Large Church Initiative: Future depends on you

TAMPA – Bigger isn't always better, especially when it comes to churches that have neglected to intentionally discern their mission.

That was the message of the opening day of this year's three-day Large Church Initiative (LCI), an annual meeting supported by the General Board of Discipleship that draws clergy and staff from the largest United Methodist churches across the nation.

Rev. Tim Walker, who chairs the LCI Committee, told a packed sanctuary at Hyde Park UMC that leaders of congregations of 350 worshipers or more are invited, and he noted that those churches provide the lion's share of membership and church attendance in the denomination.

Jim Harnish at LCI keynote
"You ... are the hope for the future of Methodism in America." -- Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish to church leaders at the 2013 Large Church Initiative at Hyde Park UMC.

Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish, Hyde Park's senior pastor, an author and opening keynote speaker, went a step further as he welcomed the crowd Monday.

"You and the churches you represent are the hope for the future of Methodism in America," he said.

Nearly 600 church leaders registered to attend this year's meeting, titled "Ignite: Growing Disciples to Transform the World." A show of hands at the keynote address indicated most were first-time attendees. Opening day workshops also focused on helping churches discern their mission in a world of changing demographics and cultural views.

Harnish talked about his early days as Hyde Park pastor 20 years ago, when he arrived to find a congregation healthy in attendance and financial support but floundering when it came to discerning its mission in a rapidly changing city and state.

He likened churches to the Queen Mary, a vintage sea liner in Long Beach, Calif., that was retired in 1967 and transformed into a hotel.

"On the outside, she looks like the great ocean liner she was created to be," Harnish said. "But … there's no fire in the engine room."

Church leadership must move past concerns about the color of the carpet or the type of music used for worship, the pastor said. 

Hyde Park UMC sanctuary after LCI keynote speech
Clergy and staff from churches across the U.S. enjoy the sanctuary, above, and courtyard, below, at Hyde Park UMC, Tampa, host for this year's Large Church Initiative.
Hyde Park courtyard filled with LCI attendees

"What is it that God is calling us to do right here, right now?" 

Embarking on a process to discern God's particular call for a particular church can be painful and sometimes, for a pastor, "pretty dicey," Harnish said.

Some parishioners who had anchored the South Tampa church when he first arrived left. But years later, Harnish said he was gratified to hear a parishioner who knew the church's history reflect that Hyde Park was less "clubby" – less about serving as a social hub for people of like mind and status – and more inclusive of people with different views and backgrounds.

"The grand old ship of Methodism: Will she be a glorious reminder of the mission of the past?" Harnish asked.

"Or will we be men and women in congregations that are ignited by the fire of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world with a fire that simply will not go out?"

The message was reinforced later at a workshop led by Rev. Magrey deVega, a former associate pastor at Hyde Park who has spent the last six years at the helm of St. Paul's UMC, a congregation of about 700 in Cherokee, Iowa.

He led about 70 workshop attendees through a step-by-step, team approach discernment process that included identifying the right people to listen to the congregation and surrounding community and come up with recommendations for church members to consider as goals to achieve by the year 2020.

The resulting "2020 Vision Team" convened members of social service agencies, civic and business leaders, the school board superintendent and elected officials to ask about the community's needs and how the church could be part of addressing them.

"They all said, 'This is the first time we've ever been together in the same room,'" DeVega recalled.

The process at St. Paul included a spreadsheet with measurable goals and a timeline for achieving them. 

Rev. Magrey deVega leads LCI workshop
Rev. Magrey deVega, a Florida Conference pastor assigned to St. Paul's UMC in Iowa, leads a workshop on the team approach to discerning God's call for a church at LCI 2013 at Hyde Park UMC.

DeVega listed three key questions for leadership:  

  • -- What is our mission, and how will we fulfill it?
  • -- What's a disciple, and how will we make them?
  • -- Who is our neighbor, and how will we love them?

The answers generate a playbook that can be used to guide the church even if leadership changes, he said.

LCI attendees interviewed said the message of LCI 2013 resonated with them.

Rev. Michael Turner, pastor of Advent UMC of Simpsonville, S.C., a church of about 800, said he was drawn to attend because of the promised message.

"I like the focus on discipleship … and being really intentional about the process."

Rev. Allison Dickerson, a deacon at Crossgates UMC in Brandon, Miss., also with about 800 worshipers, said she was hoping to get ideas for building children's education programs to address community needs and suggestions for connecting with lay leaders. 

L-R: Revs. Michael Turner, SC; Russell Pierce, NC; and Allison Dickerson, Miss. at LCI 2013
From left,  Revs. Michael Turner of Simpsonville, S.C.; Russell Pierce of High Point, N.C., and Allison Dickerson of Brandon, Miss., represent their congregations at Large Church Initiative 2013 at Hyde Park UMC, Tampa.

Rev. Russell Pierce, executive pastor of Wesley Memorial UMC in High Point, N.C., said he was representing a congregation of about 2,200 with a long history and campus buildings tallying 100,000 square feet.

"We're really in a time of transition, trying to figure out what's next," Pierce said.
"Our community is changing."

-- Susan Green is the editor of Florida Conference Connection.


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