Ministry in Nazareth


By Dale Stone

After over 40 years of ministry, I announced my retirement will come at this year’s Annual Conference. Two days later I came across the above quote as I find myself feeling like someone with no experience of the sea suddenly sailing on a long ocean voyage. I now look in a new direction, praying for mentors who can help me to “ be at home in a new rhythm” (To Bless the Space Between Us, John O’Donohoe).
Today, rather than looking ahead, I find myself thinking about 40 years of ministry. In doing so, I mainly want to say, “Thank You!” I thank God for the call to ministry placed in my heart at a young age -which I wrestled with, then embraced. I give thanks God called me to serve in the United Methodist Church. I grew up in the United Methodist Church, well, first of all the Evangelical United Brethren part of the family. The UMC my spiritual home! Ministry has been challenging on a number of fronts but then so was Israel’s Old Testament journey as well as the New Testament story of a young church. Faith is about trusting God on the journey and less about a smooth, featureless ride.
I give thanks I was blessed with loving Christian parents in rural Iowa and an open country church. My roots run deep in small town and country ministry. The older I became the more powerful and valued those roots became. Most of my ministry has been with rural and county seat congregations.
Along the way I was appointed District Superintendent of the Mark Twain District – the most rural district in Missouri - and I thank God for this unique opportunity. From day one until now, I am humbled and blessed by the pastors and congregations of this district. God is alive, busy, and blessed by the ministry of the Mark Twain District. This is true in many town and country churches in all Missouri and throughout our connection.
Still, in 2010, soon after learning I would be the Mark Twain Superintendent, a colleague commented “What did you do to deserve that?” These words were not meant as a compliment, instead implying I was headed to “nowhere,” “somewhere way out there,” or a place of exile. People who live in “the corners” or “off the loop” hear these kinds of comments far too often. 
That comment reminded me of one made earlier by a man named, Nathanael. His comment: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Well, the answer is “Yes!” This has been made clear to me time and time and time again in this Nazareth place! It’s really not surprising as God has quite a history with people and in places one might not expect at first glance. God is present, God is at work, God’s people are doing great ministry, and God is alive & well in north Missouri and many other communities in Missouri that are “off the beaten path.” 
During several fall Charge Conferences, I invited churches to share something of their ministries. As ministries were shared, not only did we learn from one another, we became aware of the variety and dimension of what churches – large and small - are doing as disciples of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we were surprised at the ways congregations reached into their communities and the world through servant ministries. 
A short list includes: school supply distributions, buddy packs, food pantries, summer lunch program, free dental clinics, after school programs, emergency support, visit nursing homes, free meals for the community, care packages for foster parents, mentoring/tutoring in local schools, VBS, clean-up of parks and cemeteries, mission trips, Haiti water projects, Imagine No Malaria, Mozambique support, Festival of Sharing, prison ministries, and others. Sure, we have our struggles: 
  • Decline in the size of churches, schools, and communities 
  • Understanding the changing context of ministry
  • Learning ways to reach those who do not know Christ or have a church home
  • Valuing traditions so much we hold back our potential
  • Seeing past economic differences as we welcome new Christians
  • Having the numbers for ministry that we would like
  • Economic instability        
We have work to do on these and challenges churches continue to face in the service to Jesus Christ. Still, God is active through United Methodist Christians in many Nazareth congregations in our Conference. With stories told, eyes opened, and the difference made witnessed, I celebrate how vibrant, present, and alive God is in places sometimes rarely visited or seen. And in many small communities, the discipleship ministries of local churches will missed if these churches disappear.
It has been an honor to serve with faithful Christian brothers and sisters in this district, and in all the places the United Methodist Church is in ministry.