerry Pennington. Notes Hagan, “Initially, I was not excited about the concept, but I soon realized this was actually a good way to build up the small churches – to get the Methodist name out there as well as our church names.” Adds Hagan, “Even though Becky Love oversees our Council, she lets us run everything  and she just provides input. I am thoroughly enjoying Shared Ministry because I like combining everyone’s strengths to do more together than we could have done alone.”


Being retired, Hagan has time to volunteer and participate regularly. “ Because of this new group, I often go to my church Sunday morning and have time to drive to Diboll and attend their service as well,” he says. “The Shared Ministry allows me to know about more events, help with more activities and feel like I am home, regardless of which church is hosting the project or Bible study.”


In addition to expanding his friendship base, he has been personally touched by the ministry impact S.M.A.C.U.M. has facilitated. “I have a vivid memory of the tears streaming down the faces of young girls we visited a few months ago that just got out of prison. S.M.A.C.U.M. is supporting a nearby ministry called Seasons of Hope that helps these girls transition back into the world, and they could not believe 25 people would come visit them, give them a hug and help the ministry take care of theirneeds. Our plan for 2012 is to fix up a building so the ministry can expand to help more girls.”


On another occasion, Hagan was excited to meet a need serving hotdogs and snacks at the park. He was glad SMACUM could provide for a need when children asked him for extras because their parents did not have anything to eat at home. “When we get out of our church buildings and work in

the community, we get a whole new perspective on how many people need help.”


Kingdom Results

In addition to SMACUM, DS Jerry Pennington is experimenting with other new rural ministry models ranging from “home churches” to church pairings of a smaller and larger church – all designed to bring new enthusiasm and a feeling of empowerment that is contagious.


Pennington has learned firsthand, “There is no single right way that fits all small churches. It takes individual consultation and openness to work toward the best solution for making disciples in each community of believers. I am excited to celebrate the rural ministry opportunities in the East District and see new signs of life, facilitation of fruitfulness and a passion for adapting to the new demands in a new world of doing church.”


He has also been thrilled to share these experiments with representatives from the Arkansas conference and others who have come to learn more about Texas’ unique approaches to rural ministries. “I love knowing the Texas Annual Conference is known for leading by example,” he adds.  



Words of Warning Turn to Words of Wisdom

“S.M.A.C.U.M. is already working together to plan for an incredible Lenten season, Easter egg hunt, Fall festival, mission activities and Advent,” adds Burnett. “If any small churches are looking to reenergize their congregation, I would encourage them to try something different and give it 150% of your commitment, because we have seen the fruits of our labor expand our ministries and bring new people to our churches.” Adds Mike Waters, current S.M.A.C.U.M. president, “It has been a blessing to see our churches share resources with each other and a blessing to meet new people and serve Christ together.”


Raving fan Daniel Hagan sums it up this way, “Shared Ministry, however you decide it works for your situation, gives small churches a new sense of hope. It is ideal, especially for any church with under 50 in attendance.”


Adds Pastor Love, “The S.M.A.C.U.M. team met in mid January for the first time on their own and their meeting minutes reflect that they have taken their commitment seriously and have really taken hold of discerning and planning for future ministries. I am excited about the possibilities in this new year!” 


First-year highlights of Shared Ministry

“Change the World” Day: fed several hundred people of the community at two different parks.  


Disaster Response: rallied the members and community to help send 65 flood buckets, 50 health kits, 40 tarps, 70 cases of water and toys to Mississippi and raised $2000 to help with supplies and transportation; also took a mission trip to Louisiana to repair hurricane damage.


Vacation Bible School and Back to School Bash where children played games to win school supplies.


Disciple Bible Study/Men’s breakfast: ongoing rotation between the churches


Winter coat and blanket drive: combined forces to fill the bed of a pickup truck for Diboll Christian Outreach clients. Adds Pastor Love, “The Change the World event in May of 2011 brought all four churches to two different park locations to share food and fellowship and the gospel with people in neighborhoods that many had never visited, even though they were just minutes away. One member said that she went into this project thinking ‘aren’t we doing a great thing for these kids who will probably not be well dressed or well fed.’ She was thinking that we were there to help out the poor and later commented on numerous occasions about how she was blessed by these families and children who were so very appreciative. Her expectations were one thing and the blessings she received were far greater.”