Core/District Leadership Teams Gather to Learn from One Another
Everything is bigger in Texas, which rings true when it comes to leadership meetings and vision.
As Bishop Janice Huie welcomed almost 100 key leaders to the annual District Leadership Team/Core Leadership Team think tank, she invited participants to take off their ‘local church hats’ and join the conversation about cultivating fruitful congregations from a district and conference-level perspective. She congratulated attendees for their participation, saying, “This type of information sharing back and forth at our gathering today is critical since our conference is so large and since our conference is transitioning to be more fruitful, missional, and vibrant. Let’s have a conversation that embodies the best strategies from each district, and ask ourselves what our next steps might be,” Bishop Huie shared. “ What does your DLT need to learn to strengthen your district, and what conversations do you need to have with other district leaders?”
Bishop Huie shared highlights of Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, Andrew Doyle’s, fall visit with the CLT. “Bishop Doyle is considered one of the most creative and forward-thinking bishops among the Episcopalians in the US, and he will serve as the bishop here for another decade,” she said. “The decline in church participation in the US that began over 40 years ago started first among the Episcopalians, however, it now appears that they may be the first denomination to reverse the decline, and we have much to learn from them.”
Bishop Huie explained the significance of the Episopals’ sale of their crown jewel asset: St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System as a strategy to fund two endowments for the diocese to use on behalf of the people of this area—not the members, but the residents. She adds, “Bishop Doyle acknowledges that most church leaders continue to believe people will search, find and stay in churches because our laity are so awesome and our pastors’ preaching is so fantastic, but that is no longer true because we are living today in a “VUCA” world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.”
Complexities and uncertainties include immense growth in technology and in the complexity of both finance and politics. This transitional threshold is introducing revolutionary ways to make Christianity more relevant through on-line communion, prayer chains through social networking, and kiosks that make contributing funds in the local church more convenient.
Shift Toward Discipleship
Several pastors shared stories about what their congregations are doing to deepen externally focused relationships that promote life change and develop new disciples.
· Rev. Taylor Meador Fuerst shared how the focus at Westbury UMC shifted outward long before her arrival. “Our church is still in the midst of this shift. We are learning as we go and I want to encourage you to remember that mission work can be messy. Ours began with a sense of calling toward apartment ministry right near our church. When we don’t move on our own, God sometimes brings ministry to our doorstep which is actually what happened when the apartment manager came to our church and asked us to start a Bible study. I think it is notable that Westbury did not wait to get a complete consensus, but had multiple conversations and rode a wave of passion building toward that need and just stepped out in faith. The group invited others who could see this vision, they found funding outside of the budget and it took off.” It now includes staff members who have become residents of the complex and they have regular worship gatherings with their neighbors.
· Rev. Lance Richards, now at Watershed UMC, shared his experience at Lexington UMC. “As membership dropped, a core group at Lexington decided they wanted to be there for the next generation and committed to refurbish their sanctuary and facilities. Giving jumped 80% and worship doubled thereafter as we all focused on the core practices of the church: prayer, purpose, preaching and participation. We clarified our purpose and mobilized more people in areas where God was leading and that spiritual growth sparked an after school program, a hunger ministry and it fueled the addition of a “community impact coordinator” position on staff.”
· Rev. Preston Greenwaldt shared a story from Hardy Memorial, Texarkana. “ When we held an altar workshop at the church, we found amazing talents in our membership and that started a conversation about why we do what we do at church – that spread and got people excited. We also went from three to about 50 people involved in the worship planning efforts and things began to change. One of the greatest impacts came from doing the 90-day Bible reading challenge collectively as a church. Members started talking, inviting others to join us, and participation grew five-fold. Since missions had all but dried up, we hosted a Great Day of Service at the church and began to shift our focus outward. Before long, we had 75 kids in children’s ministry and dozens of new relationships bridging to the community in a way that brought hope and renewal to the church.”
“Bishop Doyle is helping us to see that the state of church in America is not dying, but transitioning, and that we can serve an incredible role in providing certainty to people seeking desperately for truth that is rock solid,” adds Bishop Huie. “People need encouragement and permission to experiment – knowing not to get overwhelmed when something doesn’t work. Pastors, laity and congregations will need to come out of our silos and talk with each other about what we are doing, what we are learning.”
She encourages districts and congregations to talk more about Jesus and the difference Christians are making in individual lives and communities. “Every congregation will need to shift from an internal focus to an external focus. We have to re-examine our understanding of the mission field in our communities because it is changing so fast. Like the Episcopal Diocese, we need to take a new look at our assets and how they might be re-deployed to make a difference in the community, asking ourselves how Jesus wants us to spend His money.”
As TAC congregations transition from “making members” to “making disciples, and ultimately apostles, she encourages clergy and lay leaders to understand the realities of a ”VUCA” world and lead this kind of change by blooming where they are planted. “Success will not be furthering one’s career by getting appointed every three or four years to a bigger church, but helping the church where you are serving to become the church God intends—in a way which actually takes us back to first century Christianity.”
District Visit Highlights
Bishop Huie reflected on her visits this fall. Over 1300 people attended the ten district visits with 60% being laity, 40% clergy. “There’s a growing sense of hopefulness and even excitement—especially among laity, as more and more of us see the need to shift from an internal focus to an outward focus,” she shares.
· Congregational involvement with the schools has grown dramatically and many are realizing that vibrancy is not related to size –rather, it is related to mission.
· There is a greater interest in learning. The book list that TAC Lay Leader Stephanie Griffin distributed received great interest and the Vibrant Church Initiative is sparking enthusiasm for research and investigation.
· More and more congregations are engaging in conversation about these questions:
o Who are we now?
o Who is our neighbor? Learning about the mission field around us.
o What is God’s mission for us?
o What is God’s purpose for us?
o Why has God placed us here today?