Shift Happens: Hope in the Midst of Transition
By Fred Koenig
A Time of ChangeThe first iRun Conference was conducted January 16 – 18 in Houston, Texas. The International Rural and Urban Network is a new combination of ministry put together by the General Board of Global Ministries. It opened with perspectives on shift from leaders in the rural and urban church.
Rev. Sharon Schwab served in rural locations Western Pennsylvania, supported churches on Conference staff, then served on cabinet where she advocated for God’s people in remote areas.
“I’m from hill country, and in hill country, where you stand determines what you see,” Schwab said.
In preparation for this conference she reread notes from seminary where she took courses on change management, and intentionally focused on rural ministry. She had come up with list after list after list of shifts that needed to happen. When she became a pastor she came up with her own lists of shifts that needed to happen in my congregation.
On Conference staff, she studied quest for quality, paradigm shifts and paradigm pioneers. In the 1980s she earned a PhD in rural sociology.
“As I prepared for this weekend, everything new I read wasn’t much different than what I read long ago,” she said. “At first it was disheartening. What have I done in ministry that made a difference? What have I accomplished for the kingdom of God? Where are we today compared to where I started? I wasn’t hopeful. I was looking at all that I invested in, and all the UMC has invested in, and said where are we?”
Then she considered that in the 1990s, the United Methodist Church for the first time said let’s have a mission statement: Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“It’s only 15 – 20 years old, but it’s also as old as the gospels,” she said. Local pastors and laity have been more empowered to do ministry. “In many places this has made a big difference,” she said.
Schwab is a fan of Loren Mead, author of The Once and Future Church, and has learned from him that transforming the church is a long process.
“Mead said the transformation of the church takes about 100 years. We’re in the 30 year mark on some of it, only at the 15 to 20 year mark of having a mission statement,” Schwab said. “We’re right smack in the middle of transition. We’ve made the shift. The shift we need to make is intentionally making disciples of Jesus Christ. Not pew sitters or people that want to be redeemed without making any difference in their lives. We don’t need the ‘for the transformation of the world’ part, because if we make disciples, they will transform the world.”
Making disciples isn’t about conversion, it’s about transformation, Schwab said. To keep new Christians from being stuck developmentally, they need to be taught how to pray and how to read the Bible with the Holy Spirit’s help.
Schwab discouraged the use of strength finders tests and spiritual gift assessments. “Don’t just hand out silly inventories,” she said. “The person who knows my gifts isn’t me; it’s the people who have seen me use them.” Schwab believes if a church is truly making disciples, it will grow, because those disciples will be making disciples.
“I haven’t made a disciple until I see that disciple make a disciple who makes a disciple,” she said. “It’s more fun to be grandparents than parents. What grandkids do we have in the faith? Are your disciples making disciples?”
Schwab said Transitions made up of three parts:
- Letting Go – hardest part is saying this used to work, but it doesn’t work anymore.
- New Beginning
Schwab pointed out that even in the heyday of churches in the 1950s, the church was already losing ground, because the population was growing faster than the church.
“We inoculated people against Christianity. We gave them just enough so that they couldn’t get the real thing,” she said. “We’re in the middle of transition, in the wilderness, and we can determine how long our time the wilderness is going to be.”
Joe Connelly ran with the shift analogy, telling those gathered that if they have automatic, you just get in the car and go, and churches can run the same way.
“The pastor opens the church, the choir sings, and the church just does its own thing,” he said. “You have to manually shift, and if you leave it in first gear it won’t run right.”
Connelly is an elder in the Louisiana Conference, currently serving as the lead pastor of Wesley UMC in Baton Rouge. He has served as a consultant since 1994 for community nonprofits, emerging businesses and the United Methodist Church. He recognizes that his church is living off of the money of previous generations.
“I had 11 deaths in my church this year, and I would need 25 young adults to replace those 11,” he said. “About 80 percent of the money in the church comes from 55 and over. The Church of Jesus Christ will survive; the church of the North American culture may not survive. There is a difference.”
Connelly launched into a section where he shared from the book The Present Future by Reggie McNeal, and some of the questions McNeal asked of the church.
Wrong Question #1: How do we do church better? New programs aren’t getting it done. Church activity is a poor substitute for church vitality. Activity = running in place, the result = burnout
Tough Question #1: How do we convert from Churchianity to Christianity? In North America, the invitation to become a Christian has largely become an invitation to join a church.
Wrong Question #2: How do we grow this church? (How do we get people to come to us?) Seeker sensitive services, contemporary worship, following the latest trend
Tough Question #2: How do we transform this community? (How do we hit the streets with the gospel?) Jesus’s strategy was to go where people hang out. We need to have church in every mall, coffee shop, Wal-Mart, etc.
Connelly asked those gathered that if their church were to close next week, who would care?
“If no one would care except your members, you should already be closed,” he said. Connelly said the pastor needs to prioritize their tasks, and not try to be involved in everything.
“I don’t go to all the church meetings – I’m clear on this. We prayed over nominations – and we need to empower people to lead,” he said “If you are a pastor and you have more keys than the front door and the one for your office, you have too many keys. I’m beating the streets during the day.”
“United Methodists are the greatest strategic planners in the world, but the worst one about going out and sharing our faith,” Connelly said. “We can create activity, but our brothers and sisters in other denominations are showing vitality. God has heard you’re prayers, and he’s sick and tired of your complaining. If God handed out pink slips for ineffectiveness, we wouldn’t have that many churches open.”
Connelly said he preached at a church and ended with an altar call, and the pastor told him after that he had never done an altar call before.
“I told him that even the devil comes to church,” he said. “My first priority is to make sure you have a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Bishop SwansonIn 1968 James Swanson worked in the Tokyo Gardens Japanese Steak House in an all white neighborhood.
Working late, he had missed the last bus home. A police cruiser approached him as he walked down the sidewalk, and the officer yelled out the window, “Boy, what are you doing here? We’re going to make our rounds, and if you’re still here when we get back, we’re running you into jail.” “You can talk about what you would have done, but in 1968 I started trucking,” Swanson said. “I was laying it down from there to downtown Houston, where I called my aunt on a payphone and she sent a taxi to pick me up.”
In 2014, Johnson was back in that same neighborhood, as Bishop Swanson of the South Georgia Conference, proclaiming the word of God at the Shift Happens: Ministry in Transition Conference. He said he has seen some shift in his days, and the church must give people hope for what will come next.
“You’ve got to give your folks a dream, even when it looks like the church is going down,” Swanson said. “If God is before us, who dares to be against us? Give them a dream to help them understand that God placed us where we are.”
One of those places for Bishop Swanson was being appointed as the first black pastor of an all white congregation in Southern Georgia.
“You tell me, what is all white about 11 people?” he said. “I was just there because no white boys wanted it, and the 11 people there were glad I was there, because they were looking for an excuse to leave.”
When people asked him how long he was going to stay, his reply was that he would be there until he had built a church that he would want to go to himself.
Bishop Swanson read the scripture from Revelation 21, verses 1 -5, which describe the shift to a new heaven and new earth.
“John found himself exiled on an island, but he didn’t give up on leading,” Bishop Swanson said. “The system, circumstances and conditions changed, but John remained true to his mission. The mission never changes. Regardless the circumstance, condition or color of people that we pastor, the mission doesn’t change. We must remain true to mission regardless of circumstance or condition.”
Bishop Swanson said that now that he’s Bishop, he could sit back and drink Mint Julips and watch the river flow by until it’s time to collect his retirement check, and there’s not much anyone could do about it. But he’s not guided by job requirements, or lack thereof, now, and he never was.
“Regardless of where they appoint me, I’m going to preach,” he said. “I don’t trust in minimum salary, pension plan or health benefits. My confidence is in God. Even if they move me, I’m going to preach. Even folks I’ve prepared my sermon for leave, I’m going to preach.”
Bishop Swanson said the church’s reputation isn’t what it used to be, back when the church could roar and everyone else would lay down.
“The sermon you prepared in the church of the rising sun won’t resonate where the sun is setting,” he said. “When folks believe the whole community is shutting down, you need to preach a different kind of sermon. You can’t lead in the midst of crisis the same way you lead when folks are comfortable. You need to give people a dream that compels them enough to live the ministry in the midst of the mess.”
Bishop Swanson said many of our churches, and the community that surrounds them, are in the midst of a great storm. But we have the answer.
“I believe with every fiber of my being, that in the midst of the storm, I’ve got a God that can pick you up, turn you around, and plant your feet on solid ground,” he said.
Rudy RasmusRudy Rasmus grew up near the restaurant where Bishop Swanson recalled working in Houston, but it was an earlier time. He remembers when oil money transformed that neighborhood, and it was time for all the black people to relocate. And he remembers drinking from a separate water fountain until he was 11 years old (1957).
“Growing up in Houston, there were two places where I escaped the separate water fountain: the Lion Head water fountain at the zoo, which didn’t have a sign by it; and the circus, the one place where kids of every ethnicity felt real equality,” Rasmus said.
Throughout his ministry, love has resonated with Rasmus more than anything else. He believes that the shift that is occurring in and around the world today is love. He said many people outside the church wonder if the church cares, and if they love.
“How we punctuate love is what is interpreted to the world around us,” Rasmus said. “Some love parenthetically (), some with a comma (love, but…), I’m encouraging love period.”
The challenge is to find the way to love the other. Rasmus’s own challenge to love the other was put to the test when he met Barry, a new visitor to the church. He was told by Barry’s friend that Barry had been charged with murder. Working in inner-city ministries, that wasn’t new territory for Rasmus, he’d known many others in similar situations.
“I thought I could navigate that OK,” Rasmus said. Then he learned that this new person to the church was charged with murdering a two-year-old, through starvation.
“I go home and start praying about my response to Barry, and asking how I could minister to such a person. Then the Lord started flashing my life,” Rasmus said.
Prior to accepting Christ in 1990 Rasmus owned and operated with his father a “borderline bordello.” It was a hotel that was built to facilitate prostitution and substance abuse. God called Rasmus to reflect on what he had done much of his adult life, facilitating misogamy with women who were someone’s daughters. He then sent Barry a text, and started meeting with him, giving him pastoral counseling.
“You’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people that you do,” Rasmus said.
Rasmus’s mantra for ministry is engage before judging, love before leaving, and help the helpless. In 1991 he started as pastor of St. John’s UMC, a downtown church in Houston with a congregation of 9 people. Since then 16,000 have joined the church, with 68 percent of those being professions of faith. About 15 percent of the transfers are from other Methodist churches. Weekly worship averages about 2,400.
Many of those who attend St. John’s are homeless. Rasmus has seen the homeless community change from largely being Vietnam Veterans and crack cocaine to addicts to now often being young people who have recently aged out of foster care and have no family to turn to for support. The church recently built a $6 million, 42 unit housing project to help people transition from homelessness. The current housing project is a $10 million, 82-unit building. The church worked closely with the city on both projects.
“I’m a pastor and a politician,” Rasmus said. “I rely heavily on public funds.”
Rasmus stressed the importance of being in ministry with – not to – the community. And he couldn’t say enough about the importance of love.
“Love is what we do,” he said.
“Shalom House is still thriving, growing and changing lives,” she said. “Funders want to see that what you are doing is sustainable, and that you are networking, building and sustaining projects. Donors need to know that differences are being made in the lives of families in need. Your proposal should cause donors to be happy about giving you money.”
When Diane Johnson was director of Metro Ministry (now Shalom House) in St. Louis, she partnered with the city of St. Louis, three universities and a shelter for men, and was able to leverage that partnership to receive a grant for $2.3 million, $1.1 million of which went to Metro Ministry.
Johnson, a member of Union Memorial UMC in St. Louis, was speaking on a panel at the Shift Happens: Hope in the Midst of Transition conference in Houston. Since 1997 she has worked for the General Board of Global Ministries. Part of her work there was on a funding committee, which distributed millions of dollars for ministry.
“I intercepted many worthwhile but poorly written applications and re-wrote them,” she said. “For many people seeking funding, increased time and effort must be put into proposal writing.”
The problems weren’t just on the proposals themselves. When Johnson was reviewing a proposal, the first thing she would look at was the organization’s website. She found many websites were out of date, or such a mess that they really needed to be started over.
“Look at your website, and ask yourself, would a donor want to support this ministry?’” she said.
There were also issues with late applications, questions not being answered and generally not following directions. Sometimes an application letter that was several pages long really needed to be edited down to one page. On that one page proposals should engage the reader, be persuasive, offer value and solutions, and encourage decision makers to choose project to funding.
Johnson recommended getting to know the funder or donor, and making a personal connection. People seeking funding should know the funder’s mission and goal and let the funding source learn about how much impact their gift can have to a non-profit in need.
Will Dent discussed how his church in Canton, Ohio, has established a non-profit community development corporation called The ABCD that provides social services, much of which is supported by federal grants. He specifically discussed how the organization has acquired vans through the Federal 5310 program, and contracts the vans to other agencies.
“If your church has a van that you only use on Sunday mornings, you’re not using what you have,” Dent said.
ABCD contracts their vans for human services to go to areas that public transportation doesn’t reach, or at times that public transportation isn’t available. They transport people to dialysis, people who have just been released from prison to jobs and veterans to health care. They now operate 20 vans, 14 of which they obtained through the 5310 program. The contracts generate $60,000 per month.
“In every community there are gaps in transportation, and you can help meet that need,” he said.
Joe Connelly discussed how churches can establish nonprofit agencies. He said it is easy, and involves $100 to the state to files articles of incorporation, and takes less than 30 days to go through.
“With a phone call and a fax to the General Council on Finance and Administration, you can avoid the $1,000 application fee,” Connelly said.
The non-profit must have a board that functions independently from the church. GCFA requires 51 percent of board to be non-church members.
Johnson closed the panel by cautioning that when a new ministry is being launched, it is important to first assess the real needs in the community.
“Be careful about creating something that you might want to do, but it’s already being done and you would just be replicating a service already available,” she said.
Rural ResourcesRural sociology Professor Dave Ruesink grew up in Michigan, and is now at College Station, TX, part of Presbyterian Church. He knows that more than half of seminary graduates go to rural areas for their first fulltime appointments, and there they often experience culture shock.
“One of the big differences is that in rural areas, people are more relational,” Ruesink said. He knew of one pastor who was having a very difficult time initially. He learned that much of what he was requiring contracts for could be done with a handshake. After a rocky start, his small town later named him citizen of the year.
Ruesink said that in the suburbs, people are known for one thing – the role they play, such as the doctor or librarian. In a rural area, people are known as the whole. You see the town dentist at the pool, with his kids at soccer practice, and at neighborhood events. People tend to know the all about each other’s lives, not just a narrow role that they play.
Rural Church Network:
Texas Rural Leadership Program:
Final TransitionsOver the last few decades, approximately 10 United Methodist Churches close each year in the Missouri Conference. Many of these churches are in rural areas, or in the urban core. It is not that the Conference or District comes in to close the church, rather it is usually that the church has dwindled to few members to have an effective ministry, and those who remain ask for it to be closed.
One such rural church that closed last November was Zoar UMC at Drake. Zoar was part of the community for more than 150 years. Families from Lippe Detmold, Germany settled near Drake in the 1850s, and in 1858 the German Methodist church was formed.
The first services, which were in German, were held in homes and later in a little school house. A log church was built in 1860, then a frame church, and the current brick sanctuary was built in 1901. A celebration of the ministry of the church during a closing service included hymn singing, sharing of memories of the church and Holy Communion.
How well do you know your mission field? Should mission strategies differ in rural and urban settings? As I considered these questions I realized that much about mission service and outreach is the same regardless of your setting; it’s always important to focus on building strong, long-term relationships as you serve; always important to respond with relief, recovery, and development in mind; etc. However, there are a few differences to consider when reaching out in service in urban or rural settings.
The Mission Field: Urban & Rural SettingsIn rural communities you are more likely to have a personal connection with someone linked to needs in your community. The school superintendent may attend your church, you may get coffee in the same place as the police chief, and, in my rural hometown, the local judge works out at the same gym as my husband. It is more likely that you will be able to ask these community leaders questions regarding needs face to face. In urban areas with larger populations it is less likely to be personally acquainted with these community leaders, and harder to meet with them in person.
Similarly, in rural settings it tends to feel like “everybody knows everybody”. It is possible that you know (or know of) most people in town. You grew up together, went to school together, work together, and generally have more of a close-knit sense of community. Urban populations, however, are growing as it becomes increasingly popular to live in cities. Urban areas have larger, younger, and significantly more diverse populations. As a result urban congregations must be that much more intentional about being diversely and culturally knowledgeable and sensitive in their local response to needs.
In urban communities it is more likely that the infrastructure for response is already in place. In St. Louis you can assist with alleviating poverty by supporting the work of Kingdom House, Send Me St. Louis, and a variety of other organizations. Kenneth Pruitt of Kingdom House shares that “Once you get a taste for service and justice work [in an urban setting] it’s about determining where you fit into the work already being done.” Conversely, rural churches may need to build response from the ground up. For example, Sturgeon UMC and the local ministerial alliance noticed an increase in families utilizing the local food pantry, and wondered about the household needs of these families. Pastor Mike Will said “We wanted people to have a place to get other items they might need”. They soon realized that a place to organize this response was unavailable, so they renovated a section of their church to open a thrift store. This store offers clothing, furniture, and other household items at no cost to families in Sturgeon and surrounding communities.
These are just a few examples of the differences in serving rural or urban settings. Feel free to share some differences you are aware of with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And remember that God is at work everywhere! God is calling all of us to serve...we just have to answer that call.