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WESLEYAN WISDOM: Building (or re-building) a vital congregation Donald W. Haynes, Mar 28, 2012
By Donald W. Haynes UMR Columnist
Some wise words deserve repeating. Bishop Robert Schnase offered this highly accurate observation in a recent interview (Reporter, March 16): “Congregations are the most significant arena through which the UMC fulfills the purpose of Christ. God works through our congregations to change lives, and through lives formed by Christ, God changes the world.”
Later he said with equal accuracy, “For years, United Methodists have ignored, denied or blamed others when confronted with the reality of our decline.” To quote part of his next sentence: “This hasn’t helped. Now it’s time for every one of us . . . to take responsibility for a future with hope. We all have to offer ourselves to being changed afresh by the Holy Spirit.”
Thousands of our churches are using this bishop’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations to revitalize their churches. I should like to respond to the bishop’s accurate observation and warning—the congregation is the cutting edge of the kingdom.
I currently serve as an interim pastor at Kallam Grove Christian Church in Madison, N.C., a church that is Wesleyan and Arminian in theology, congregational in polity and much like thousands of rural United Methodist churches in its demographics. Madison is 53 miles from my home; so I am obviously part-time. Most weeks I am in the parish or the hospital three weekdays plus Sunday. In a typical week, I drive 400 miles for parish-related work. Last December, in my absence, they raised my salary 25 percent which I protested to no avail.
Several recent columns in this space have received emails from dispirited laity and discouraged clergy. Two temptations seduce many pastors of small membership churches. One is to see this appointment as a stepping stone and this parish as a cultural backwater compared to seminary and suburbia. The second is to acquiesce to the “religious club” mentality of churches whose major vision is to serve kith and kin and care for the building and cemetery.
Since I have immodestly referred to the numerical growth and “re-visioned” mission at Kallam Grove, I must speak to others who have lost their passion for the parish.
Sitting where they sit
Our highest priority needs to come from Ezekiel 3:15. When “appointed” to be pastor to the exiles in Mesopotamia, young Ezekiel first “sat where they sat.” By and by, the vision came—the valley of dry bones would live again! The sad reality is that our ordination credentials carry little weight. We must “sit where they sit,” listen to their life stories, pat their dogs, break bread with them (more in restaurants than in homes), and pray in their family rooms and barns.
I am well aware that this is an older paradigm which thousands of pastors insist does not work in today’s society. However, it is the only reason the attendance at Kallam Grove has climbed from 65 to 135, and the only reason we have received 43 new members in 30 months. One-on-one conversations are the only reason we had no dissenting votes in a congregational meeting to spend $23,000 for upgraded sound and audio-visual equipment.
Using the Internet
My next priority is not an old paradigm; it is placing the church and weekly sermon on the World Wide Web. I work hard on a new sermon every week, and our website plus the social networks of our people’s Facebook walls can carry the sermon from our location on a rural side road to the “ends of the earth.” One new member tweaks our website daily. What amazing dividends for the investment of about two hours of my time each Sunday evening! Every pastor in every church can do the same.
Currently, we are assimilating the first two “non-Southern” families into the congregation in its 138-year history. All the others are either “from around here” or have married into the membership. Now we have a family from Maryland and an unmarried older adult couple from Boston who bought a “farmette” in North Carolina. I saw the moving van backed up to a house that had been on the market for a couple of years, welcomed them to the community, invited them to church, and they never miss. He is 59 and will be joining the church by profession of faith and baptism. She is American Baptist and will be transferring. I will marry them on May 6.
One of the women from Maryland is making a quilt for our youth auction. Her daughter and son-in-law were deacons in their non-denominational church in Maryland, which had a band and worshipped in a contemporary idiom. We don’t, but not one other pastor visited them after they were guests at morning worship. They are our first family from a different geographic region with lots of different ideas from a very different church. Radical hospitality in any church lives out the “motto” of United Methodism—open hearts, open minds, open doors.
Taking care of business
Newspaper editor Ralph McGill once wrote a wise little book, The Fleas Come with the Dog. True! Even the “high calling which is ours” requires of us what Bishop Bevel Jones used to call “administrivia.” This means planning with lay leadership, putting out fires, resolving conflicts, meeting with committees. Over lunch in early March, Rita and Ray and I finalized plans for Palm Sunday’s procession of palm branches, Maundy Thursday communion, my annual washing the feet of the people, Tenebrae, buying paraments, getting a larger baptismal bowl. . . . Rita will take it from there; I do not need to micromanage every detail.
Appointed to territory
In earlier decades when Methodist growth in the U.S. was phenomenal, Methodist and EUB preachers were appointed to geographic territories, not to membership rosters and staff. In rural and small-town parishes, a new pastor can quickly connect with the community at large. Go where your people eat and they will introduce you around. I like to reach out to table servers and cashiers, bank tellers and postal service employees, public library staff and folks at local sports events. They have names and life journeys, too!
From house to house
During house to house visitations on a recent afternoon, my first stop was the home of a man and his live-in girlfriend, both in their late 50s. He is a tough hombre who first introduced himself with the words, “I believe in God but not in organized religion.” He was confirmed 42 years ago, served a career in the Army, married three times, and was long ago written off as a “hopeless case.” Then three things happened in his life: His dad died and I was one of four people who attended the funeral, his new neighbors (the couple from Boston) invited him to church, and his new girlfriend—whom he met as a biker (as in motorcycle)—is a United Methodist! Result? I am marrying both couples, baptizing Ed, renewing baptism for Jay, and receiving Maddy and Robin by membership transfer.
My next stop that afternoon was to Sara, a 42-year-old who just had major surgery at Duke University Medical Center. Her dad is a retired “IBMer” and they have been a leading family in our congregation since they moved from the United Methodist Church 20 years ago. Our conversation that day moved to a request to explain the Christian year and my stole colors to Sara’s daughters, who then became acolytes! Result: gaining the family’s support for buying paraments for the pulpit and communion table.
My next visit was to drop by another member’s garage/shop and brag on the china closet he is building for our youth auction. Tom is the new chair of our ushers and for the first time in our history, we have four ushers rather than two, and some of them are women! He laughed that so far, no one has complained. Result: closing the gender gap.
Sam’s farmstead was next. The previous Sunday the rest of the family were at church and Sam was not; so I just dropped by to let him know I missed him. As I traveled down his long, wooded driveway about 5:00 p.m., he was driving his pick-up from the barn. One of their sons is recently separated. Sam is a man of few words but as I left, he told me, “Appreciate you coming by. I’ll be there next Sunday.” And the next Sunday, he was present!
My next four calls were to older adults—one for whom hospice has been called in, one a 92-year-old farmer who has never joined any church but whose family are our members, one a lady who had missed the last two Sundays which is my clue to check on “why,” and one a Presbyterian who worships with us regularly because her church is too far to drive to at age 88. I just needed to let all of them know we care, read some Scripture with them and have a prayer. Sometimes I bring Communion. There is much truth in the late Bishop Nolan Harmon’s wisdom to my ordination class in 1956: “When you cross a threshold, you represent the grace of God.” Their families are highly appreciative of these drop-by calls.
All over America, new families from other regions or other nations are moving into older, established neighborhoods. If you live near a large lake, a golf “mecca,” or areas where the economy is shifting to a new clientele, we must connect with them! There is nothing prohibitive about United Methodism. In the spirit and with the missional thrust of the circuit riders, we must “cross every stream, climb every mountain, get into every apartment complex, touch every mobile home park, and follow every lead” as we build or re-build vital congregations.
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He’s the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: email@example.com.