Big Church, Little Church: Largest UM congregation helps strugglers
By Nancy Hull Rigdon, Special Contributor…
A pastor leading rural Arkansas congregations with aging populations had a first: He baptized a baby in one of the churches.
In Texas, a church facing closure accomplished more than keeping its doors open. Weekly attendance has bumped up, from 65 to 75.
And an East Coast city church has more curb appeal, a friendlier atmosphere and a renewed mission.
What’s the catalyst behind the changes? United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. The megachurch based in suburban Kansas City’s Leawood, Kan., launched a pilot partner church program with four churches in fall 2011. Essentially, the program uses the success of Resurrection—the nation’s largest United Methodist church—to breathe life into small UM churches facing hardships.
The program, backed with Resurrection funding, is three-fold:
Video sermons from the Rev. Adam Hamilton, Resurrection’s senior pastor, play on large pull-down screens in the smaller churches. Through weekly web conferencing, Resurrection leaders coach the church pastors on growing their congregations, goals and other issues that arise. Resurrection marketing materials, such as mailers promoting Mr. Hamilton’s sermon series, blanket the church communities.
A Wesleyan idea
Giving help to small Methodist churches, including providing them sermons, is not new.
“In early Methodism, the U.S. circuit riders—pastors on horseback—would give copies of John Wesley’s sermons for a lay person to read on Sundays while the horseback-riding preacher went to visit other churches in the region,” Mr. Hamilton said. “This seemed similar.”
The idea to share sermon videos arose about a dozen years ago. As Mr. Hamilton was dedicating 15 to 20 hours a week to well-received sermons, he was hearing about smaller churches that struggled with sermons week in and week out. He heard from churches who couldn’t afford pastors, pastors with second jobs, pastors who were gifted shepherds but struggling with preaching, and pastors struggling to prepare sermons after hospital calls, funeral preparations and Bible studies.
The idea resurfaced several years later when Resurrection opened three satellite campuses in the Kansas City metropolitan area. These churches were using video sermons from Mr. Hamilton about 75 percent of the time.
“We asked, ‘If this can work here in Kansas City, could it work at small churches in other parts of the country?’” Mr. Hamilton said.
Several statistics, he added, propelled the idea to a top priority: Of the nation’s 34,000 Methodist churches, half have fewer than 60 people in attendance each week. Rising health insurance costs are putting churches in a bind when it comes to having ordained pastors. With the average age of clergy increasing with time, a clergy shortage is forecast.
And after all, Resurrection’s vision statement includes “renewing the church.”
“For these reasons we felt this partner church model might just help keep many of these churches open and strengthen them,” Mr. Hamilton said.
Resurrection pulled the trigger in July 2011 with a Facebook post from Mr. Hamilton. About 30 churches responded. One response came from Rev. Brad Bennett of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Odessa, Texas.
“Frankly, when I saw Adam’s post, I thought this was a God thing. I had a sense that we were tailor-made for this pilot,” Mr. Bennett said.
Factors including a dispute over the possibility of moving the church to a new location had divided his congregation in recent years, Mr. Bennett said.
As a result, attendance declined. A church that once welcomed 250 to 300 people a weekend had dwindled to a congregation of 65 at most.
“We were facing a time where we had to find a solution. How could we grow again?” Mr. Bennett said.
Resurrection leaders were seeking three churches with 25 to 75 members each for the pilot program, and they wanted a diverse group. A Resurrection team visited the Odessa church as well as others.
They outlined the terms of the two-year program: Resurrection provides several thousand dollars worth of equipment to each church to allow weekly Skype meetings and downloading 30 video sermons a year to play in church. Marketing materials and church bulletin shells arrive by mail. In return, churches are encouraged to seek grant funding to cover some technology costs, and each congregation is encouraged to send a representative to Resurrection’s annual leadership institute in Leawood.
Leaders with St. Luke UMC and Resurrection agreed the church would be a good fit. St. Luke UMC, in a growing Odessa neighborhood, joined three other churches for the launch of the program. Also on board: rural churches in the Arkansas Conference—Decatur and Highfill UMCs—and Hampden UMC, in a revitalized area of Baltimore.
In fall 2011, the program launched. The curiosity and excitement surrounding the Resurrection collaboration led to new faces in the pews in Odessa.
“There is a lot of happiness and joy and enthusiasm with this partnership, and that is contagious,” Mr. Bennett said.
He described a chain reaction that goes something like this: The mailers catch the eye of a family. The family goes to the church, finds Mr. Hamilton’s video sermon refreshing, and spreads the word.
Through the coaching, Mr. Bennett has picked up some of Resurrection’s practices. Attendance books, which collect names and contact information, are passed around during service. Mr. Bennett visits first-timers in their homes. Each time, he leaves a gift coffee mug bearing the phrase, “Giving a Fresh Start.”
Now, 70 to 80 people attend Mr. Bennett’s church each weekend.
Where would the church be today without the partnership?
“We would be on a hard road. We probably would have shut our doors within five years,” Mr. Bennett said.
Instead, the church has a renewed focus on its true mission.
“The troubles in past years took us off of zeroing in on whose church this is in the first place. It is God’s church, and you can sense that now,” Mr. Bennett said.
The successes haven’t come without challenges.
The switch to Resurrection’s video sermons didn’t go over well with everyone, especially some elderly members, Mr. Bennett said.
“We have lost a few folks. It’s so different. So new,” he said. “Change can be hard.”
There has been some resistance to the change in the Arkansas and Maryland churches as well. An important part of the program, leaders with Resurrection and the other churches stress, is the recognition that one size does not fit all. The smaller churches are not Resurrection churches. They maintain their own identities, make their own decisions and aren’t forced to do things Resurrection’s way.
For example, after some in the Arkansas congregations said they were uncomfortable with parts of Mr. Hamilton’s “Love, Sex and Marriage” series, the two churches thought twice before signing up to show the “Death and Dying” series due to the churches’ significant elderly populations.
However, the Arkansas churches’ pastor, the Rev. Russ Hall, said the sermons Mr. Hamilton filmed in the Holy Land were well received by all, and they are looking forward to his Olympics sermon series.
Overall, the successes of the program certainly outweigh the challenges, Mr. Hall said, adding that members, leaders and new attendees all seem to have a sense of hope.
As in Odessa, the partnership has enlivened things in the two Arkansas churches involved.
“You have to be excited about your church to bring in new visitors. That’s part of the foundation of a church. We’ve heard that from Resurrection and have discovered it is so true,” Mr. Hall said.
Since the partnership began, weekly numbers at the Highfill church went from mid-teens to mid-twenties. Attendance at the Decatur church rose from mid-thirties to mid-forties.
The influx has brought a new dynamic—younger families. In April, Mr. Hall baptized a baby for the first time since arriving at the churches one-and-a-half years prior.
For Mr. Hall personally, the partnership has been an immense benefit. He enrolled in the seminary in fall 2011, and not having to prepare a sermon each week has allowed him to focus more on seminary work.
The coaching has brought benefits he never expected. For instance, during a Skype meeting, he asked for sermon advice. Resurrection representatives suggested he videotape one of his sermons so that they could watch him in action and give feedback.
Communication with the pastors in Texas and Maryland has also been helpful, he added.
In Baltimore, congregation numbers have held steady at about 40 since the partnership began. However, the program has boosted the church in other ways.
Coaching conversations have transformed the church into a more outward church, the Rev. Robin Johnson at Hampden UMC said. There are the little things, like moving a trash pile on the side of the building out of sight to better accommodate visitors.
“It’s an overall mindset shift,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s not just about coming to church every Sunday, feeling a little better about yourself and going out into the community and doing your own thing. It’s about coming here, feeling the love of Jesus Christ and then leaving and sharing that love of Jesus Christ in the community.”
The partnership isn’t a one-way street. The smaller churches have broadened the scope of Resurrection’s ministry, said Travis Morgan, who has regular contact with the churches through his role as director of partner church ministry for Resurrection.
For example, while collaborating about Easter services, Mr. Bennett told of a practice in Odessa. Each week during Advent, the cross moves to a new spot. Resurrection leaders thought it was a smart way to bring more attention to the cross, and they plan to incorporate the idea into future services.
Based on past, similar experiences, Mr. Hamilton said Resurrection will delay measuring the program’s success until fall 2013—two years after the program launched.
When a struggling church in Blue Springs, Mo., became a satellite Resurrection church, attendance declined at first. But by the end of year two, attendance had more than doubled since Resurrection entered the picture. (The Blue Springs church—now called Resurrection Blue Springs—differs from the churches involved in Resurrection’s partner church program in that it is a Resurrection church versus a church independent from, yet closely aligned with, Resurrection.)
In evaluating the partner church program, Resurrection will look at both objective and subjective criteria.
“We’ll consider attendance at worship, number of new members, baptisms, visitors,” Mr. Hamilton said. “But we’ll also want to see if the congregation and leaders feel that they have grown spiritually.”
Stirring the waters
Resurrection’s experiment is the first of its kind, according to Lovett Weems, who has extensively studied church growth and serves as director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological School in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Weems finds Resurrection’s new approach refreshing, given the well-documented shrinking and aging of many UM congregations.
“I am always happy with anyone wanting to stir the waters and help out churches,” said Dr. Weems, who attended Resurrection while living in the Kansas City area and is familiar with the partner church program.
Dr. Weems suspects that preserving the personal contact aspects of the program will be crucial.
“In any pilot, it can be a challenge to find ways to replicate it and scale it without losing the key elements that make it so successful,” Dr. Weems said. “It’s hard to take something with such personal involvement and turn it into a turn-key operation.”
He continued, “Someone just looking on casually would say, “Oh, they use Adam Hamilton’s sermons.” What they are not seeing is the mentoring and support and encouragement and idea generating behind the scenes.”
Resurrection leaders are deciding how the program will evolve. The program’s next moves may include expansion, including into mid-sized and larger churches. Also under consideration: having the pastors who have been through the program help coach those just getting started.
Ms. Rigdon is a freelance writer in Kansas City.