Workshops emphasize transformational faith communities

Workshop attendees share a moment of levity in the session "Forming Disciples in the Local Church." -Photo by Rev. Armando Rodriguez

The Annual Conference officially begins today at The Lakeland Center, but hundreds of delegates and visitors checked in early Wednesday for workshops aimed at building strong congregations by encouraging effective leaders who reach out to surrounding communities.

Many who came shared sad stories of once-vibrant congregations shrinking to a few members, whether in urban Tampa, suburban Deltona or the farmland of Central Florida.

“Our church is very small, and we have no children; we have no teenagers,” said Jane Powell of Sparr UMC in a rural area near Ocala. “I just feel like our little church is slipping away.”

Debra Cumbie of Grace UMC in Tampa said her church is surrounded by families, but they move in and out, with few putting down roots, much less joining a church.

“All of the staunch members are dying off, and their children move away,” she said.

Workshop leaders suggested rejuvenation strategies as new as social media and computer analyses of local demographics and as old as shaking hands with newcomers and asking what brought them to church that day.

Much of the advice centered on church leadership, both clergy and laity. In “Same Team, Different Positions,” district superintendents Rinaldo Hernandez and Annette Stiles Pendergrass teamed with lay leader Callie MacLeod of Harvest UMC, Bradenton, to discuss the importance of trust and partnership.

“This denomination was born out of a strong laity movement,” Hernandez said. “Laity and clergy have an equal responsibility before God to lead the church.”

All three presenters emphasized accountability and a culture that promotes discipleship. “If you’re not living out your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness,” Pendergrass said, “then you don’t need to be in leadership. Part of the reason the church has lost credibility in the world today is that we’re not holding one another accountable.”

In “Building Kingdom Leaders,” Rev. Harold Lewis and Rev. Phil Maynard shared some insight from their work with the Center for Congregational Excellence and offered to bring a two-day training event called “Cultivating Effective Servant Leaders” to any districts that request it.

A participant makes a point in the session "Connecting to Community in Ways that Please God and Bless Others." -Photo by Rev. Armando Rodriguez

“But there are no quick-fix answers for how to get leaders for your church,” Maynard warned.

He said church leaders need to be mature disciples of Jesus Christ, but just hammering out a definition of “disciple” took some time and meetings of clergy and laity. 

 “It became clear that discipleship is about being a follower of Jesus for life, who is committed to being part of the body of Christ, becoming more like Jesus, and joining Jesus in ministry to the world,” Maynard said.

“Discipleship is not an event; it’s a process – and that’s a very Wesleyan idea.”

Other workshops focused on relevance.

“A loss of congregational vitality is often associated with losing connection with the community and beginning to focus internally,” said Rev. Jeff Stiggins, director of Congregational Excellence for the Florida Conference. He led “Connecting to Community in Ways that Please God and Bless Others” with Outreach Ministries chair Pam Qualls.

“One way we can measure salty service is to be intentional about cultivating relationships with the immediate community,” Stiggins said.

Qualls said the church is desperately needed but must earn back the right to be heard and trusted again.

“The question is who is my neighbor,” she said. “Jesus doesn’t give a list; instead he talks about action – love in action. Jesus is about getting up and doing something about it. If our relationship with God is growing, we’re going to be internally compelled to reach out to people.”

Rev. Mont Duncan dialogues with an attendee of "Who Are Your Church's neighbors?" -Photo by Rev. Armando Rodriguez

Mont Duncan, executive director of New Church Development for the Conference, expanded on that idea in “Who Are Your Church’s Neighbors?”

He introduced listeners to a website the Conference has subscribed to that can offer a population count and demographic analysis within a 5-mile radius of every Methodist church in Florida. Any of the approximately 200,000 Methodists in Florida can tap into the information by visiting and entering the agency account code “ofifu.”

The results can help congregations tailor their outreach to the surrounding community, Duncan said. Often overlooked, he noted, are the specific needs of single, divorced or widowed people. The program also offers insights into characteristics to look for in clergy assigned to a particular congregation.

Also well-attended was “Forming Disciples in the Local Church,” led by Rev. James Harnish and Justin LaRosa of Hyde Park UMC, Tampa. They discussed the program “A Disciple’s Path,” developed in their church and enjoying success in other congregations as well.

Despite dramatic declines in church attendance, religion is alive and well on the internet, said Maximize Social Media president Chris McLaughlin in a workshop geared toward helping churches tap into audiences through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and  YouTube.

“Religion is one of the most popular topics in social media," McLaughlin said. "Ninety-three percent of Internet users have a Facebook page. There are 90 million Facebook users, and the fastest growing demographic is people over 55."

McLaughlin shared two "musts" for churches beginning their social media presence.

"Begin with Facebook; then expand to others," he advised.

"Before you create your Facebook page, you have to have a growth strategy,” he added, and that includes community outreach ministries and ZIP codes around the church. “Think about your target audience."

Two workshops in church finance also were offered.

Cumbie said she was impressed with the information she received, but sometimes she thinks the answer to getting people back to church lies in the Great Commission.

“Sometimes it’s very, very hard for newcomers to break in unless they have a connection in the congregation,” she said.

“And sometimes we concentrate a lot on programs, and some of these folks just need you to sit down with them and say, ‘What do you need today?’”


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