The Christian Education Department of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) will initiate congregational learning labs that will help congregations harvest from their tradition, observe their ministry context and reflect on their gifts and challenges, pivot in order to respond to the ministry call before them, and enliven their witness and service in the world. With a particular eye toward the effects of gentrification in urban centers and youth exodus in rural settings, the project will use these H.O.P.E. Congregational Learning Labs to incubate and innovate so that their learnings can be shared more broadly across the denomination. The department will develop resources to support these local learning processes and will harvest and highlight the learnings through its publications (print and digital) and its gatherings (in-person and virtual). The project assumes design thinking and hybridity in methodology, as well as storytelling and contextualized Christian practices that are a part of African Methodism that aim toward a liberative theological understanding and faithful action for justice, peace, human flourishing, and salvation of all creation.
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What will a thriving congregation look like after a global pandemic? Closer to home, what will a thriving congregation look like in a city that’s just witnessed the unconscionable killing of George Floyd at the hands of police; a state with one of the highest opportunity disparities across people of different races? We believe the initiative works to address these questions, as well as the Lutheran catechism question, “What does it mean to love God and neighbor today?” We are excited to invite a select group of congregations to wrestle deeply with this question. In each two-year phase of our proposed initiative, 15 churches will be selected to participate. One congregational cohort will include five “like-sized” congregations, another will include five “like-mission” congregations, and the third, five ELCA and African Methodist Episcopal congregations serving “adjacent neighborhoods.” Each of the congregations will be represented by five leaders. Thus, 75 congregational leaders will be trained during each phase, 150 over four years. Cohort groups will learn faith practices and neighboring practices from experts and each other. The groups will be well coached, committed to meet monthly, and given the tools to immediately teach the practices they are learning to their own congregations. We will partner with the Center for Leadership and Neighborhood Engagement (a new organization birthed by four congregations, the synod, and two social service organizations). In addition, we will partner with the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University, not only for their models of public church, but to co-host the summit for our congregations at the end of each two-year cycle.
Going into this project, we believed that a set of concerns framed the issue of congregational thriving. We believed that the “economics of ministry” needed either reformation or explanation, because the perception of financial acumen and true practice seem confused in many congregational settings. We believed that our main duty would be to orchestrate a process of institutional realignment. Current circumstances demand our re-imagination, especially for our collaborative focus on African Methodism, African Methodist Zionism, and Christian Methodism. Prior to the pandemic, most congregations would have appreciated technical assistance, meaningful networking opportunities, and resources to explore further innovation. The urgency is more existential now: core traditions of congregational life have been disrupted. Mission may remain constant, but circumstances have challenged its practical relevance. What we believed before is no longer central to the patchwork of our congregational habits. The experiences of crucifixion and resurrection frame our theological conversations. Payne’s mission resonates with working with congregations to breathe life into their circumstances so that they may carry out their local ministries to the glory of the Kingdom and its beloved community.
The Second Episcopal District of the African Methodist Church will have 30 rural congregations engage in a transformative process. This process will help these churches located in regions with declining populations discover new ways to thrive. Most of these churches founded during the 19th or early 20th century previously adapted to their changing cultural context. This proposal intends to help these churches reconnect to their historical resilient roots. Rural churches from Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina will participate. Five churches from each of the three states will be selected to form a cohort. There will be a total of two cohorts (15 churches per cohort). The two cohorts will undergo a two-year planning and implementation program. During the first-year church teams (pastors and laity) will attend four retreats where they will create new community focused ministry plans. In the second year, churches will implement their plans. Cohorts will have consultants and coaches to guide and support them as they progress through the Thriving Congregations program. This proposed initiative builds upon the work the Second Episcopal District started in 2017 that revealed a willingness from several rural churches to change but also a desire for assistance to move forward. Our project will provide that support and rural churches in our district will develop self-sustaining community integrated ministries that will allow their churches to thrive.
In the spirit of the relationship between Stillman College and the Christian Church, this program proposes a five-year plan for 15 traditional African American congregations in central Alabama. These churches will represent three denominations: the Presbyterian Church U.S.A, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. This plan will take each congregation collectively and individually through the three phases of recognizing their changing social and cultural context, clarifying their values and mission, and cultivating appropriate Christian practices for the sake of transformation and vitality. These churches represent a unique witness here in the Deep South. They have combined educational achievement and sacrificial service for decades, for the greater good of their congregants and their communities. Yet, the new realities of this cultural moment present complicated challenges and require creative adaptation. To facilitate the necessary assessment and adaptability, the College’s plan will be executed in consultation with the Center of Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary and the Office of Vital Congregations for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We believe this work is critical for our Christian witness in central Alabama.