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 Nancy Rankin

Dr. Nancy Burgin Rankin serves as Director of Congregational Development for the Western North Carolina Conference. With half of U.S. conferences having announced their numbers for 2004, her conference is one of the few United Methodist conferences reporting growth in both church membership and average worship attendance.

Dr. Rankin served as a pastor and district superintendent prior to becoming Director of Congregational Development in 2004. While pursuing her doctorate of ministry at United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, she studied with Michael Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church. As Director of Congregational Development, she helps plant new congregations and resources congregations seeking to redevelop and grow. Untied Methodist asked her to reflect on why her conference is growing when so few conferences are.

Why is your conference growing when most aren't?

The short answers: population growth; intentional evangelism; training; Disciple Bible Study; planting new churches; funding congregational development; using new worship styles; prayer ministries; annual conference strategic plan.

We have been blessed with a large population growth, at least in our urban counties. Our annual conference has been having a net increase in membership growth for over 15 years but, to put that in perspective, our conference secretary at this year's annual conference meeting reported to us that we have grown since the 1968 merger by 4% while the population has grown in our conference area by 68%. So, clearly, while we are growing we have not begun to capture what we could have of the new people among us.

But I can point to two things that turned us around from a 20-year decline. First, our annual conference made a determined effort to learn about the Church Growth movement, and to get our pastors and laity trained to intentionally do evangelism. Training in Faith Sharing by Eddie Fox and Danny Morris followed that. Then we made Disciple Bible Study a priority for our churches, expecting our pastors to teach it and then have their laity be able to teach Disciple.

Training was also offered for churches wanting to reach new people through new worship styles, and most of our new churches use upbeat music, visuals, drama, and other innovative approaches that speak to contemporary people.

We have put a much greater emphasis on prayer ministries. Terry Tekyl has done several conference events here, and we have churches that have implemented his Building a House of Prayer concepts, and they have seen their congregations transformed.

Secondly, we determined that we had to start planting new churches again. We had a boom of new church starts in the 1950s and 60s, and then we went dormant until the early 80s. It quickly became evident that our largest numbers of new adult converts to Christianity were coming from our newest churches. Much of our general growth has also come from those new churches and from the churches who were willing to be revitalized and willing to reach out to new people through a new worship style and/or mission outreach.

In 2004, four of the 10 churches with the largest average worship attendance were churches started less than 20 years ago. Our conference entered a capital funding campaign called the Vision Builders Society that had a goal of raising one million dollars for new churches. It did not reach its numerical goal, but it did raise the awareness of the effectiveness of planting new churches. We have just launched a new funding program called Vital Partners that replaces Vision Builders Society, and it has a broader focus. The Vital Partners funds will go for new churches and for remissioning existing churches that want to be vital churches making disciples of Jesus Christ.

I believe, too, that our new annual conference strategic plan will continue to help us grow. I served on the strategic planning team and we read Bishop Claude Payne's book Reclaiming the Great Commission which describes the turnaround of the Episcopal Diocese in Texas. Our mission statement now reads "Follow Jesus, Make Disciples, Transform the World." The first of seven points in the plan is that we will "intentionally relate unchurched persons to Jesus Christ." This, in effect, gives marching orders to the work of congregational development and justifies the need for planting new churches.

How much money does your conference invest in new church starts?

Our usual funding for a new church start was $120,000 over three years in declining sequence. Then we gave $200,000 for the purchase of land and another $100,000 for their first building.

However, we have felt budget crunches like other areas of the church so we are re-evaluating how we plant new churches. We are now planting using a partnership model where there is a sponsoring or "mother" church helping in significant ways to "birth" the new church.

We also have an example of a healthy church taking on a failing church, their debts and all, by merging, making the failing church now a multi-site campus for the "adoptive mother church." The same mother church is launching a second multi-site campus this summer. The church they merged with uses a combination of live worship with a video of the pastor's sermon from the mother church's Saturday night service.

We are emphasizing for our new churches to concentrate more on building the people and postponing going to land and buildings, thereby avoiding premature debt loads that impede ministry growth. So we are looking more at sharing worship spaces with existing churches and leasing spaces.

Describe your process for starting new churches.

I have asked that each district have a committee on congregational development that will work with the district superintendent and the resources of my office to develop a master plan for their district to identify potential church plants as well to identify churches that need revitalization and/or remissioning for their context.

Districts then propose to the bishop, cabinet, and to me, their commitment to start a new faith community.

We have just started using an assessment process for potential new-church-start pastors. We give the names of those pastors whose assessments reveal that they are good candidates to start a church to the cabinet. We develop a financial plan that combines the resources of my office, those of the district, and the sponsoring church/es for the new plant. We have been budgeting for three new starts a year but with the new partnership model I predict we can start more. We should be planting 10 a year.

A pastor is appointed and a launch team of laity will either emerge from among the existing congregation of the partnering church or from people in the district who are committed to helping start a new church. Once the new faith community is ready to go out from the partner church they meet with the district superintendent and me to set benchmarks for their church.

These benchmarks would include a time-line of "taste and see" events; numbers of contacts that will be made by both pastor and laity; expectations for growth; development of a discipleship system and a stewardship ministry so that new Christians can be discipled and financial commitment is built into the DNA of the church from its inception.

It will be understood that if those benchmarks are not met serious consideration will have to be given to discontinuing the plant.

We expect our new church pastors to attend the national training or "boot camp" (held this year at Simpsonwood in the North Georgia Annual Conference) and that they enroll in the Fitzgerald Pastors Program provided by the General Board of Discipleship. In our conference they must also be an active participant in a Church Planters Network that meets every other month for support, resourcing, and fellowship. We are planning on providing each one with a trained coach.

Our annual conference also uses a paid consultant who is a five-time church planter to advise me and to help me establish our planting process.

Do many of your new starts fail? How do you handle new church starts that seem not to be taking off?

Unfortunately, some do fail. What we have discovered is that many fail because they went to public worship too soon. I highly recommend Craig Kennet Miller's book NextChurch.Now where he describes an excellent rationale as to why churches should not go public until they have nurtured 12 groups of 12 people in small groups. This not only creates a foundation of discipled people; it provides a critical mass of people more ready to take on the debt of leased worship space and the extra costs of music staff, and who are equipped to nurture the new people that join their church. This number of people seems to also be easier for new people to feel comfortable among.

A critical factor in some failed starts is whether or not the pastor is truly "wired" to be a church planter. Church planters are a different breed. They have to be self-starters, visionary, entrepreneurial, teachable, fabulous networkers, and fearless social beings. A wonderful, caring shepherding pastor may love their people but fail to grow them in numbers that can be self-sustaining.

Just this year we chose to go ahead and pull the funding of one of our new starts that really never gathered enough people. It was a hard decision but it was done in time for the pastor to be appointed to another church and for the district to re-evaluate that particular start and the model that was used to launch it.

How much of your growth comes from existing churches reaching new people? How does this happen?

We have good news here, too. One of our oldest and most traditional churches led the conference in adult professions of faith in 2004 with 107 adults joining as new Christians. The second highest was also one of our older churches that had 88. They are both healthy churches in an urban area, but we had good news in less likely places. One of the older but less impressive churches of the past decided to open its doors to 58 Montenyards; it was a huge decision for this Anglo church to be willing to become multi-cultural/racial.

We cannot dismiss the fact that pastoral leadership is critical to growing healthy churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ. Committed, energized, life-long learners serve these growing churches, and some of them are older pastors as well.

A second factor in growing churches is committed lay leadership that has a heart for the lost. Churches that grow have to decide they want to grow and to grow for the right reasons -- not to pay their bills but to reach people for Christ and to share his love with them. This inevitably means being willing to change some things. Most of our churches that have added a new style of worship service have seen a positive influx of new people. A few have been willing to relocate their church site to reach new people.

What does the conference do to stimulate the growth of existing churches?

As I shared in response to the first question, nearly 20 years ago our conference started emphasizing the Great Commission imperative to "go and make disciples." This year at each charge conference our bishop is asking our churches to report on how many adults they have received into their membership on profession of faith.

We have emphasized discipleship and spiritual formation through small groups using the Wesley Covenant Disciple model and Disciple Bible Study. Our annual conference has a large Building Team ministry and we promote Walks to Emmaus.

We provide conference training events, as I earlier described, for laity and pastors. At our annual conference meeting, we recognize Churches of Excellence that have achieved evangelism, ministry, stewardship, and outreach goals set by the annual conference.

Do you have ideas about how to help congregations that seem to be in decline?

My office offers Natural Church Development (NCD) by Christian Schwarz as a great tool for helping churches diagnose their health and identify where they need to improve. We pay for the coaches to be trained and deploy them to churches wanting to use the NCD process.

We use the Percept Demographics information to help churches know their communities and discover ways they could be in ministry in their parishes. We are going to be even more intentional about the partnership concept by looking at ways to link churches for the sharing of resources that might even include having families from a larger church being willing to spend a year or two in a small, struggling church, to help it get its bearings and move forward.

One of our large, new churches is partnering with a small, dying, inner city church to offer Recovery Worship and ministries dealing with addictions. The possibilities are endless when we take seriously that as United Methodists we are to be a connectional church.

Do you have any thoughts about how conferences and/or congregations can reach non-European-American cultural and ethnic groups?

A few of our larger churches are being intentional about having multi-racial/cultural staff persons who are regularly seen in worship, preaching, and pastoral leadership roles. We have found that we are more successful in attracting other people groups when one from that particular people group is seen in leadership.

We have a few cross-racial appointments of senior pastors serving a congregation different from their race. We also have churches that are offering Spanish worship services led by Hispanic pastors or lay missioners that are held in the Anglo partnering church while the Hispanic participants are invited to participate in all other areas of the Anglo church's life and ministries.

An African-American pastor using an upbeat worship style in the fellowship hall of an Anglo church leads one of our new church plants. The African-American church is already over 150 in worship and has not even gone public yet. They have also attracted Anglo people to join their fellowship.

What else can you share with us that might help those of us from conferences that are not growing begin to do so?

I would suggest that often our laity have not been equipped or empowered to offer their faith to others. Offer training and share the good stories of what is working. Use healthy churches as teaching churches, or go visit places like Church of the Resurrection, Ginghamsburg, and Frazer Memorial, and learn from them.

There needs to be a compelling vision for offering Christ projected by your bishop and annual conference leadership. We need to be held accountable as churches, pastors, and lay leaders for reaching unchurched, or dis-enchanted churched people, and we need to be intentional about reaching new people groups among us. It is so easy to become insulated from the diversity around us.

Move away from maintenance ministry. Get people out of committee meetings and into ministries. Use Wesley Covenant small groups for adult spiritual formation.

We fund what we value. See to it that you fund congregational development and evangelism.

I interviewed one of my colleagues about what was working for his inner city churches. He said, "The only ones that are growing are the ones who chose to fall in love with the people right outside of their doors." I think that says it all.

Dr. Nancy Rankin, thank you! You have been amazingly generous in sharing your insights and learnings. You have provided us with a lot of encouraging and hopeful ideas and possibilities. May God continue to bless your ministry!


Blogger the reverend mommy said...

In as far as I can tell, Virginia is the largest conference. they have dropped in attendance and membership this year. North GA is catching up -- they are less than 5000 members behind. If NGA grows at the same rate and VA continues to drop, North Georgia will be the largest conference next year. Why is North Ga growing? If you examine our conference notes, the conference looks outward. It understands the sacramental nature of mission. Not missions with and "s" but Mission -- as in the great Commission. The biggest things we did were in the area of outreach -- to the local community where we met, to the entire globe. i cannot think that this is a large part of it.

10:06 PM  
Blogger the reverend mommy said...

BTW, excellent interview. and the last line should read "I cannot help but think that..."

10:08 PM  
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7:28 PM  

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