The way churches do ministry is constantly changing and adapting to the world around it, and for the District Superintendents of the Arkansas Conference, that means applying new strategies for reaching people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Starting this fall, the Arkansas Conference Appointive Cabinet, including the Bishop and the five DS’s from each district, will be implementing a new strategy that involves bringing people together for communal ministry celebration in the form of District-Wide Charge Conferences, as well as visiting local church pastors to have more one-on-one conversations about local community needs and plans for ministry.
“We’ve done these types of Conferences before, but we want to use this time of gathering as a way to connect and celebrate the ministry we’re all doing,” said the Rev. Dr. Blake Bradford, District Superintendent for the Northwest District and Dean of the Appointive Cabinet.
Instead of individual Charge Conferences, the District-Wide Charge Conferences will serve as a way to conduct the important business of the church, but also as a way to be in connection and celebrate the “family reunion” of United Methodists from around each district coming together in fellowship.
Due to the challenges from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these District-Wide Charge Conferences will occur online in a safe, virtual environment, but the emphasis will still be on gathering together to conduct important ministry work in a connectional way.
Additionally, Bradford said the plan is to also have strategic leadership gatherings this fall with local congregations. District Superintendents, as well as circuit elders, will be meeting with pastors and key leaders in individual congregations to talk about the next steps for their mission plans.
DS’s will each have a list of churches in their District that they will be traveling to, and will be meeting with church leaders to discuss their overall mission strategies, post-COVID ministry plans, and opportunities and challenges for their churches. But more than anything else, Bradford said the goal is to offer support and encouragement to leaders in each church.
Circuit elders will also be trained and will implement the same strategy in their circuit churches, reporting back to District Superintendents on the information they’ve gathered in their travels around the district.
“That means that every church or charge will be visited,” Bradford said. “Charge Conferences are usually business meetings, but what I love about this plan, and I guess the business work I’m really looking forward to, is having some deep-dive discussions about ministry and ministry plans, and what’s going on in the local community.”
The Rev. Dr. U.C. Washington, Central District Superintendent, said that he is looking forward to the opportunity to form a strong coalition in the Central District through this new strategy.
“That includes the district strategy team, the district leadership team, and district boards of church, location and building. We want to extend the power of a coalition among those groups.”
Washington said one of the strategies that he is hoping to build upon in the Central District is the Conference’s commitment to Dismantling Racism and Building Reconciliation, which can be found on the ARUMC website at arumc.org/dismantling-racism-initiative/.
“When it comes to dismantling racism and building reconciliation as a district and a safe community, I’m hopeful we will pray and plan and practice efforts that will position us to be more welcoming of others. And in turn, we will begin to build and reflect the broad diversity of the Central District of the Arkansas Conference,” Washington said.
The disruption of COVID-19 forced many charges to rethink their mission strategies, and quickly implement digital presences, a rapid shift that many were not prepared to handle. By meeting with churches and discussing what their next steps should look like, Bradford said the Cabinet is trying to encourage local churches as they continue to adapt their plans and ministries to share Christ in their local communities.
“You know, I think it’s really important to have these deep, deep conversations around strategic ministry plans because the disruption of 2020, with COVID and everything else, what it’s done is it has pushed the clock forward on all existing trends. The things that we thought were going to be our future five, 10 years down the road are what we’re experiencing right now, today,” Bradford said. “Some of those challenges are challenges around church attendance, challenges around figuring out how to have both a digital and in-person presence.
“We now have to ask, ‘what did we learn about ourselves, and what ministries are going to no longer be effective in the world we’re now experiencing?’”
The Rev. Edna Morgan, Southeast District Superintendent, added they are also emphasizing the importance of equipping pastors and laity with community resources to respond to COVID-related stressors.
In cases of mental health crises resulting from job loss, grief, or isolation, appropriate referrals will be made to help pastors and laity get the help they need.
“We want to be ready to meet the needs of our neighbors during this challenging time for all of us,” Morgan said.
During recent “Leadership Gatherings” with pastors and laity, Morgan discovered that churches are connecting ecumenically with neighboring churches to help address food insecurity (blessing boxes, backpack ministries, and food pantries) within our communities at a time when many people are living from a place of scarcity or hoarding.
“We need to continue our current partnerships and explore making new ones to address other critical needs within our mission fields. This year, in addition to our feeding ministries, we are opening our doors to help with literacy programs for our children by providing books and tutors to assist children who are struggling academically,” Morgan said.
“Living with COVID is not a sprint. As Methodists, we are here for the long haul, so let’s continue our traditions to help where we can by being creative and intentional as needs arise among our neighbors. We purpose in our hearts to ‘do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, to all the souls we can, in every place we can, at all the times we can, with all the zeal we can, as long as ever we can,’” she added, attributing a famous John Wesley quote to the work they are striving to do.
Bradford said the consultation strategy for DS’s meeting one-on-one with clergy will also be shifting. Instead of focusing on form-heavy assessments during the summer, the plan will now be to focus on one-on-one meetings between clergy and their DS in late summer and early fall, with a more robust assessment happening in November and December during consultation season.
This shift helps clergy to focus on their summer activities and new appointments, and gives a little more room for experimentation and figuring out their next steps in a post-COVID world, according to Bradford.
The Rev. Dr. Ann Ferris, Southwest District Superintendent, is finding one-on-one check-ins very meaningful. She reported, “It’s wonderful to hear stories of how God is working in the lives of the clergy and their churches, and to learn of some of the ways they have adapted to the COVID environment to try new and innovative things in worship, discipling and reaching out into their communities.
“I believe everyone and every church, however limited, can do something to help make disciples and transform lives, so I’ve been challenging our pastors to help all their members identify something they can do and then start doing it. I have also been connecting pastors with others who might have ideas or resources they need to become more fruitful. Despite all the challenges of the present time, there is so much we can do and I am excited by all that our churches are doing.”
The new strategy for this year falls squarely in line with the Conference trajectory of making disciples who make disciples, equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.
“We’re going to have to be creative in some new ways. We’ve known this for years, but the tools that used to work aren’t working like they used to. We can’t transform communities if we’re not realistic about where they are today and we can’t transform lives unless we’re realistic about where people are today.”
“We’re going to have to be mindful about where the world is today and learn new methods to tell the old story of God’s grace and God’s great love.”
The District-Wide Charge Conferences will be held for each District on the following dates:
Southeast: 3 p.m, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021
Southwest: 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov 7, 2021
Northeast: 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021
Northwest: 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021
Central: 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021