New transformation director continues, refines ministry’s work



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

New transformation director continues, refines ministry’s work

July 28, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011  
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0523}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — The Rev. Jeff Stiggins (center), participating in the ordination service at this year's annual conference event, became the new director of the conference's congregational transformation office effective July 3. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-408.

LAKELAND — The Rev. Jeff Stiggins has been working in his new position as director of the conference’s Office of Congregational Transformation (OCT) for less than a month, but he says he has no doubt this is where he is supposed to be at this time in his ministry.

Stiggins succeeded the Rev. Kendall Taylor who retired from the position June 30. Before becoming OCT director Stiggins was serving as superintendent of the East Central District.

While he admits feeling uneasy about his new appointment, Stiggins says he is certain about the charge at hand.

“I have never received an appointment for which I was more anxious,” he said. “Before, I always had a pretty clear sense of what needed to happen wherever I went or how to figure it out.”

While he may not be exactly sure how each of the conference’s 735 churches can reach its fullest potential, he feels certain he is the man to help them try.

“I personally feel very called to do this,” he said. “When I pray about this, I know this is what God wants me to do right now.”

What’s at stake

The task is daunting. Eighty-five percent of the conference’s churches are classified as having reached a plateau or declining in the areas of worship attendance, profession of faith and involvement in the community, according to Stiggins. The data comes from churches and missions that completed charge conference forms asking questions to determine their health.

Those figures don’t mean churches are destined to remain stagnant where they are, however. Stiggins says the work of dedicated and committed people can help those churches reclaim their purpose, embracing Matthew 28:19, which says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

“There’s no other way, other than starting churches, to make a significant contribution to life of the annual conference than figuring out how to help churches transform,” Stiggins said.
“Not to say there aren’t really good people out there, (but) I think what happens is that churches become increasingly inwardly focused — they are committed to perpetuating their comfortable tradition. There has been a missional drift. Some of our churches are just, ‘doing it our way, maintaining our club.’ ”

The answer to this misguided approach is both simple and complex, according to Stiggins.

“I see my job as almost a prophetic role,” he said. “I want to find every possible way I can to challenge people to get back to what Christ called us to do, which is to bring new people to Christ, to disciple them to become more like Christ, to be involved in ministry to people beyond themselves.”

Stiggins said the turning point for churches will emerge when they become more externally focused. The key lies in each church “centering” on how it can be a blessing to its community. Stiggins said that shift will be difficult for some because they have been internally geared for so long.

“It’s easy for us to do things for people that we love, for people that are like us,” he said. “Comfort is not what Christ called us to do. You can’t find that in scripture.”

Redefining focus can’t be done overnight, Stiggins says, adding it takes a long time for churches to reach that plateau or declining status and it will take just as much effort and energy for them to return to their mission. He says it will require commitment and dedication from church leaders, but also a change of heart that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit.

Helping churches transform

Stiggins says churches are often effective in their formative years, but with the gradual addition of staff and programs some become inwardly focused, losing touch with the community. At the same time the community outside is changing, which adds to the problem because churches don’t realize the community’s demographics have shifted.

“When a different group moves in, they (the church) don’t see it. They slowly realize the community is different,” Stiggins said. “The members drive through a community that is not like them. The church’s style of worship may not appeal to the new community.

“If leaders don’t make the decision to reach out, survival becomes the key. Can we pay our bills, our apportionments? Can we pay the pastor? Those become the things that drive the church.”

Until recently, the Natural Church Development (NCD) process was one of just a few options the conference had been using to help churches improve their health and remain healthy. It’s designed to help churches reach their potential, gauging church health through a 91-question survey that identifies churches’ strengths and weaknesses. Stiggins said NCD has been very effective in congregations that remember “the mission to which Christ calls us.”

During the past several years OCT leaders have discovered not all churches are at a level of health that makes them good candidates for NCD. For churches that aren’t ready for NCD, but willing to redirect their focus, there is now another option, called ReFocus, which is being implemented as a pilot project in the East and Atlantic Central districts.

Stiggins says the plan is for each district to have ReFocus groups, with two coaches trained to work with a group of 10 to 12 churches needing assistance in “reclaiming the Great Commission” for a period of two years.

The first phase of ReFocus concentrates on the pastors of congregations, helping them rediscover on a personal level what Christ is calling them to do with their ministry. The second phase works with leaders of the congregation on what Christ is calling their congregation to be and do in ministry.

Stiggins said early reports indicate the program, which began last year, has been extremely helpful.

“What it does is give pastors the tools they need to work with leaders in their church to rediscover the mission of Christ in the local church,” he said. “It’s not just about the church in general, but about them personally and discovering where God is calling them as leaders in the church to really plug into the ministry of Christ. It’s a personal journey.”

A third path is intervention — for those churches experiencing conflict and disagreement about the church’s direction between members who want to change and those who want to stay where they are. OCT’s answer to this dilemma is utilizing the gifts and graces of specialized pastors who are capable of leading churches in this type of predicament.

Stiggins is working with the Florida Conference Cabinet to identify churches where change will be more challenging. He said these churches have great potential so it’s worth the risk to appoint a pastor for a short-term period of one or two years to assist it as it transforms. The pastor and congregation will form a covenant for the duration of the appointment.

The interventionist strategy is already in place in one church and several clergy are training for such an appointment in the future.

District OCT committees are also already in place in many districts and in the development stages in others to help churches with whatever strategies are best for them. Stiggins said the goal is for each committee to get to know the churches in its district and be able to assist them.

“The district committees will really be where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “It won’t be me working with the churches. I think that’s key.”

Stiggins said clergy and laity are realizing they are responsible for the health of their congregations.

“Kendall got things going,” Stiggins said. “He developed a common language about the health of the church, introduced the eight characteristics of a healthy church and began to get churches involved. Now, there’s a kind of growing expectation for churches to not just be paying apportionments and doing kind of okay, but be out doing ministry for which they are designed.”

While acknowledging every church is different, Stiggins said the conference must create a toolbox with a variety of different instruments that fit varying congregations.

“We’re building this bridge one plank at a time as we figure this out,” he said of congregational transformation efforts. “No annual conference has pulled this off. Mainline denominations are trying to do this; they are seeing what works, adjusting it, improving it. We are all learning from each other. It’s about the process of experimentation. After all, transformation ultimately is a spiritual process.”

More information about OCT’s three-pronged transformation approach can be found in “New systems give churches new hope” at http://www.flumc2.org/FCNN/articles/000024/002435.htm.

###

This article relates to Congregational Transformation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.




Contact Us

The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

450 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33815

(863) 688-5563 or toll free (800) 282-8011