New systems give churches new hope

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

New systems give churches new hope

July 5, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0513}

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

Several years ago the conference’s Office of Congregational Transformation (OCT) and former Orlando District transformation team introduced churches to Natural Church Development (NCD), a process that helps churches improve and maintain their health.

Since then, leaders have discovered not all churches are at a level of health that makes them ready to begin that process, leaving many wanting to make changes, but without the resources to do it.

Now, two new systems are being implemented specifically to help those congregations, giving them new hope and a chance at new life.

NCD involves churches signing a covenant and embracing steps to take their health to the next level, based on eight characteristics of healthy churches. Trained coaches, both clergy and laity, facilitate the process and help churches work to improve in each of the eight areas. It is a continual process of maintaining church health, not a quick, one-time fix.

Despite the intensity of these efforts, the Rev. Kendall Taylor, who retired as OCT director last month, said some churches just aren’t ready to undertake the NCD process and need “preemptive measures” before NCD can come into play. As a result, the conference has launched both an interventionist program for the most chronically dysfunctional congregations and a pilot re-focusing program that helps churches prepare for NCD. That second program is being tested in the East Central District with the hope it will be successful enough for churches in other districts.

Helping churches come back

Taylor said the interventionist program involves training certain pastors to step into an appointment for a maximum of two years and “confront what needs to be confronted and do it in a way that isn’t necessarily combative.” The two-year deadline is designed to create a sense of urgency in the appointment.

The first interventionist pastor was appointed to a congregation last month, and while the fact that it is an interventionist appointment isn’t necessarily a secret, the church and OCT are not seeking to intentionally publicize or draw attention to the church’s situation.

Photo by e-Review Florida UMNS Staff, Photo #06-392.

“This pastor already has met with the congregation, and they understand the nature of what this is about and have entered into a written covenant,” Taylor said. “The church, the pastor, the district superintendent and the Office of Congregational Transformation are the chief participants in the covenant. Each one of them has a stake in seeing that it succeeds.”

The covenant identifies several things, Taylor said, “not the least of which is coming to terms with their history. This includes broken relationships, strife, conflict, a small group trying to control the whole congregation and not allowing the pastor to be a leader.”

Taylor said OCT learned about the program from the Interim Ministry Network (IMN), an interdenominational organization that focuses on discovering ways to train and identify pastors for interim situations. OCT will send the pastors it chooses as interventionists, in consultation with the Florida Conference Cabinet, to training at The Intentional Growth Center in Lake Junaluska, N.C., which is a partner of IMN. “We are taking what they’ve got and adapting it,” Taylor said.

The sought-after qualities of a potential interventionist pastor, Taylor says, include clergy who are self-starting and entrepreneurial, with a “thick skin.” “When you try to get these systems to change, a lot of forces get arrayed against the change. The pastor will be called upon to do whatever is necessary to confront these systems,” Taylor said.

The covenant also calls for an established salary and a reporting system to keep track of progress. The pastor is required to establish a support network of persons outside the congregation who come together with the pastor on a regular basis.

Taylor said three other clergy are currently being trained to become interventionist pastors, but will only be appointed as such when the cabinet feels it has identified the proper matches with congregations. Four other pastors are currently in appointment situations where interventionist skills are needed and being utilized, Taylor added.

“We think if intervention is not done, these churches are on their way to discontinuation. We’re not trying to imply any threat by this; it’s just an honest assessment of what’s going on. You look at the statistics of these churches during the past 10, 20 or 30 years, and they’ve been on steady decline. If a system is designed to produce decline, then the system has to change at some level in order for there to be a different desired outcome,” Taylor said.

At the same time, Taylor said the cabinet and OCT are careful to select congregations where things are “not so far gone” that resources would be wasted and acknowledges this is a subjective process to discern which churches are candidates for intervention. The research involves some statistical data and congregational surveys, neither of which are by themselves the deciding factor, but rather part of the mix.

“There are some churches that are absolutely recalcitrant. Some have said, ‘I don’t care what happens to this church. I just want a place to be buried out of,’ ” Taylor said. “And, on the other hand, we’ve had a lot of folks say, ‘It is about time, and we’re awfully glad that you’re trying to do this.’ ”

Getting back on track

For churches that have not declined to the interventionist level, but are still not ready for NCD, the ReFocus Network has become a viable alternative. Part of the Church Resource Ministry, ReFocus is currently being used as a pilot program in the conference’s East Central District under the guidance of the Rev. Linda Mobley, an ordained deacon and staff member of both the district and Orlando’s Trinity United Methodist Church. Mobley discussed the context of the ReFocus approach in a conversation with e-Review.

“In the lifecycle of a church, if you could see a bell curve, a church is strong and healthy in the beginning,” Mobley said. “It takes a good 25 years for it to hit the top of its game, and in the process it has lived and been born out of a very strong vision. That vision is usually to reach the least, the last and the lost for the Kingdom of God; it’s strong enough to birth a church and propel it to life.”

Flowing from that vision are strong relationships and shared goals, Mobley said. The last aspect to fall into place is the “management piece — the business part, the building, the money, the personnel. Then, they hit a plateau somewhere about this 25-year mark. As they start going downhill, it’s so minute you don’t notice it at first.”

The first casualty of this subtle decline, Mobley said, is the vision. “They stop focusing on the Kingdom of God and start focusing on what it means to be that particular church. They’ve got their own personality. Usually they’re doing well and are very attractive. They say to the world, ‘Here we are, come and be with us!’ They lose that sense of vision. But there is still enough ministry going on that they don’t really miss the vision too much.”

Mobley said the second “thing to go” is ministry. “Usually there’s a little budget crunch here or … there,” she said. “They’ll stop a ministry or lose a staff position with the promise that once the money is there they’ll start it back up. The ministries kind of fade out one at a time over a long period of time. Then, relationships start going because they start blaming each other and the pastor and that kind of thing. And the very last thing to go is the money, the building.”

An example of a church experiencing such dynamics across a lifecycle is the church she serves, Mobley asserted, pointing out that this congregation hit its peak in1964 with a membership of about 1,200 to 1,300 people and an attendance of about 600 to 700. “They started down (the curve) so slowly they didn’t realize they were in decline until the early 1980s,” she said.

Mobley said NCD works “super well” with churches on the way up the bell curve or at the plateau and just starting down. It is also effective for those churches that simply need to be reminded of the original vision. “They have enough of an ability to see, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we’re here for.’ They can turn everything around by reattaching themselves to their vision. But when a church gets to a place where their only vision is survival, to hold themselves together so they don’t get shut down, that’s where ReFocus comes in.”

ReFocus is also a two-year program and helps churches rediscover their vision through spiritual growth exercises. The process begins with the current pastor, helping him or her re-connect with the ministerial calling, “why they went into this in the first place,” Mobley said. “A church that is in decline or has forgotten its vision and is losing its ministries — they’re not the easiest churches to serve. The pastor needs to get reattached to God and the Holy Spirit in a very big way.”

ReFocus groups together several pastors in a region who are serving similar types of churches, and together — with the facilitation of a coach — the clergy rediscover their spiritual journeys. This initial segment spans the first year of the program, and then the pastors begin to incorporate their churches’ key lay leaders, helping them rediscover their own spiritual identities as believers.

“The pastor is trained to do for and with those key leaders what the coach did with those pastors,” Mobley said. “It’s supposed to trickle down to where those key leaders do the same thing with the next layer of leadership, the primary committees in the church. Then, the vision reawakens in them for the church. And that’s when (about 18 months into the ReFocus process) you can introduce NCD.”

Churches participating in the East Central District’s pilot program are First, Bunnell;
First Hispanic Mission, Kissimmee; Peace, Kissimmee; Trinity, DeLand; Stewart Memorial, Daytona Beach; First, Winter Garden; Lake Mary; and Conway, Orlando. A pastoral retreat occurred early in the program and a retreat for key lay leaders of each congregation took place in March.

Seeing a difference

At First Hispanic Mission, the Rev. José Carrion is in the fourth year of his appointment, serving a church with about 65 people in attendance and nine different countries represented. Worship takes place in both Spanish and Portuguese, and the former Roman Catholic priest said he feels his mission’s invitation to the ReFocus program was God’s leading. Carrion has been excited to train laity to become mentors and coaches who help others discover God’s calling for their lives.

KISSIMMEE — The Rev. José Carrion leads worship at First Hispanic Mission. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jose Carrion, Photo #06-393. Web photo only.

“We need to see that the lay people help,” Carrion said. “Pastors cannot do everything. As a matter of fact, laity are both hands of the pastor. I need to lead, because as a Hispanic congregation we are breaking waves through the wilderness here in Florida. I cannot do that challenge by myself.”

“God has confirmed my call,” Carrion added. “He’s made me more aware of how he’s working through me. I see my weaknesses and his grace.”

Carrion said the fellowship with other pastors in the pilot program has been a wonderful blessing. “The process makes us aware how even in our differences we can meet together and support each other. We are building a core group. This is so important also in my ministry, to find out that I am not alone, that I can lean on and support other people in prayer.”

The Rev. Beth Gardner is going into her seventh year at First, Bunnell, where a little more than 100 people worship each week. The church’s history, Gardner said, involves a rather quick turnover of pastoral leadership.

“When I first got here we spent a couple of years doing healing work, getting back on track,” Gardner said. “To keep them going has been the hard part — it’s easy to work to a new place and then plateau, because they’ve been used to that. It requires a lot of energy, and it’s the size church where a lot of that has to come from the pastor. There’s a need to improve the leadership of the church and have them take initiative.”

BUNNELL — The Angel Choir at First United Methodist Church, Bunnell, takes time to practice. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Beth Gardner, Photo #06-394. Web photo only.

The church features a strong mix of teachers and retired educators and was the first church launched in Flagler County. The congregation has struggled to see itself as anything other than a rural church, even as the county has been one of the fastest growing in the United States. “People say they’ll come here because they like the small church,” Gardner said.
“The biggest struggle I have had is getting leaders that take initiative and when they assume leadership to really do it and not wait for me to pull them along or have to guide every step that they take. Once they did the initial work on vision statement and mission statement they settled back in, instead of all of us continuing to work together,” said Gardner, who inquired about the NCD process about 18 months ago before she learned of ReFocus and realized the latter was the better fit.

Gardner and her church’s key leaders are planning a July retreat for the full congregation, with the goal of 50 percent participation by active members. The retreat will encompass studying the church’s history, completing a personal spiritual timeline and “visually seeing how God has worked over your life.”

“For pastors, this involves reconnecting with your sense of ministry through a bigger lens. That’s renewing, just in doing that. That was a very powerful thing for my leaders, to know that God is still working and calling them towards the future,” said Gardner, who worked as a real estate appraiser before going to seminary. “It’s helpful that the laity go through pretty much the same thing.”

Mobley said four conference laypeople are currently being trained as ReFocus coaches, and she hopes to see the pilot program expand to other districts.

Coming back from the brink

In the meantime, in the southern portion of the Atlantic Central District, one congregation that has been in steady decline is undergoing a renaissance that reflects the spirit of some of the principles inherent in the OCT’s three-pronged NCD, ReFocus and intervention approach.

The neighborhood surrounding West Palm Beach’s Northwood United Methodist Church had gradually changed ethnically and economically, said the Rev. David Wiebe, and the church declined from an “active, thriving church down to a small group of members,” as families with children gradually moved away to the suburbs and a dedicated but elderly membership was left to hold things together. Finally, according to Wiebe, the district said the church would likely be closing its doors.

“The conventional wisdom is that it is easier to close the church and start anew with people from the neighborhood than to try to make dramatic changes in a church,” Wiebe said. “We had a better plan. There was no need to close and start over; we would rebuild with people from the neighborhood.”

WEST PALM BEACH — The Rev. David Wiebe (center) and members of Northwood United Methodist Church opened their church's doors to the neighborhood's Haitian-Americans, who, in turn, helped breathe new life into the church. Photo courtesy of the Rev. David Wiebe, Photo #06-395. Web photo only.

Taking note that persons of many ethnicities lived near the church, Northwood chose to utilize an existing group of Haitian-Americans holding services on its property as the key to congregational transformation. Wiebe asked the Creole-speaking Christians if they wanted to become United Methodists, and after a period of building trust between both communities a total of 40 people from the Haitian cluster joined Northwood. New member classes were conducted, and training sessions were done for the Haitian leaders to teach them about the connectional system. That occurred in 2003.

“At that point, our direction changed from a downward spiral to an upward trend,” said Wiebe. “The next step was to have our new members take positions of responsibility in the leadership of the church. With training, attending district and conference events and much interaction, we now have equal representation on the church boards and committees. We have more than doubled the number of Creole-speaking members.”

“As you can imagine, there have been a lot of doubts and struggles over this change,” Wiebe added. “We have had many heated discussions about church finances. But in all of the travail, the work of God has triumphed. God works in ways that transcend human endeavors. The Holy Spirit has brought the church together … when the people started working face to face the changes started. People got to know each other on a personal basis and walls came down. We now have joint worship services, joint dinners, and are a united church.”

Wiebe said three Hispanic and two A.M.E. congregations are now meeting at Northwood, as well. A former chapel that had been converted to classrooms has been restored in order to house worship services for the numerous congregations.

“Walking down the main hallway on a Tuesday or Thursday evening you can hear people in three praise services, and none of them in English,” Wiebe said. “The changes are amazing. When once we were a dying church with rooms collecting dust, our facility is now overflowing with worship services, Sunday School, prayer services and meetings. We have new life.”

This article relates to Congregational Transformation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.

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