By Fred Leist
I have vivid memories of the conversation. It was an evening meeting with key lay leaders at Benton UMC in rural Scott County to discuss their future. There were 8-10 of us gathered around a table in a room adjoining the sanctuary. Early in that meeting one of the leaders tossed an earnest question onto the table: “As we look ahead, are there any different options for us, or do we have to proceed as we have before?”
I knew what was implied in that question. The church had a ¼ time retired pastor who had recently decided that he would really retire this time. This local lay leader wanted to know if the only option was to receive another part-time retired pastor, or was there another way forward? The leader then followed that question with this very honest assessment: “The track we’re on simply isn’t working. We are not making new disciples. We have to do something different.” He was referring to the reality that, in recent decades, the church had been in the midst of a steady decline in worship attendance, financial strength, and missional vitality. As a result the church had gone from full-time in 2004 to ¼ time in 2013. In spite of steady and faithful leadership from both clergy and laity, the church had not found a way to impact their surrounding mission field by reaching new people for Christ.
My immediate response was to say that any options going forward were probably going to look a lot like the recent past. However, in that same moment, I recalled an earlier chat with Ron Watts, lead pastor at La Croix Church in Cape. Ron had shared plans to plant several new congregations as part of La Croix’s vision for the future. So, I decided to reframe the discussion. I asked, “What if a strong and vital neighboring congregation, like La Croix UMC, with a clear vision and proven strategy for making Christian disciples, was willing to enter the conversation? What if they had some new ideas about how a United Methodist ministry and presence in Benton might look different in the future? Would you be willing to be a part of that conversation?”
The response was quick and unequivocal. As this leader looked around the table at friends and fellow parishioners, he said, “I know this may be difficult for us to hear. But, if La Croix came to Benton and found a way to reach several hundred new people for Christ, even if all of us here got upset and decided to leave and worship somewhere else, that would be a win for the Kingdom of God…right?”
I’ve reflected often on that meeting, and it’s clear that the question posed by this respected “tribal leader” at Benton served as a catalyst for creative change. And, I would go one step further and affirm that his comments that night were an example of risk-taking as faithfulness. At the core, his question exemplified deep faith, a longing for something better, hope for a new way forward, and a willingness to risk change. He knew that the biggest risk of all isn’t to embrace and unknown future, but to insist on clinging to the past. In reality, he was simply asking, “Can we find the will to say ‘YES’ to new possibilities?” It was the right question, posed in the right spirit, by the right person, at the right time.
The people around the table that night answered the question with a “YES.” The congregation was willing to take an uncertain, uncharted, but hopeful step in a new direction. As a result, today the Benton campus of La Croix UMC is a vital, growing, missionally-engaged presence in a previously underserved area of northern Scott County. The congregation is reaching new people from a variety of rural communities in the surrounding area.
Every meaningful journey into the future begins with initiative, a measure of risk, and a leap of some kind…even if that leap means leaving behind some valued things. But isn’t that as it should be? After all, we are a people who center our lives in the hope of the resurrection. So, if a particular method, or past approach, or treasured tradition dies, we might experience a real measure of loss, grief and uncertainty. But, as we move forward in faith, we also trust that new life will spring up in its place.