ORLANDO – More than 200 church planters and leaders of church development gathered last week at a resort center for three days of comparing notes, sharing stories and recharging spirits at the National Church Planters Gathering sponsored by United Methodist Discipleship Ministries.
Organized by Discipleship Ministries’ Path 1 New Church Starts, which works with annual conferences to develop new worship communities, the gathering was the first of its kind. Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis, Path 1 executive director, said by email that the idea for bringing church planters together stemmed from feedback received by her organization in 2013.
Martha Gay Duncan, left, watches as her husband, Rev. Dr. Mont Duncan, accepts a lifetime achievement award from Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis on behalf of Discipleship Ministries at the first National Church Planters Gathering. Photos by Don Youngs.
“When we did our Path1 Summer Road Trip in 2013, we visited church planters in every jurisdiction and concerns we heard were that planters felt isolated and alone on their church planting journeys,” Lewis said.
“When our general secretary, Dr. Tim Bias, heard this he provided funding for this event. The event was no cost for the first 100 planters and only $99 for the next 100 who registered. We covered meals and housing. The goal was to reward church planters for their work on the front lines of reaching new people and sharing the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ.”
The program had a strong Florida flavor, with Rev. Dan Jackson, New Church Development director for the Florida Conference, welcoming the crowd and Lewis, who was ordained in Florida, often at the podium. Jeremy Hearn and the Eleven20 Worship Band from First UMC, Lakeland, led musical worship.
The group also surprised Rev. Dr. Mont Duncan of Lakeland, retired New Church Development director for the Florida Conference, with a lifetime achievement award, the first ever awarded by the Path 1 program.
Duncan, who spent many years as a church pastor after his first appointment in 1973, oversaw the Florida Conference church planting program from 2001 until his retirement in 2013. He has continued working with churches in other parts of the U.S. as a consultant through Path 1 since then, and recently accepted a request to join the board of the Intentional Growth Center in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
|Above, Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis addresses a crowd of more than 200 church planters and church development leaders at the National Church Planters Gathering in Orlando. Below, Rev. Dan Jackson welcomes the crowd and shares his experiences with the Fresh Expressions movement.|
He said by phone this week he was surprised and honored by the award. His interest in growing new churches blossomed initially during his service as a district superintendent based in DeLand from 1995 to 2001, a time when conference discussions focused on ways to foster new congregations.
Duncan said he helped the conference strengthen a program called the Church Builders Club from about $6,000 a year, generated by local church donations, to around $80,000.
“I’ve always had a heart for reaching new people,” he said. “It [new church development] just fit me, and I took it from there.”
Shortly before his death, then-Florida Bishop Cornelius Henderson asked Duncan to take charge of the fledgling New Church Development program for the conference.
During his tenure, Duncan championed community outreach, encouraging existing congregations and new ministries to use a computer program called Mission Insite to better understand their surrounding mission field through demographics. He would then help church leaders consider the types of ministries that would benefit the community and lead to disciple-making opportunities.
One of the trends in new church starts still seen in the Florida Conference that began during Duncan’s tenure was the success of multisite church campuses, typically involving a large, healthy congregation nurturing a new group of worshipers at a separate location.
One of the young church planters Duncan worked closely with was Lewis, whom he watched grow a Jacksonville church from a few members to 250 and move on to her current national role in church development..
Jackson, who stepped to the helm of New Church Development after Duncan’s retirement, said he was pleased to see his predecessor receive the recognition, and he was impressed with the program offered by Path 1 over three days in Orlando.
“I think they did a great job of getting speakers that are actually doing the ministries they’re talking about,” Jackson said.
“I think there was a high degree of practical application. … I thought it was a good way to help people see how to go about thinking outside the box.”
Jackson shared with the crowd the Florida Conference approach to developing new types of worship communities through the Fresh Expressions program championed by Florida Bishop Ken Carter. He recalled a trip to England last summer to study the movement, which began there years ago. He said he was particularly moved by the story of a young pastor who left a teaching career because she felt she could not express her faith. She currently ministers to a group totaling 40 people in an impoverished community in York.
“With a simple statement, she caused me to rethink my ministry as a conference developer,” Jackson said. “She said, ‘You know, in [the Bible book of] Matthew, Jesus tells us to make disciples, but He also tells us that he will build his church. If we focus on making disciples, I think He’ll take care of the church.’”
Presentations at the event included discussions of risk-taking, communication in a multicultural context, ways to use social media, learning from failure and fundraising strategies for nonprofit organizations. The crowd included people from the West Coast states of Washington and California, as well as New England and all parts of the U.S. in between, Jackson said.
He said he was most impressed with the care and support offered to church planters, who often face obstacles that are less common for pastors of established ministries.
“The closing worship was about as powerful as anything I’ve experienced,” Jackson said, noting that Lewis preached and people were available to listen to and pray with church planters who requested time.
“It was just a very powerful time … a time built around supporting the planter.”
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.