As West Ohio Bishop Gregory V. Palmer has stated, “A church that is not intricately connected with their neighbors might want to reconsider their identity.” For more than 1,000 congregations of The West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church, their identity is rooted in their respective contexts -- urban, rural, suburban, and/or Appalachian -- and tied together by their distinctive Wesleyan ethos. Yet most struggle to address the societal and cultural changes in their communities in ways that lead to mutual flourishing. Undergirding this reality is a desire to develop ministry that is faithful, agile, and contextual to the changing world around them. West Ohio’s response to this yearning, through a mutually generative partnership with Fearless Dialogues, is the Fear+Less Congregations Initiative (FCI). The FCI seeks to guide congregations through the shifting cultural landscape in ways that clearly define their vision as followers of Jesus and inspire an innovative approach to community connectedness. To achieve this, FCI will invite congregations across the Conference’s contextual spectrum into a multi-week educational encounter to learn and practice the values of incarnational hospitality, whole-life stewardship, and missional engagement, culminating in congregational partnerships for mission-based ministry. A festival of learning will provide opportunity for each church to share best practices, as well as garner financial support from interested community partners. Finally, select FCI congregations will be invited to become training hubs for other West Ohio churches. The Fear+Less Congregations Initiative seeks to create an environment that encourages personal and congregational transformation, allowing churches to choose hospitality over division, assets over deficiencies, and love over fear.
The Source Collaborative at Wesley Theological Seminary is a collective effort among churches, coaches, and the seminary to connect more deeply with God, our own stories, and our neighbors that we might drink more deeply of and become conduits for God’s love, justice, and mercy (Ezekiel 47:9). This two-year program will help congregations identify their own markers of thriving based on their community and context, create a strategic plan for congregational change that will allow them to move toward those markers, and implement the plan with the help of a coach and a small grant. Throughout the process, each congregation will commit to intentional prayer and other spiritual practices. Learning processes will be guided by the wisdom and experience of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, the Community Engagement Institute, and the Wesley Innovation Hub, in consultation with experienced congregational coaches. Seminarians will be engaged as research associates. Six regional United Methodist congregations will be selected for the pilot cohort; two additional cohorts of 10 congregations each will be selected to begin in 2022 and 2023. Ultimately, the research and learnings from the cohorts will be used to create sustainable tools and resources to share broadly with congregations through the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and the Community Engagement Institute.
The United Methodist Health Ministry Fund (Health Fund) is a 33-year-old, $50 million health philanthropy located in Hutchinson, Kansas. Our mission is to improve the health of Kansans through cooperative and strategic philanthropy guided by Christian values. The Health Fund focuses on three strategic areas to accomplish this mission: access to care, early childhood development, and the Healthy Congregations program. Healthy Congregations addresses community health by providing Great Plains United Methodist Church congregations in Kansas and Nebraska with learning experiences, training, and grant opportunities. One such opportunity is the Good Neighbor Experiment (GNE). Created and led by The Neighboring Movement, the GNE is a nine-month-long learning cohort for congregations that gather for three training workshops, implement small group curriculum that connects asset-based community development (ABCD) with time-honored Christian practices, and take actionable steps toward practicing the learned skills of community neighboring. As part of the program, participants identify a project that aligns with ABCD practices and then connect with local resources to accomplish the project goals. Healthy Congregations churches have benefited from using ABCD to expand their discipleship through community engagement, in turn gaining clarity of mission and focus. Since 2017, the Neighboring Movement team has companioned 50 congregations in Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas through this material. Now we aim to expand that reach to 280 congregations over the five-year term, with a capacity for 100 congregations each year by 2026.
The North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church (NCCUMC), the governing body for UMC churches east of Burlington, N.C., will work to refine the Living the Word Ministry-Wilson model and replicate it in two additional N.C. counties. How do we live the Word? A jurisdictional body of members who are 97% white, the NCC-UMC established dismantling racism as one of its priorities during the tenure of Bishop Hope Morgan Ward. The goals of LtW are to develop and implement a collaborative community ministry; foster congregational leadership and vitality; develop church-to-church collaboration; and promote collaboration between congregations and other community organizations. Congregations self-identify, assess their own readiness to participate, and form congregational teams of 3-5 clergy and laity members to participate in LtW. Members form a congregational learning community and take part in a year-long process of reflection, discernment, and skill-building that begins with a series of asset assessments. The NCC-UMC will expand and refine the church leadership and vitality activities of the LtW ministry by developing the congregational learning and action program; hire an outside evaluator to help staff and participants refine core LtW-W model activities and outcomes; and replicate the LtW-W justice and equity ministry model in 2 additional counties.
The Bridges Project is designed as a three-stage process to help churches practice deep empathy with their communities, rediscover their core values and mission, and creatively explore our ancient Christian practices as a result of these findings. It is the conference's belief that this process of noticing, mission, and Christian practice will help congregations thrive by tethering them to their calling in a way that makes intercultural competency, and scores of other healthy traits, naturally occurring byproducts of faithful congregational life. This project oversees three 18-month cohort experiences involving 75 vital congregations located in culturally and socially shifting areas. Participating congregations exhibit congregational demographics that have begun to diverge from the demographics of their surrounding communities. The project design is highly experiential and exposes congregational cohorts to the beauty and disorientation of difference, as the conference curates noteworthy experiences rooted in relationship, joy, site visits, storytelling, art, and reflection. As a result, participating congregations emerge from this program with a clearer understanding of their own social location, the skills to practice deep empathy (even amidst difference), a deeper theological understanding for the role of diversity in the Imago Dei, a clarified sense of their particular Christian values and mission, a renewed and localized engagement in meaningful spiritual practices (particularly testimony), and greater delight in both God and others.
The Dakotas Connection Initiative helps enhance the Conference's successful ministries and provides resources and platforms to ensure that vital ministry and community impact are happening in its rural communities. New leadership models that maximize the gifts and callings of laity who are indigenous to the community and innovative systems that accomplish the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ will allow congregations to maximize human, financial, and other resources. Strengthening the fabric of connection by connecting "hub" city churches to rural congregations will allow for the sharing of leadership, worship, and technology resources. An overall emphasis on team ministry -- whether that be multiple churches led by a clergy/lay pastoral team or a hub-city church teaming with multiple "mission outposts" -- will result in a shared understanding of changing demographics, the benefit of collaboration in these changing times, and a commitment to improving the overall health and vitality of churches as well as communities.