Considering Church Development “At the Lord’s Table”
By Elliott Wright and Ivy Couch*
More than 540 United Methodist pastors and lay leaders gathered in the spirit of Holy Communion August 17–21 to explore ways to start and grow new congregations and vitalize existing ones.
“At the Lord’s Table” was the theme of the 2017 annual School of Congregational Development, sponsored by a coalition of denominational agencies and hosted at Atlanta’s Peachtree Road United Methodist Church by the church’s North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference and two local theological seminaries. Another 245 participants joined via live stream over the Internet. Around 80 percent of those attending in Atlanta were first-time participants in the school.
Participants in worship during the School of Congregational Development. PHOTO: CYNTHIA MACK
Worship, plenary addresses, workshops, and resource sessions—many geared to racial, ethnic, multiethnic, and rural and urban small church development—filled the three days. “We have a strong emphasis on the inclusiveness of the church gathered around the Lord’s Table,” said the Rev. Nora Colmenares, a staff member of the Atlanta-based General Board of Global Ministries, one of the school’s longtime sponsors. Other sponsors were Discipleship Ministries and Path One, The United Methodist Church’s new church planting program.
“We also have a large number of new, young leaders this year,” Colmenares explained. Global Ministries provided scholarships that allowed some 200 clergy and lay persons from ethnic minority and small membership churches to take part in the Atlanta event.
Candler School of Theology of Emory University and Gammon Theological Seminary were the two local United Methodist institutional hosts.
Appeal or Inclusiveness
Services of worship and plenary sessions were organized around the imagery of Holy Communion. The opening sermon by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of North Georgia emphasized the centrality of the Lords Table in all of the worship and work of the church. “We are dependent on the table,” she declared because it is there that we are nourished in God’s love in Jesus Christ. “We come to the table in humility” and “it is the one thing that holds us together.” She admonished United Methodists to stand against the kind of racism seen in the neo-Nazi rally the previous weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Other plenaries probed deeper into the theme. The question, “Who is Welcome at the Table?” was addressed by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran and founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. Bolz-Weber has become internationally known for groundbreaking books on the inclusive nature of the Christian community. Subsequent topics were “Setting the Table,” “Feasting at the Table,” and “Expanding the Table.”
The Rev. Maritza cota Velazqauez of El Mesias United Methodist Church, Nogales, Arizona, a scholarship recipient was accompanied to Atlanta by three lay members of the predominantly Spanish-speaking local church.
Velazqauez said that the school helped El Mesias to understand it needed to prepare itself to include English speakers. “We welcome all people and some English speakers are coming and we have to do translation for them. It’s very exciting to welcome everyone to the Lord’s Table.”
Thomas Kemper speaking at the School of Congregational Development. PHOTO: CYNTHIA MACK
The Rev. Joe Connolly, an African American pastor at New Orleans’ Bethany United Methodist Church, praised the school for its diversity of participants and its practical approach to church development. “You get to interact with everyday practitioners and see models that are working and take that information back to craft strategies for your local congregations,” he said.
Connolly endorsed the idea of scholarships for lay teams as well as individual pastors. He said that he brought a team of five and it had productive results. “They know they are going to go back and have to teach others.”
Global Ministries was also responsible for the live stream that provided plenary and special workshop to the 245 off-site participants via the Internet. They were gathered in church-based groups and as individual registrants across the United States. One was done in Spanish and one in English.
“We have done live streaming on a more limited scale in the past and the response was so positive and it has become an essential feature of the School of Congregational Development,” said Colmenares
*Ivy Couch is the Missionary Service program area liaison.