Pastors and church leaders from across Arkansas gathered together on March 2 at Trinity UMC in Little Rock to hear about Fresh Expressions, a way of cultivating new forms of church alongside existing congregations.
The Rev. Michael Beck, pastor of Wildwood UMC in Wildwood, Florida, and Travis Collins, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, presented an all-day seminar called Vision Day.
Attendees learned that church doesn’t have to exist only inside the walls of a church building and were given examples of new forms of church, like restaurant church, addiction recovery church, and tattoo shop church.
According to its website, Fresh Expressions is about “empowering and equipping God’s people to develop creative expressions of church that can reach the increasing diversity of our society.”
The Rev. Herschel Richardson stands with the Grace UMC discipleship goals on the first Sunday of 2019. These goals were set by a 12-person committee made up of church members who are invested in the growth of the church.
With every church congregation, there is a universally understood goal of reaching people for Christ while at the same time growing your membership numbers.
In the United Methodist Church, and specifically in the Arkansas Conference, that goal is understood as “making disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.”
Grace United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas has taken that trajectory a step further and laid out their plans for 2019 and beyond into something they call their “Discipleship Dashboard 2019 Goals.”
The Rev. Herschel Richardson was appointed as the senior pastor at Grace UMC on July 1, 2018. A few months into his new role, he – along with a special leadership group at Grace – came up with a blueprint for growing their numbers in every aspect of the church in 2019.
“I wasn’t looking at the church and saying there was anything wrong with the way we were doing things. It was more about understanding that as we move forward we had to take a very intentional approach about where we were going as a church,” Richardson said. “I didn’t really feel we could move forward this year as a church in the fullest capacity without first determining where we were trying to go.”
Richardson formed a 12-person committee called the Intentional Discipleship Pastors Advisory Committee at Grace with the purpose of reviewing the goals for the church and working on ways to move toward meeting their goals.
The committee is made up of congregants from both the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services, and both new and older attendees, in order to bring in a diverse group of ideas and perspectives, Richardson said.
Through prayer and discussion, the committee identified six areas of improvement for 2019: baptisms, new members, average weekly attendance, new small groups, their 2019 budget, and the number of church attendees involved in quarterly missions.
For each of these areas, a specific goal was set; 10 baptisms, 30 new members, 250 average weekly attendance, five new small groups, a budget of $525,000, and at least 50 percent of attendees involved in quarterly missions.
Grace UMC in Conway had a mortgage burning ceremony in January 2019, the same month that the church launched their new discipleship goals initiative. Pictured in the center, from left to right, are the Rev. Herschel Richardson, Bishop Gary Mueller, and Central District Superintendent Blake Bradford.
Every week, Grace sends out an emailed newsletter that highlights the progress for each goal. Richardson said this keeps congregants up-to-date on the church’s progress toward their goals, as well as motivates them to see how they can work to improve their numbers each week.
According to the latest numbers from the Feb. 17 newsletter, Grace has had six new members since Jan. 1, as well as an average attendance of 222 people across the two morning services and online worship.
They have also been able to start two new small groups in 2019; one in January and one in February. Since Richardson arrived at Grace in July 2018, the church has started five new small groups.
The small groups don’t have a singular focus or topic, but they do typically organize themselves based on age and life experiences.
A couple of the groups meet off campus from the church, including a group of 20-something young professionals that call themselves the “Roaring Twenties,” Richardson said.
“Small groups add another dimension to our relationship with God by providing a community of people seeking to do His will in our lives.”
Jennifer Stanley, a member of Grace and a second through fourth grade Sunday school teacher, is one of the new leaders of a small group at the church. She leads a group of 30 – 40-year-olds with children called “Open Door.”
“We chose the name ‘Open Door’ because that is what we want to project. But we welcome anyone of any age and any circumstance!”
Stanley said this is her first time leading a group of adults, but she believes in the power of small groups to connect people from different walks of life.
“Small groups allow for intentional conversation and provide opportunities for real spiritual growth. I find our group shows up ready to engage in meaningful discussion,” she said. “We are able to share in each other’s struggles and triumphs. Small groups add another dimension to our relationship with God by providing a community of people seeking to do His will in our lives.”
Another of Grace’s small group leaders, Sandra Kennemore, teaches a class of older adults. She said her group started a while ago and were known as the “Hilltoppers.” Her group typically consists of people who are “over the hill” in age.
Kennemore said that at some point, the original Hilltoppers group faded away, but when Richardson was appointed at Grace, he expressed to Kennemore the desire to bring the group back.
For Kennemore, it’s been a blessing to see the return of a group that had once helped connect many of the older members of Grace.
“Small groups give people a chance to get together who don’t normally get together and talk and relax and share whatever is on their heart,” Kennemore said. “It’s just a joy to see.”
Toni Wyre, who leads a group of 30 – 40-year-olds called the “Cross Walkers,” also sees the value of a small group’s ability to connect people who can relate to similar situations and life journeys.
“The more we understand the lessons of the Bible and how they might apply to us, the greater fellowship we can have with one another and the better disciples we become,” she said.
Wyre also sees how the 2019 goals have connected members of Grace in a more intentional way.
“As we look toward achieving our discipleship goals, sharing our experiences and perspectives with guests and potential members will build an even stronger sense of community and engagement at Grace.”
When it comes to reaching the goals that Grace UMC has set for 2019, Richardson thinks that all of the individual goals rely on each other to succeed.
“We think all of them go hand-in-hand. So, as we bring in new members, that will also lead to more baptisms and more money for the church as well.”
And it’s not just about setting a goal and then waiting to see what happens; the discipleship committee has also come up with a strategy for reaching people in multiple ways.
“One of the things we focused on in the month of January was membership. And we talked about how we encounter people that come to our church, from the time they get out of their car until the time that they leave service.”
“I believe we should be a church of high expectations, and we should always believe that God will grow our church.”
The committee focused on making it a priority to initiate contact with new or reoccurring visitors and finding a way to connect with them.
One example that Richardson brought up was not only greeting a visitor to Grace when they walk in the door of the church, but also reaching out to the same person – through email, text message or other means – to invite them to come to a small group one night.
Richardson said the committee is not exclusive, and anyone in the church that’s interested in joining the community can do so. They are simply looking for people who are dedicated to growing Grace.
As for the future of Grace, Richardson said that even if they meet all of their goals in 2019, that doesn’t mean that’s the end of their work.
“I don’t think that the Lord ever wants us to be stagnant. I’m hoping we exceed those goals, and when we exceed those goals, we’ll sit down and pray and ask for goals for 2020.
“I believe we should be a church of high expectations, and we should always believe that God will grow our church.”
The called Special Session of General Conference took place from Feb. 23 – 26 in St. Louis, Missouri. The conference was called to address human sexuality and the church’s struggle with ordaining LGBTQIA clergy and the performance of same-sex marriages within United Methodist Churches.
After a day of prayer on Saturday, delegates began their work on Sunday and continued debating and amending petitions through Tuesday evening.
At the end of the conference, the Traditional Plan, which reaffirms the church’s current understanding on human sexuality as well as adds new measures to discipline those who violate the Book of Discipline, was passed by a vote of 438 to 384.
The One Church Plan, which was presented as the moderate or centrist approach, failed to pass by a minority report by a vote of 374 to 449.
Before the conclusion of General Conference, a motion was passed for the Judicial Council to review all petitions which passed through the plenary session. The Judicial Council will review these petitions at their next scheduled meeting, April 23 – 25 in Evanston, Illinois. For more on General Conference, visit the News page of arumc.org to find all of the daily reports.
Arkansas delegates to General Conference. From left to right (top): Asa Whitaker, John Miles II, Karen Millar, Mark Norman, Todd Burris, (bottom) Rebekah Miles, Karon Mann, and Dede Roberts. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Siblings John Miles and Rebekah Miles share a conversation during General Conference. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Bishop Gary Mueller prays during the Saturday Day of Prayer at General Conference. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Rev. Britt Skarda and Jay Clark. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Arkansans from all over the state gathered together to watch General Conference, including a group of students from Hendrix College, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Arkansas State University, the University of Central Arkansas, and others. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Bishops join delegates to pray before the final vote on the Traditional Plan at General Conference. Photo by Stephen Coburn
The past few weeks, I’ve been in St. Louis, Missouri, reporting on the news from the Special Session of General Conference, which took place over four days from Feb. 23 to 26.
As many of you know, I am new to the United Methodist Church, and this was my first General Conference ever to attend.
And what a General Conference it was.
The session was called to address the church’s stance on human sexuality and whether the global church would allow LGBTQIA clergy to be ordained and same-sex marriages to be performed in Methodist churches, or if we would retain the Book of Discipline’s current standing on the issue with more robust punishment for those who violate the rules.
This is not a new debate within the church.
United Methodists have been debating the topic of human sexuality since the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the Book of Discipline at the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta.
And so from my bird’s-eye view, way up in the press area of a former NFL stadium, I had the perfect seats to witness all of the debating, amending, name-calling, grieving, anger, resentment, numbness, resistance, tears, and joy at the results of the delegates’ votes.
The Traditional Plan passed. The church’s stance on human sexuality did not change. More restrictions were added, and in the end, people from both sides left St. Louis feeling hurt.
One could argue that any plan that passed out of General Conference, whether it be the One Church Plan, the Simple Plan, or something else, would’ve still caused pain and division in the church. As Bishop Mueller has stated, those divisions were probably already there before, but this General Conference has made them more apparent.
People keep asking me how I’m doing after coming back from General Conference, and every time my answer has been the same; I am exhausted. In more ways than one.
My job as a reporter is hard because I’m not supposed to get emotionally involved in the stories I have to cover. I have to remain neutral. I have to cover the facts, and that’s it.
And, surprisingly, with such a heavy topic to cover, I managed to do keep my emotions in check while in St. Louis.
I’m typically not an emotional person, but I grieved and wept when I returned home to Arkansas. Because I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained.
Suppressing those feelings and emotions can only be managed for so long before the weight of the situation comes crashing down on top of you.
Many people are feeling the same way right now, and it’s going to take some time for those wounds to be healed.
But it’s okay to grieve, and it’s okay to feel sad.
Take some time to think about General Conference. Don’t push it aside as I did. Don’t wait for those feelings to bubble up and burst out of you because it will hurt even worse if you ignore it.
Continue praying for the United Methodist Church. There are a lot of people who need your prayers right now. We can’t continue the mission of the church if we stop praying for each other.
Rest assured that I will keep praying for all of you.
The final day of the Special Session of General Conference brought relief for some and grief for many others.
The Traditional Plan (except for Petitions 90041 and 90048) passed the plenary session with a final vote of 438 (53.28 percent) in favor and 384 (46.72 percent) against.
Although the Traditional Plan passed with majority support from the body, many petitions included in the original text of the plan were previously ruled unconstitutional by the church’s Judicial Council in Decision 1366.
On the previous day, a motion was made to request that the Judicial Council review all of the petitions which were passed through the legislative committee and declare whether these petitions were constitutional.
That Judicial Council decision, number 1377, found the following petitions in the Traditional Plan to be unconstitutional: 90033, 90034, 90035, 90037, 90038, 90039, 90040, and the second sentence of 90045.
The two disaffiliation petitions, Disaffiliation – Boyette (90059) and Disaffiliation – Taylor (90066), were also found to be unconstitutional.
During the plenary session, supporters of the Traditional Plan attempted to propose amendments to the plan in order to bring it back to a state of constitutionality but were only able to address a few petitions on the calendar in the time allotted.
A minority report was also given by the Rev. Tom Berlin in favor of the One Church Plan. In his plea to the delegates to pass the One Church Plan, Berlin called the Traditional Plan a “virus that will make the American church very sick.”
But The One Church Plan failed to pass once again by a vote of 374 (45.44 percent) to 449 (54.56 percent).
With the deadline for the end of General Conference rapidly approaching, the delegates voted to adopt and pass a minority report for one of the disaffiliation plans related to Disaffiliation – Boyette, as well as move to reject all other remaining petitions on the calendar.
The Rev. Timothy Bruster of Central Texas also made a motion to request a final declaratory decision by the Judicial Council on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan. That request will be addressed at the next Judicial Council meeting April 23 – 25.
During the debate over the minority report, West Ohio Conference delegate Lyndsey Stearns brought before the delegation a statement of unity from more than 15,529 young people.
The statement said that not all young people are of the same mind regarding LGBTQ people, but have found commonality through worship, sharing each other’s stories and experiences, and seeing each other’s gifts and fruits for ministry.
A group of young Arkansans, ranging from high school to college age, traveled to St. Louis this week to watch the discussions happening at General Conference.
Grace Rogers, a senior at Hendrix College in Conway, organized the group of students to travel to St. Louis. She said she felt it was important because the church isn’t the church of tomorrow for youth; it’s the church of today.
“I read a tweet this morning that said ‘I guess there will be a lot of ex-Methodists after today’ but I don’t think that’s true,” Rogers said. “I think we’re sticking around. We’re here because we love this church and this faith, and we’re going to stick around and fight until it loves all of us just as equally.”
Other students came to General Conference because they grew up in the church and wanted to know which direction the denomination was choosing to move toward in the future.
“Coming to this General Conference, I was already so passionate about this topic,” said Gracie Rymel, a junior at the University of Arkansas. “As young people, we want to know that there will be a place for everyone in the church. And we will not quit fighting for the unity of the church.”
For Rymel, watching the debates and protests happening on the floor of the delegation has not been an easy thing to do. But she said despite all of this, she still has hope for the future of the church.
“It’s been really difficult to see these decisions being made that I view as dividing us. I believe that we are all children of God, regardless of your sexual orientation. I pray that we can come together through all of this and stay unified as one.”
At the end of the day, Bishop Gary Mueller offered a statement of unity for the Arkansas Conference and the global United Methodist Church. You can hear his statement by viewing the video below.