Annual school offers disciple-making tools

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Annual school offers disciple-making tools

Aug. 13, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0898}

An e-Review Feature
By Linda Green and Erik J. Alsgaard**

ORLANDO — The notion that The United Methodist Church is dying has been repeated so often that it has become a belief, when in fact it is a myth, according to a church executive and author.

The Rev. Craig Miller addresses seven myths about The United Methodist Church during the United Methodist School of Congregational Development. A UMNS photo by Cassandra Heller, Board of Global Ministries. Photo #08-0964. For longer description see photo gallery.

The reality is that the 11.5-million member denomination is poised for hope, said the Rev. Craig Miller to church leaders attending a workshop about myths of The United Methodist Church. The class was held during the 2008 United Methodist School of Congregational Development.

Miller, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn., is author of “7 Myths of The United Methodist Church.” He said belief in the myths prevents many United Methodist churches from growing.

The denomination, through the United Methodist Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries, has embarked on an initiative to strengthen and revitalize existing churches and to start new ones. The school of congregational development is part of that effort.

The July 31-Aug. 5 school used educational tracks, plenary gatherings and “teaching churches” to give the 300 people at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando and 150 at another site in Grand Rapids, Mich., strategies and ideas for creating and developing disciple-making congregations.

“It is a great joy to see how many of our bishops, district superintendents (and) annual conference leaders have become part of the school of congregational development to learn together, and it gives me great hope because as we learn together it will help us move deeper into this idea of change,” Miller said.

Turning a church from slow death to vitality requires discipline, motivation and faith that transformation can happen, he said.

The myth that the church is dying is also contradicted by the denomination’s official statistics, which show membership increasing worldwide, he said.

Spiritual life of a leader

Bishop Minerva Carcaño, episcopal leader of the Desert Southwest Area, spoke in Orlando at the start of the school on the spiritual life of a leader. Speakers such as Miller, Carcaño and others were seen and heard by a satellite video hookup between the two locations.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño delivers the keynote address at the United Methodist School of Congregational Development in Orlando. Carcaño spoke about “the spiritual life of the Christian leader” as a life that “thinks and acts like Jesus.” A UMNS photo by Cassandra Heller. Photo #08-0965. For longer description see photo gallery.

“While the spiritual disciplines are helpful, important and necessary,” she said, “there needs to be much more.”

Leaders must commit to a surrendering of self if they are to be the leaders God has called them to be, she said.

“The spiritual life of a Christian leader is a life that acts like Jesus,” the bishop said.

To illustrate that point, Carcaño told the story of a young pastor she met while visiting the Philippines shortly after her election and appointment to Phoenix. She and other leaders from the conference visited the country to learn how United Methodists there were starting new churches at such a rapid rate.

While traveling in a mountainous region, Carcaño said they came upon a young pastor who had taken over a struggling church halfway up the mountain. The area was dense with foliage and looked uninhabitable, and yet, she said, there was a thriving congregation because they had a pastor who was obedient to Christ.

Even more amazing, Carcaño said, this pastor was already planning to start a new church farther up the mountain. She said the young pastor told her, “Those people need Christ, too.”

Foot-washing as a leader

Carcaño also gave a personal testimony of a recent trip she took to the border region between the United States and Mexico. She said she encountered a love of Christ that was lived out in deeds and actions, “not just in lofty proclamations.”

In the dessert, about 60 miles from any town, there is a ministry to detainees in a large tented area. Busloads of people are taken there, she said, as they are documented and prepared to be sent back to Mexico.

“Most of these people have walked hundreds of miles trying to enter the United States,” Carcaño said. “All of them take a physical beating on the journey, but especially their feet.”

The Rev. Bill Barnes, senior pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, welcomes church leaders gathered for the United Methodist School of Congregational Development. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0966. For longer description see photo gallery.

And there, volunteers minister to the detainees by washing their feet. Carcaño herself washed the feet of several people.

“Because of them, I do immigration reform,” she said. “The people ministering to others by foot washing are spiritual, servant leaders.”

Spiritual life is about relationships

Carcaño stressed that Christian leaders who think and act like Jesus are not always in prominent positions in the church.

“When serving each other is ignored, our Christian living — and even more so our Christian leadership — becomes a sham,” she said.

The bishop urged Christian leaders not to get caught up in the “self-care” movement that reflects the priorities of a narcissistic society. “Self care,” she said, “is pretty common sense. ... Take care of your life, for it is a gift from God. ... Sleep, exercise, eat right and spend time with your loved ones.”

The importance of people’s lives is found in their relationship with God “who created us for holy purposes,” she said. “We find the significance of our lives ... through relationships of love with others. In knowing that we belong to Christ Jesus who has redeemed and reconciled us with God and with each other, we are enabled to respond to both the joy and the demands of love.”

Other myths explored

Both a myth and a reality about United Methodist churches is that “we are connectional,” according to Miller. The church is connected institutionally, but its people are not connected as much in their relationships with others, he said.

The clergy at the school of congregational development were asked if they prayed for the United Methodist church down the street and if they knew the leader or leaders in that congregation. “It is about relationships with others,” he said.

Local churches that desire new members but cannot get them often verbalize a third myth that “there are no people out there.” The reality is that there are plenty of people in the neighborhood, but “they are just different from us,” Miller said. A church must intentionally rebirth itself and re-envision itself to connect with people and help them connect with God, he added.

Miller said there is tremendous potential for the church to connect with the population growth expected across the United States by 2030. The growth is projected to be greatest in the South Central and Western jurisdictions at 27 percent, followed by the Southeastern Jurisdiction at 26 percent. The North Central and Northeastern jurisdictions are projected to grow by 8 percent.

The Rev. Mont Duncan, director of New Church Development for the Florida Conference, leads a workshop on how annual conferences can begin systemically planning for new church starts. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0967. For longer description see photo gallery.

The school of development was also a venue to dispel yet another myth: that the denomination does not know how to start new churches. At one time in its history, The United Methodist Church or its predecessor denominations started a new church every day. Currently in the United States, the denomination averages one church start every 7.6 days.

The reality is that the denomination knows multiple ways of starting new faith communities, Miller said.

While some new churches do fail, others have been sustained or have grown because they connected their discipleship systems, like Sunday school and Bible study, with worship.

“It is a mistake to start a new church and not think of the systems to bring people in,” Miller said.

The final myth is that people in local churches do not want to change. Often, the church does want to change, but “it is the pastor that does not want to change or pay the price,” Miller said.

Effective congregations are led by leaders who welcome innovation and change, Miller said.
“As long as we live with this myth, nothing will change,” he said.

Churches that want change learn from others, learn with others and learn from mistakes, he said. They are passionate for God, for others and for God’s vision.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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