With 21 supported mission workers serving seven regions, the Florida Annual Conference tries to build connections between congregations and global missions using newsletters, phone calls, blogs and site visits abroad.
However, many Methodists say it’s the personal touch that makes all the difference. When missionaries visit a church, they renew commitments and rekindle zeal for global outreach.
“Itineration is one of the most vital programs we could ever have,” said Icel Rodriguez, Global Missions director for the conference.
“When missionaries connect personally and share their testimony, it brings to life what people hear. Stories speak to the power of God. Just to hear those stories is encouraging, uplifting and transforming.”
|Missionary Jonathan McCurley is taking a break from his work in Japan to visit Florida churches in January and February. He is specifically hoping to add weekday and Saturday visits. To reach him, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read about his work, click here.|
Jonathan McCurley is a missionary in Japan who has visited several Florida congregations informally this year and is seeking invitations to other churches in 2013. He has lined up some visits in the East Central District, Tallahassee and Jacksonville in January and February.
“Probably the best story I have is that one church was thinking of no longer sponsoring me,” McCurley said. “But after I visited, they were so excited about our ministry that they almost doubled their support!”
Declining contributions to global missions in general may be related to challenging economic conditions, Rodriguez said. But increased support is more likely when congregations meet real people and hear powerful stories of living faith.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that itinerancy raises support,” Rodriguez said.
Dorothy Collins, leader of the Global Mission team at Pasadena Community UMC, St. Petersburg, agrees.
“People tend to get a mindset about what missionaries are like,” she said. “And from time to time they need to meet them. For those who come [to itinerant missionary programs], it really makes a tremendous difference and strengthens their commitment.”
This year, Pasadena hosted missionaries Delbert and Sandy Groves, who work in Zambia; Rex Almquist, based in Vietnam; and Marilyn Beecher, who works with community outreach ministries in Florida.
“Next year we’re looking forward to a visit from Gordon and Teca Greathouse when they’re home from Brazil,” Collins said.
Vicki Harrison, staff resource for missions at First Brandon UMC, said people like to put a face to a mission.
“It makes it personal and real,” she said. “The congregation is no longer removed from the work but an active partner. Hearts are moved and people take a more active role.”
Hyde Park UMC, Tampa, supports a number of global missions, but senior pastor James Harnish believes itinerancies are only one piece of the puzzle.
“Frankly, I think it takes a whole lot more than [promoting visiting missionaries] to move a congregational culture in the direction of an outward focus,” Harnish said.
|From left: Missionaries Delbert and Sandy Groves with Zambian Pastor Charles Mulemema.|
“But I’d say that any way of making mission personal is a step in the right direction. It gives the congregation a flesh-and-blood way of connecting with mission beyond the walls of their own church.
“It’s about incarnation,” Harnish continued. “God didn’t send a brochure, a promotional video or an offering envelope; God came in person by sending his son.”
A missionary’s personal story also can open American eyes to realities outside U.S. borders.
Take the case of Dan Terry, a United Methodist missionary killed in Afghanistan in 2010, who is the subject of a documentary, “Weaving Life: The Life and Death of Peacemaker Dan Terry,” being aired on ABC television stations in Florida. (Click here for more information.)
“We supported Dan Terry for over 20 years,” said Vicki Walker, pastor for missions and outreach at Hyde Park.
“He visited us in January of 2010, so the story of his death that year seemed especially personal to those of us who had heard him and met him over the years. It also brought the reality of the war into focus for us.”
Hyde Park has also developed a relationship with South Africa, through author and minister Trevor Hudson and Peter Story, a bishop during apartheid and former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“They have inspired our congregation in many ways,” Walker said. “As a result, two of our church members felt called to serve in South Africa for three years.”
Sometimes there’s a common thread that binds a congregation to a particular mission. At Tallahassee’s John Wesley UMC, mission team leader Cindy Cosper particularly remembered a visit by Ana Ingles, United Methodist Women president in Angola. Cosper serves in that role at her church.
Pastor Dan Johnson at Trinity UMC, Gainesville, said it’s important that visiting missionaries resonate with the culture of a hosting congregation.
“If the missionary is of the same DNA as the church – i.e., connects with the things the congregation is already involved with or interested in – and if the missionary has some specific, tangible things that the congregation can do, then yes, huge impact. Otherwise, no.”
McCurley said personal visits foster strong connections between a missionary’s work and the sponsoring congregation.
“I think it is because instead of only being a face, we become a part of their church. We become a real family member in Christ,” he said. “Without missionaries coming to my church, I doubt I would be here doing what I'm doing now.”
To find out more about Global Missions, click here.
Derek Maul is a freelance writer from the Tampa area.