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Pastors share insights for building congregations


NOTE: Photos are available for use with this story.

By Yvonne J. Medley*

ATLANTA (UMNS) -- When the Rev. Candace Lewis, 33, pastor of New Life Community United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., spoke at a recent School of Congregational Development, both clergy and lay members were encouraged by her success.

Four years into her first appointment since graduating from seminary, Lewis' congregation has swelled to 200 members and gone from being conference-supported to self-sufficient. Now she wants to buy a shopping center to revitalize the community.

Another pastor at the Aug. 9-14 event, the Rev. Bau Dang of Wesley United Methodist Church in San Diego, shared his secrets for growing the largest Vietnamese United Methodist congregation in the United States.

"We are proactive and make ourselves available to serve people in a tangible way by helping them to settle in the United States," he said. "When the Holy Spirit works within our effort, things happen."

In a popular workshop on "Turning Around Existing Churches," the Rev. Mary Sellon of Yakima (Wash.) United Methodist Church assured everyone that conflict is the canvas upon which God turns chaos into strong ministry. "It's hard to let go of what was, to walk in what will be," she said.

Coordinators Clinton Parker and Craig K. Miller guided participants on how to create the new DNA of their churches. Parker is with the Evangelism of Church Growth Unit of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and Miller is director of the Center for Evangelism through New Church Development at the churchwide Board of Discipleship.

The denomination is committed to more than the suburban model of the middle class, Parker said. "It is really reaching in new ways and trying to find out how to reach into impoverished communities, reclaim the cities and be re-engaged in rural settings." He expressed appreciation for the bishops who invited the two churchwide agencies to share what is happening in new church development.

The School of Congregational Development is a sign of a major change in the denomination regarding new church startups, Miller said. "In 1994, we were establishing 40 churches a year. Today, we're looking at establishing 140 churches a year," he said. The next School of Congregational Development will be Aug. 1-6, 2002, on the west campus of First United Methodist Church in Houston.

About 600 annual conference representatives from across the United States attended the school, which began nine years ago with 15 participants. This year, three main tracks were offered: New Church Development, Turning Around Existing Congregations, and High Potential Churches. Participants also made site visits to United Methodist churches in the Atlanta area.

Participants window-shopped at the main edifice of Peachtree United Methodist Church and learned about its growing pains, solutions and expansion plans. "We have road rage every Sunday in the parking lot," joked Peachtree's pastor, the Rev. Chuck Hodges.

The participants also visited Ben Hill United Methodist Church, with 9,000 members. Its pastor, the Rev. McCallister Hollins, delivered a plenary address on "Leading the 21st Century Church" and later gave a moving sermon at the church. In order to lead God's people, he said, "you have to let them see your heart."

Ben Hill is the largest United Methodist Church in the Southeast, Hollins noted. "It's the second- largest African-American United Methodist Church in the world and the fifth-largest United Methodist Church in the nation." The church's success was of particular interest to some of the conference participants.

"I came specifically to see Ben Hill and how African Americans can really prosper in the United Methodist Church," said the Rev. Dwayne Alston, pastor of the new Calvary United Methodist Church in Rocky Mountain, N.C.

The school featured intensive training sessions dealing with issues concerning Native American, African-American, Korean and Hispanic ministries. "There is a move to recapture the Native American culture and express that in their worship setting," said the Rev. Sylvia Collins of new church-start Triangle Native American United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C. "They want to be free to do that without being called pagans," she said.

Alice Richie, a lay member of Faith Connections Ministry in Lansing, Mich., feared her church was not progressing as it should, but hearing others at the school reassured her. "We found out that we're pretty much on target for these [first] 12 months," she said.

Tim Polk, a deputy commissioner in Atlanta, warned that dealing with government and politics can be daunting for church people. In jest, he said, "You ought to have somebody who has the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon and the favor of God." Participants were told they shouldn't be the last to find out about rezoning, construction or public funds. It was suggested that a liaison person from the church should be in place to cultivate a working relationship with local government officials.

Urban ministries workshop facilitator and layperson Diane Johnson stressed the effectiveness of lay members in community outreach ministry. "Lay people, ask your pastors for training," she said. "Discover the gift that will help you discover the assets in your community." Johnson is a Board of Global Ministries staff member.

"For too long we have lived and worked in a clergy-centric church, and it just about killed the church," said the Rev. Michael Minnix, superintendent of the Chambersburg District in the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference. "Clergy have to learn to empower and equip laity, then step back and let the laity be in ministry."

Churches seeking to build new structures, purchase land or make improvements on existing buildings were encouraged to look toward the United Methodist Development Fund, administered by the Board of Global Ministries.

"Right at the moment, we have about $20 million we're ready to loan out," said the Rev. Sam Dixon, a representative of the fund.

Ben Hill's music minister, Cynthia Wilson, conducted each day's praise and worship and a music ministry workshop. She spoke to the change and conflicts surrounding Christian music. "If you look at history, every time there was critical tension going on in the church, it was around music and worship.

"For some reason, we just have a hard time when the paradigm shifts, but we've got to have that which speaks to the heart of the season," she said.

"I heard somebody say that nobody likes change but a wet baby."

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*Medley is a writer based in Waldorf, Md.

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