Church leaders from throughout the US and from several other countries gathered August 15-18 for the School of Congregational Development in Denver, Colorado
United Methodist Leaders Go to the Edge
By Melissa Hinnen
“Will you decide that God’s people are important enough? Will you go to the edge to launch?” With those questions, the Rev. Jasmine Smothers challenged church leaders to take risks, get out of their comfort zones and trust that God is calling them to new places of mission and ministry.
“Failure to launch is not an option – God’s people are waiting,” Smothers declared in a Spirit-filled message to nearly 500 United Methodists attending the School of Congregational Development. Smothers is the associate director of connectional ministries for the North Georgia Annual Conference.
Church leaders from the United States and several other countries gathered for the annual event Aug. 15-18 in Denver. The Rev. Craig Miller, staff member with the General Board of Discipleship, said the focus on “‘Encountering God at the Edge’ was lived out through sharing ideas to create missional congregations that engage communities with the love and grace of Jesus Christ.”
The school drew seminary students, laity, clergy and conference staff who are open to innovative ways to make disciples. Seminarian Christina Mills (@TinaPasadena) tweeted, "Well, my first ever #SCDUMC was far beyond what I imagined. God certainly was on the move!" Mills is a student at Gammon Theological Seminary and serves as a student pastor at Warren United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
The Mountain Sky Episcopal Area hosted the event with support from the Western Jurisdiction. The Rev. Schuyler Rhodes, a district superintendent who attended with 29 others from the California-Nevada Annual Conference, said, “We have made great strides in our intentional movement to renew, revive and move forward. … The journey of understanding and collaboration is ongoing, and it was strengthened by being here together.”
The Rev. Walter “Skip” Strickland, a district superintendent in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference and one of the hosts, noted an encouraging shift in strategies for new church planting and local church renewal.
“The core of recovery for the denomination lies not only in the growth of the number of people in the pews,” he said, “but also in the growth of the people in the pews that results in spiritual depth, ability to innovate and the courage to experiment.”
A number of presenters emphasized the need to create space to take risks.
Charles Lee, the author of “Good, Idea, Now What” encouraged building a culture of innovation by allowing for experimentation. “Don’t ignore what you know but make space for divergence . . . dedicate funding to explore new ideas.”
In a workshop about “Revolutionary Restarts,” the Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank explained that when pastors are trusted to step out in faith, there is not only the risk of failure but also the possibility of resurrection. The pastor of Crossroads United Methodist Church in Phoenix encourages pastors who want to bring new life into their churches to ask their bishops for permission to “fail big” so that they can explore new visions with the support of the conference.
Being Jesus at the Edges
Workshop and plenary sessions explored a number of different ministry paradigms.
The Rev. Ruben Saenz, Jr. described ways to adapt ministry to a mission field that goes beyond who is in the congregation. Leader of New Church Development and Transformation initiatives for the San Antonio Episcopal Area, Saenz both offered insight about ministering with second-generation Hispanic/Latino communities and warned against “bundling all Hispanics together.”
In a workshop, he explored four paradigms of Hispanic/Latino communities and discussed strategies for working with each. Build relationships, he advised, and ask questions: “What are the values? What are fears? What is the music trend?” The result, Saenz said, is that churches will authentically begin to express, “I get you. I know who you are. I’m speaking with you. I value you. I welcome you.”
While the Hispanic community was presented as a growing population for the church to reach out, to, The Revs. Chebon Kernall and Anita Phillips discussed the need for continued ministry with Native Americans, a population that has survived against all odds but that struggles to fill pews. Phillips is executive director for the Native American Comprehensive Plan, while Kernall is the new director of Native American and Indigenous Ministries with Global Ministries. Kernall described a number of challenges facing Native American churches, including a lack of funding, isolation, institutional racism and contextual resources for ministries like vacation Bible school.
Offering a perspective different from the “vital church metric,” Kernall said, “We don’t count the people we have or don’t have – we know that the ones that are there are meant to be there.” He suggested that the importance of the church can better be measured by its response to community trauma that is manifested in alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide.
“I believe in the power of prayer,” Kernall said, “but we must also put our faith into practice in meeting the day-to-day concerns of people.”
In her welcome message, Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky made a point of noting the Sand Creek Massacre – an 1864 slaughter of Native Americans that was orchestrated by two Methodists. “I can’t welcome United Methodist Christians intent on planting churches to Colorado without telling our local cautionary tale,” she said.
The congregational developers moved also explored how Denver churches are living out God’s mission. Many experienced After Hours Denver when the Rev. Jerry Herships leads worship on Monday nights in local bars. The call to worship every week includes preparing 100 lunches that will be distributed the following day in a park to people who are homeless. An important part of After Hours is its outreach in the park. With support from other churches, Herships and others from After Hours distribute lunch and Holy Communion every day of the year.
Herships, a former entertainer, breaks down United Methodist “insider language” with worship he calls bilingual – “We speak God-language and bar-language.” Instead of calling intercessory prayer “joys and concerns,” After Hours has a time of “that sucks or that’s great.” With a backdrop of secular music that carries a spiritual message, Herships’ sermon is followed by small-group conversation. He prompted the conversation circles at the School of Congregational Development with two questions: “Who is on the edge in your community? What are tangible ways you can love on them?”
Scholarships and Satellites
To broaden the diversity of attendees, the General Board of Global Ministries provided scholarships to seminary students and others who needed financial assistance. One of the most important elements of the School of Congregational Development is the sharing of ideas said the Rev. Nora Colmenares, a Global Ministries executive. “We didn’t want anyone to feel that they couldn’t come and benefit because of the cost. We wanted to be sure that there was a range of experiences to draw on – voices that are sometimes left out of the conversation but that can add depth and build understanding.”
Parts of the event were available to people who could not be in Denver. Plenary sessions were streamed live. Saturday featured a satellite experience during which more than 170 participants gathered at eight sites around the United States to watch Lee’s presentation about creating cultures of innovation. They also engaged in the workshop led by the Rev. Rudy Rasmus of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston and Escobedo-Frank that was focused on strategies for turning around declining congregations.
About the School of Congregational Development
The School of Congregational Development has built a reputation in United Methodist circles as the premier event for equipping clergy and laity to lead vital, dynamic, life-changing congregations. It is sponsored by the General Board of Discipleship and Path 1 and by the General Board of Global Ministries, and Path 1. The 2014 conference will be Aug. 14-17 in Charlotte, N.C.
Click here to view the Storify presentation which highlights the Twitter version of how United Methodists Encountered God on the Edge at the School of Congregational Development.
Melissa Hinnen is the director of content and public information for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.