Conference hires first director of African-American congregational development

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference hires first director of African-American congregational development

By J.A. Buchholz | April 7, 2009 {0996}

NOTE: Headshots of the Revs. Dr. Jeff Stiggins and Harold Lewis are available at

LAKELAND, Fla. — After months of an exhaustive national search, the Florida Conference has hired its first director of African-American congregational development.

Rev. Harold Lewis

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Office of Congregational Transformation, said he is thrilled the Rev. Harold Lewis Sr. has accepted the position. Lewis begins his work with the conference May 1.

Stiggins said the conference has been working for a number of years to decide how best to address issues affecting African-American congregations. In 2008 members to the Florida Annual Conference Event approved hiring a director upon the recommendation of the African-American Comprehensive Plan task team, which had been reviewing ideas since the 2007 conference event.

Stiggins says Lewis, who has served as senior pastor at Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., for more than 16 years, has had an impressive ministry career. It includes nurturing and growing two African-American congregations well above their once declining numbers, a solid track record in congregational development and creative worship, and adopting a Hispanic ministry and elementary school to strengthen relations between the church and community.

Lewis will work in consultation with Stiggins and his team and the conference’s New Church Development office to provide resources and development assistance to the conference’s African-American churches.

Challenges ahead

While he’s excited the position is filled, Stiggins says the real work is just beginning, with a myriad of obstacles preventing African-American churches from reaching their full potential.

Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins

And despite the impressiveness of Lewis’ candidacy for the position, Stiggins says he knows the changes the conference is seeking will not be instant. “In no way will there be a quick turnaround,” he said.

One systemic issue, Stiggins said, is declining attendance. The average worship attendance among the conference’s 76 African-American congregations is approximately 70 people per congregation.

Another challenge, he said, is developing a pool of African-American pastors and lay leaders that understands how to lead congregations averaging 200 to 300 or more people and “how to help their congregation to minister in ways that enable them to reach African-American youth, children and their families.”

Getting to work

Lewis says he is ready to meet the challenges.

One stumbling block many African-American congregations make is not being true to themselves, he said, and one key element he’d like to implement within the conference is the idea of replacing the melting pot imagery with a salad bowl analogy related to worship style. In a salad bowl, Lewis says, a diner can distinguish the difference between the ingredients and appreciate them, whereas in a melting pot each item assumes the characteristics of the dominant ingredient.

If African-American congregations follow the format of Anglo congregations, he says, the end result will be the loss of the authentic African-American style and substance. “I think we need to be free to share what we bring to the church,” Lewis said. “We need to accept who we are and what we bring to the church.”

Stiggins said one advantage Lewis had among the list of applicants was his success in helping Lincoln Park United Methodist Church increase its average worship attendance from 100 people in 1998 to more than 450 today. He also has a “stellar record” of mentoring African-American church leaders and experience in church growth, Stiggins said, noting the two are directly related to each another.

Lewis said turning churches around is possible if pastors and members are willing to be open to resources and people from other denominations that are successful.

“I’d like to host a summit for clergy and laity,” Lewis said. “I’d like to test the currents and see where the currents are flowing. We have to share in the responsibility of creating a vision for African-American churches and decide where we want to go from here. A lot of our churches are in crisis, and we must embrace what is working for others.”

Some of those ideas might include gospel or hip-hop night and services where members are encouraged to wear their fraternity clothing, Lewis said, adding he is excited about doing ministry in a new context that will extend outside the pulpit.

Lewis said one thing he’d like all churches to do is incorporate The United Methodist Church brand to its fullest potential.

“In Africa when people see the logo of The United Methodist Church they get excited,” he said. “We need to do that, so that when people drive by one of our churches they will know that somebody in there loves me.”

“It’s a new day,” Lewis said. “It’s time to take our churches to the next level.”

Lewis is a native of Greenwood, Miss. He holds a bachelor’s degree in art from Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., a master of divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Ga., and an honorary doctorate of sacred theology from the Reformed Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio.

He was ordained in the Mississippi Annual Conference where he served for five years at Wesley United Methodist Church before being appointed as senior pastor at Lincoln Park United Methodist Church.

Lewis and his wife, Janet, have seven children.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.

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