The “Missionhood” of all believers
Virginia congregations answer God’s call to service
By Christie R. House*
Mission trends emerge slowly, with some churches out in front and others taking a wait and see approach. The good news is—congregations are searching. Some congregations struggle with what they think is a traditional approach to mission, searching for something new and innovative. They may not realize that mission theology and practice has been changing and evolving all along. What we envision as “traditional” may not even exist anymore.
Church leaders seeking authentic mission involvement offer congregations opportunities to serve through volunteer mission experiences. Some have found the jurisdictional United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) to be helpful in this process. Others have followed the guidelines of their conference mission coordinators. Some leaders seek organizations outside the United Methodist connection, following an independent path to discover what God requires of them. Yet, all these different paths seem to lead to the same destination.
I enlisted the help of the Rev. Glenn Rowley, director of the Virginia Conference’s Center for Justice and Missional Excellence, to talk with local church leaders about mission. The conference has a long tradition of mission involvement and missionary support.
The Virginia Conference has three international mission priorities—the Shade and Fresh Water program in Brazil, leadership development with the UMC in Mozambique, and the Cambodia Mission Initiative. The conference Initiatives of Hope team, working with the conference mission office and board of Global Ministries, seeks to create and nurture long-term partnerships in mission with people of other cultures, working alongside them in their ministries. “Mission” is promoted as a lifestyle, not a trip.
Here are my findings of what the mission-minded congregations have in common. Welcome to the Missionhood.
Hands-on Relational Experiences
Apache youth and young adults are always on the team to work alongside Aldersgate UMC volunteers for projects on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona. PHOTO: COURTESY CORY CULVER
Glenn Rowley, a former missionary, described a move to a “hands-on” and “alongside of” approach to mission across the connection. Support for mission has been changing ever since the baby boomers came of age. They and generations following want to have hands-on experiences and opportunities to “go and see.” Glenn hypothesized: “We are really the first generation to be able to go to Mozambique or Cambodia. It has much to do with the privilege of disposable income we now have for travel.”
Cory Culver serves as the mission chair for Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria. “We could build twice as many stoves in Guatemala if we just sent money to build stoves. But we want people of our congregation to engage with the Guatemalans. The personal connection is what we find most critical.” He explained Aldersgate’s philosophy of mission as “reaching out and being hands-on—encouraging a lot more people to be involved in engaging with the people we serve.”
The mission priorities for volunteer teams at Aldersgate include service and building projects with Mayan indigenous people in Guatemala and with the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona. Both projects are coordinated through an independent partner in Richmond, Virginia, the Highland Support Project. At Aldersgate, members of United Methodist Women support Global Ministries’ missionaries Clara Biswas and Esther Gitobu, who work with the Cambodia Mission Initiative.
In Burke, Virginia, Jane Wilson’s church also invests in the ministries of the Cambodia Mission Initiative. “For the last four years, Virginia Conference has taken a team to Cambodia, and our members who have gone bring back stories and photos. We receive missionaries itinerating in the conference. They speak at both services and stay for lunch. People don’t know about the incredible need in the world and what The United Methodist Church is doing about that.” Jane, the director of missions for Burke UMC, tries to build an education component in all the mission work of the church.
Seventeen Burke members have trained with UMCOR as an Early Response Team (ERT) for the Virginia Conference. The team is relatively new, but a few joined another church team for Hurricane Harvey relief in Texas last year. Closer to home, Burke members work on hands-on projects like Rise Against Hunger—a volunteer-based meal packaging program. Volunteers get together to pack the dehydrated meals, usually assembly-line style, which the Rise Against Hunger organization distributes around the world.
Braddock St. UMC has trained ERT members who have spent time in West Virginia, Virginia, and Texas after storms and hurricanes came through. According to Joanna Dietz, the Minister of Mission and Service for the church, Braddock Street UMC partners with Helping Children Worldwide in Bo, Sierra Leone, founded by several United Methodist churches. This UMC organization supports vulnerable children and families through education, health care, and spiritual mentoring. Braddock St. UMC also supports Lisa Nichols, a Church and Community Worker missionary with Henry Fork Service Center in Rocky Mount, Virginia.
After Hurricane Harvey, Braddock St. UMC sent a VIM team down to Texas to assist with clean-up. Above, a couple of volunteers from Braddock St. UMC remove a tree. PHOTO: COURTESY JOANNA DIETZ
Joanna believes in giving everyone the chance to plug into hands-on ministries. “Sometimes we go out and do ‘One and Done’ ways of service to get people involved in different kinds of ministry.” But members can also find weekly, monthly, or even short-term VIM opportunities of service.
Annandale United Methodist Church sends mission teams annually to Haiti, Brazil, and Mozambique. Ryan Witkowski, Annandale’s mission chair, leads the team to Brazil to work with the Shade and Fresh Water project, a program for children and youth developed by Gordon and Teca Greathouse, now retired missionaries, in Belo Horizonte. A new missionary director, the Rev. Emily Everett from Texas, currently coordinates the program. Annandale teams work on construction projects, but, Ryan says: “All of our mission is relational—even when doing construction—the relationships are more important than the work being done.”
Annandale supported Global Mission Fellow Nayara Alves Gervasio, who just finished a GMF term in El Salvador working with displaced and deported people returning to the country. She is from Belo Horizonte, and the Brazil team met her through the Shade and Fresh Water program. Missionary support, in this case, developed through personal contact.
Help that Truly Transforms
Mission directors of all the churches are keenly aware that outreach efforts can sometimes do little to empower the people targeted for help. They want their members to engage in ministries that have the potential to transform people, empowering them to devise solutions and develop tools that continue to improve their lives. The people coming to serve should also be learning, developing new ideas, and experiencing transformation. That’s when the Missionhood is reaching its potential.
“We are to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world,” noted Joanna Dietz. “You can’t transform people without knowing who they are. Relationship is where true transformation happens.” Three years ago, there were no adult mission trips from Braddock St. UMC. Today the congregation sends out about 20 people a year. Joanna feels her job is to equip leaders to enter into ministry.
Ryan Witkowski sees the opportunity for learning and relationship even in the downtime on site—and maybe especially in the downtime. “One of our favorite games is to sit around and point at something in the room. Everyone names it in their language.” Global Mission Fellows and volunteers with Shade and Fresh Water may come from Europe, Asia, or Africa. “Someone might name the object in Japanese, or Swahili, or Portuguese,” Ryan explains. “We end up naming many different items in different languages. Ultimately, everyone ends up laughing. It’s an amazing thing to watch—simple, but amazing as everyone shares their languages.”
Cory Culver observed that, while working on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, Aldersgate teams always invite Apache youth from the reservation to join, but other teams do not do that. He wondered how the tribe would claim ownership of projects if they had no hand in building them and received no training to maintain them. “We intend to engage the people we work with—that’s why what we do sticks,” he concluded.
Local and Global Involvement
Each of the congregations contacted was heavily involved in their local communities. Ministries involving basic needs like shelter for the homeless and food for the hungry were prominent. Aldersgate UMC volunteers support four different feeding projects and two shelter projects along the Route 1 corridor (Richmond Highway), a food and sheltering program in downtown Washington, D.C., a chaperone service for a battered women’s shelter, and work with Habitat for Humanity.
In Guatemala, a team from Aldersgate UMC in Virginia receives help from a whole lot of Guatemalan men to sink a structure for a water project. PHOTO: COURTESY CORY CULVER
Braddock St. UMC conducts a “Service Worship” quarterly. “We worship on Sunday morning and then go straight out and serve—with different partner organizations each time. Our members get their hands on the ground and become familiar with our partner organizations and what they do,” Joanna said. “Braddock St. UMC has a simple mission statement: Love God in worship, love others in small groups, and love our neighbors in mission.”
Most of the churches surveyed work with the schools in their areas to provide food for the children on the weekends and lunches and snacks during school. Burke UMC supports a weekend food bag program for seven elementary schools and provides food bags at church that people can drop by and pick up. Braddock St. UMC feeds 60 children every other weekend.
Annandale UMC distributes food to people every Thursday and sponsors a tutoring center after school. It also contributes to the 100,000 Homes campaign, which seeks to find permanent homes for the chronically homeless population.
All three of the Fairfax County churches take part in the Hypothermia Prevention Project, a shared shelter program that operates from December through March. The Braddock Street church likewise takes part in the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS). These ecumenical and interfaith efforts coordinate weekly faith community volunteers to host people who need shelter. Churches provide volunteers to chaperone at a shelter facility close to the homeless population. Guests receive beds, meals, and a warm place during the cold months of winter.
Engaging with Partners
Burke UMC provides a massive labor force for the Rise Against Hunger food packaging event—preparing dehydrated emergency food packets to feed thousands around the world. PHOTO: BURKE UMC
To reach their various mission goals, churches are becoming more adept at finding and working with partners. “One of our greatest resources is each other,” Joanna Dietz commented. Four United Methodist churches within a quarter-mile radius of Braddock St. UMC have initiated conversations to work together, rather than competing against one another. On the district level, collaboration has begun to coordinate UMVIM ministries and other efforts. A trailer is now available to all United Methodist churches districtwide.
Braddock St. UMC has formed many partnerships in the community—all of which focus on children and shelter. While the congregation supports these partners financially, members also plug into ministry alongside partners.
Burke UMC partners with a mission church in its district—Rising Hope UMC. It helps support the Rising Hope food pantry project and clothing closet. It’s a church in a lower-
income area supported by other churches in the district.
Annandale UMC is involved with the Annandale Christian Community for Action (ACCA) on mission-oriented projects locally. The church donated a building to ACCA to warehouse furniture to help low-income residents and with refugee resettlement.
Setting Priorities and Focus
Mission leaders in this survey urged their congregations to consolidate and limit their mission outreach so that they could concentrate on specific areas of need and dig deeper into the context and situations of the people they serve. Service without deeper understanding and genuine relationship feels hollow and empty. Trying to accomplish too much fosters burnout in the congregation and leaves no time for conversation and connection.
Aldersgate UMC concentrates its work geographically on the low-income area of Fort Belvoir in Alexandria, five to six miles from the church. International outreach concentrates on their work in Guatemala and national work on the White Mountain Apache projects.
Other churches concentrated work on a few priorities. Burke UMC’s outreach—
international, regional, and local—focuses on hunger and children. Braddock St. UMC defines its priorities as shelter and children.
I’ve often heard church members referred to as “pew-sitters,” but if the Missionhood of all believers continues to trend and capture the church’s imagination, people sitting in pews will not typify a community of faith. The gospel writers didn’t capture much of Jesus sitting in the temple. His ministry was and is out in the streets, fields, and lakesides where people gather. A congregation that empowers all members to hear and heed God’s call to service gives a community purpose and life deeper meaning.
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Summer 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.
UNITED METHODISTS CHURCHES INVOLVED IN THIS INFORMAL SURVEY
1. Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria
2. Braddock Street UMC in Winchester
3. Burke UMC in Burke
4. Annandale UMC in Annandale
Three of these churches are in Fairfax County outside of Washington, D.C., and the other is in the Shenandoah Valley. Two of the mission chairs were employed part-time or full-time mission staff members, and the other two were volunteers. None of the churches would be described as “mega;” the average official membership is about 1,000 with 400 to 700 attending Sunday worship.