Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Why Is Your Conference Growing? An E-interview with Rachel Simeon

Rev. Rachel Lieder Simeon is conference superintendent of the Alaska Missionary Conference, one of the few U.S. United Methodist conferences reporting growth in both membership and attendance in 2004. The Alaska Missionary Conference, which has 28 churches, ended 2004 with 4,045 members, up 1 from 2003. Average attendance during 2004 was 2,609, up 15 from 2003. The Alaska Missionary Conference covers an area twice the size of Texas with a population of about 600,000. (If you overlaid Alaska on the lower 48 states, it would stretch from Maine to California.)

Some of the conference's mission stations can only be reached by boat, plane, or --in one case-- dog sled. Temperatures can vary as much as 160 degrees in some areas. The Alaska Missionary Conference has no clergy members; all clergy serving in the conference are members of other conferences. Rev. Simeon is a member of the Yellowstone Conference. She formerly served as part of a superintendency team and as pastor of the United Methodist Church of Chugiak. In 2004 she was appointed to serve as the Alaska Missionary Conference's sole superintendent full-time. Untied Methodist asked her to reflect on why her conference grew last year and also to educate us about the Alaska Missionary Conference.

Your conference grew in both membership and attendance in 2004. What caused the growth?

Short answers: Growth in immigrant populations, committed clergy and un-stuck laity, longevity of episcopal leadership, appropriate accountability.

Long answers: The Alaska Missionary Conference (AMC) is experiencing a significant influx of Pacific Rim immigrants, and we are making a concerted effort to address their needs and offer a United Methodist presence.

Currently we have congregations serving the Korean, Tongan, Samoan, Hmong, and Filipino communities. In fact, a predominantly Anglo, older congregation in Douglass, Ala., has requested a Filipino pastor to address the needs of that emerging population in the Douglass-Juneau area. We have appointed a Filipino clergywoman and expect her to arrive in the fall.

We have excellent pastors from every jurisdiction, and soon, from a central conference. Since we have no clergy membership, there are no guaranteed appointments in Alaska. Everyone who is serving here wants to be here. If someone is not effective for whatever reason, we are not required to reappointment them, and therefore are able to find folk who match Alaska well, and match our churches well.

Especially in recent years, as I've recruited from across the country, the folks who want to come to the AMC are willing to be deployed where we believe they are needed. Folks do not come here with one appointment in mind; they come to the whole and, then, are deployed to the places where their gifts are best matched. If the General Conference would ever allow it, we would be willing to be the guinea pig for equalized salaries to further encourage this kind of approach. The trend is for longer-term pastorates, and actually many of the clergy who serve here end up retiring up in Alaska.

The laity are transitory. Though we have some long-time folk here, our population is young, and most of the folks that come to church also come because they want to, not because they grew in the church or their families have always attended, but because they choose to be here. This allows for a kind of creative approach to ministry that enlivens both the clergy and laity. It is rare to hear: "We can't do it that way" or "We tried that before." We typically hear, "Well, let's give it a try!"

For the first time ever, we will have at least 12 years --and possibly 16 years-- under the same episcopal leadership. Bishop Edward Paup came to us with Oregon-Idaho Conference in 1996, and when his assignment changed to the Seattle area, the jurisdictional College of Bishops put Alaska with the Seattle area. He is a creative and relational bishop, and the folks--both clergy and lay--know and love him well. He has pushed us to always see the larger picture, to realize that being self-sufficient is not necessarily a goal for any Christian community, and to stop feeling as though we are "less than" because we are interdependent with the rest of the church. He has helped us understand that our status as a missionary conference gives us a new way to approach our ministry.

The AMC was in the top per capita giver to the Children of Africa appeal, and just recently was number three within the general church in per capita advance giving. This is a direct response to Bishop Paup's invitation and vision, to the spirit of community within the conference, and the way in which this conference views mission and ministry.

Finally, there has been a spirit of support and accountability that has grown over the past few years. At our professional church-workers retreat we have worked hard to be in community together, and it is rare for anyone to miss the opportunity to gather together.

In short we generally and genuinely like each other and try to support each other's ministry. Again, because we are so small, every one's participation within the life of the conference is needed, and that expectation, along with a sense of purpose in our gatherings, has helped us remember that we are in this together.

How old is the Alaska Missionary Conference?

We celebrated 100 years of ministry in Alaska last year (2004).

How old are its churches?

The oldest church is Ketchikan in the Southeast area (100 years), but we have a presence with the Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska that predates that. Our newest church is the First Samoan United Methodist Church of Anchorage, which we chartered last year (2004).

Could you give us some sense of its history?

Perhaps the answer above will have to suffice..... with the notable exception that Alaska was linked with the Oregon-Idaho Episcopal Area in 1960 when the conferences of Pacific Northwest and Oregon-Idaho differentiated. Just last year we were linked with the Pacific Northwest Conference, and will probably always share a bishop.

Which is your largest church and how large is it?

St. John UMC in Anchorage with 718 members.

Which is your smallest church and how small is it?

Moose Pass UMC on the Kenai Peninsula with 22 members.

Is being a pastor in the Alaska Missionary Conference different from serving in other conferences?

Yes ... and no. As stated above, we have no guaranteed appointment. I think that offers a kind of leverage for quality that is sometimes hard to come by.

Many of us often serve in isolated areas, off the road system, on islands. At least half of our churches receive support from outside the conference through the Advance Special, which means pastors in Alaska itinerate and tell the story in the other conferences. We may have a new appreciation of mission and connectionalism because of our isolation and interdependence. There is very little vying for perceived 'plum" appointments, born out of the limited number of appointments and no guarantee of an appointment, and the shared reality that when you come to the AMC you come to the whole conference. And there is the opportunity to work with clergy leadership from all of the jurisdictions. (An aside: I think we could be an interesting study for the general church in how we might find a way to all live together!)

Where we are just like being a pastor anywhere, is that, like anywhere else, our churches flourish under effective, competent leadership. The issues of our churches are very similar to other churches around the United Methodist Church --and the workload is similar with the possible exception of significantly fewer funerals. While I served the Chugiak church from 1993-2004, I had five funerals--only two of which were for members. Sometimes it takes a while, especially when you're serving an urban or suburban church, to recognize what is unique about ministry here, but those of us who have spent enough time here recognize it in due time!

How do you decide to start a new congregation?

In the past, this has been a superintendent-driven process. With one superintendent being the norm and a non-resident bishop, often the superintendent has become a kind of regional bishop, and as that person would travel around the state, he or she would identify places for new congregations. Though I clearly have significant input, we have just beefed up our New Ministry Committee so that the identification of new congregations is a more widely held responsibility. I'll let you know how it goes!

How do you go about planting a new church?

The biggest challenge for us is cost. In the past, we were heavily supported financially by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). Though the board still support us in major ways, it does not have the resources to offer significant seed money for new churches. It is expensive to start churches here, and usually our growth occurs as a result of another local church offering hospitality to the people of an emerging congregation, and then slowly finding their relative autonomy.

We would love to plant a church, for instance, in Kodiak, but the start-up costs are prohibitive at this time in our life. Another placement that is highly needed is in the villages, but that too requires significant monies for travel, housing, etc. In short, in this time of diminishing resources, it is especially difficult for a small conference (with a total budget of $600,000) to initiate new church growth.

Did your growth in 2004 occur as a result of starting new churches or growth in older congregations?

Fifteen of our churches increased membership from 2002-2003; one remained the same, 11 decreased. Our two largest churches grew, but so did our two smallest. In 2004 we added a congregation.

What causes churches to grow in your conference?

Effective pastoral leadership, good support and accountability from the execs in the conference; flexible laity; missional outreach.

What can other conferences learn from the Alaska Missionary Conference?

I think the answer to the first question may address this. What Alaska has going for it is the desire of folks to be here, the openness to new ideas, the cross-pollination from all the jurisdictions of the church, an ingrained sense of being in mission, appropriate support and accountability by its leaders, and a deep commitment to the power of community to transform.

What else can you tell us that we should know about your conference?

Clearly, I am not all that objective about ministry in this conference. It is not perfect, but it is exciting, flexible and creative. I am delighted to serve here, and would welcome the opportunity to talk with anyone about mission and ministry in this context! I come to the East coast frequently, as I am a director on the GBGM and would be more than willing to be in contact with you in anyway that would be appropriate.

Our thanks to Rev. Simeon for her thoughtful responses. It is obvious from her responses that the unique situation of a missionary conference is an important arena to learn and experiment. I am especially impressed by the commitment of the Alaska Missionary Conference to be deployed for the sake of the greater good. Her e-mail address is rlsimeon@aol.com.


Blogger the reverend mommy said...

Thank you Dean for this interview. I read the Alaka Missionary Conference summary and was facinated. Methodism has always been a missionary type movement -- and Alaska retains much of that flavor. It's easy to become excited about being a Methodist when I read this interview. So again, Thanks!

1:09 PM  

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