March 01, 2018

When Rev. Roger Ross told his former district superintendent he felt God was calling him to plant a new church, the District Superintendent laughed out loud and advised him that they don’t really do that kind of thing.

The District Superintendent wasn’t wrong. Their Conference was only starting about one new church per decade. Several years later Ross got his turn and was given the opportunity to plant a new church. It went well, and he was in the initial stages of planning a second site when his appointment changed to a large, historic church in need of revitalization.

Ross in now halfway into his first year as the Missouri Conference Director of Congregational Excellence and still has that passion for starting something. He wants to ensure that people in Missouri who are called to start something new don’t have an experience like his. He wants to see that they receive not only opportunities to follow their call to plant but also have encouragement, training and support.

On January 22 and 23, 36 gathered for the New People: Church Planting Discernment Retreat in Columbia. Ross conveyed that for years, as people bemoaned the decline of the United Methodist Church, an analogy was used of the church being a great ship at sea, going on to say large ships don’t turn on a dime but adjust course by a few degrees at a time to change their destination.

That analogy doesn’t really work for Ross. Instead, he sees the United Methodist Church as a flotilla of 32,000 boats. Some are slowly sinking, some are sinking rapidly and some are making improvements and becoming bigger, better boats than they ever were before. Going back to the original analogy, he doesn’t think it’s necessary to get all 32,000 ships moving in the same direction.

“The biggest problem is we’re losing thousands of ships,” Ross said. “We need to build a whole bunch more ships and launch them into the ocean. To do that, we need a boatload of current, spiritually savvy, evangelistic entrepreneurs.”

Church consultant Lyle Schaller once advised that churches that just wanted to hold their own needed to be starting 1 percent of their total number of churches per year. In Missouri, that would be eight new churches per year. Ross said there needs to be three things to start something new: a planting team, a place and funding. More than a dozen sites in Missouri have been identified. Congregational Development has funds to assist with new church starts. When Ross arrived in Missouri, he was not given a list of potential planters, so for the past several months he has been asking everyone for names. He now has 74 names on a list. The next step is getting people trained, and the New People: Church Planting Discernment Retreat was the first step in that process.

“We’ve had some spectacular failures on planting, sometimes didn’t have training and support needed to hit the ground running,” Ross said. “Having a good match of planter and mission field means the chance of plant making it goes way up.”
 


New Things for New People

It’s not all just about the people who are already here. Bishop Bob Farr worked to shift the focus to the people who are not here.

“We need to be thinking about doing new things for new people. Everyone here should be doing that. We need every church doing that,” he said.

Bishop Farr was addressing the New People: Church Planting Discernment Retreat, a Missouri Conference event organized by the Center for Congregational Excellence for pastors who may be starting a new church or new worship experience. Bishop Farr noted that the best way to reach new people is with something new. It even applies the ministries within a church.

“It’s easier to get new people involved in a new Sunday school class than to get them involved with one that’s been going on for years,” he said.

Farr said it is critical for the future to be starting new ministries now, but he cautioned the pastors at the meeting to be considerate of the faithful members of the congregation who are part of the church. He said that some long-term members will understand the need to start something new and will be helpful in the process. Others might think they understand what needs to happen, but their efforts to be involved may impede progress.

“Don’t blame them. I’ve done it, and it’s not good,” he said. “They are good, faithful folk. The church has taught them to be good church people, to love their building and be faithful. That’s what they are doing.”

He encouraged the pastors to treat existing members that may not be part of a new ministry with courtesy and respect but not to be deterred from the need to reach new people. That might mean two different worship experiences at one church.

“In that case your job may be to keep them separated so they don’t hurt each other,” Bishop Farr said.

Farr warned that the United Methodist Church is no place to set your vocation if someone is hoping to get appointed to a big church and be able to coast. The best way to serve a big church is to grow one big, he said. He referred to a talk from Rev. Adam Hamilton, when Hamilton told new pastors there were only three likely options for a United Methodist pastor: doing hospice care for a dying church, transforming a church into what it needs to be in the future or starting a new church.

“Other than that, in the stage we’re in now, there’s no such thing as a nice, safe career,” Farr said. “Just focus your life on the ministry field that you’re in, and our purpose of bringing people to Christ.”