Pastor Drew’s 2021 Charge Conference Report
July 1, 2021, marked the completion of my first year here and the beginning of my second year. The past year posed a number of unique challenges, but it also gave us an opportunity to begin to forge a new path forward.
Transitioning to a new appointment for me and to a new pastor for the congregation in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic was an exceptional challenge for all of us. First and foremost, the safety protocols we established for ourselves as well as the restrictions imposed upon the general public greatly curtailed our ability to meet and get to know one another in the ways we’ve been accustomed to. I wasn’t allowed to make hospital calls or visit those in health care facilities. For the sake of everyone’s well-being, I didn’t call on anyone in their home, including our homebound members. And because worship was only offered remotely for many months, we weren’t afforded the usual opportunity to meet and greet one another on a weekly basis during my initial months here. So, in terms of getting to know each other, it got off to an unusually slow start, the result of which is I often felt somewhat disconnected from the majority of our church family during that first year. Hopefully, our second year together will take care of that!
On the other hand, being forced to adapt to these restrictions created opportunities to ‘think outside of the box,’ which is almost always a good thing! By and large, the overall expectation of what we would accomplish in our first year together was relatively low. To be honest, this slow start actually played to my strengths. God has wired me such that I’m a slow-but-methodical mover. Because the basic expectations of me as the pastor were to simply keep things going until things opened up again, I had the freedom to focus on a few important issues. So, during our first year together we addressed or began to address the following three issues:
- Staffing: When Joe Fetterly (youth) and Tara Armstrong (children’s Sunday School) decided to step down from their respective staff positions, we took the opportunity to discern how we might best staff our ministry for children and youth. This time of discernment resulted in the decision to create a single full-time position which would cover both areas. Additionally, we decided to fill the position with a United Methodist Deacon. On July 1, 2021, the Rev. Elisabeth Danielsons came on as our Director of Children’s, Youth, and Family Ministries. In the brief time she’s been here, she’s already begun to make a very positive impact. We look forward to many years of ministry with Elisabeth!
- Worship Technology: Because we broadcast our weekly worship service on a local radio station, the suspension of in-person worship didn’t have the same effect on us as it did most churches. Whereas most churches had to immediately scramble and figure out a way to provide a worship experience for their homebound congregation, our members were able to listen by radio. As it was, we hardly missed a beat when we moved to remote-only worship. However, we soon determined that it was in everyone’s best interest to provide a digital offering of worship as well. To that end, we purchased an entry-level camera and began livestreaming our worship service via Facebook. This was an important first step toward offering a high-quality worship experience through digital technology.
The next step was to up our livestreaming game, so to speak. A taskforce was pulled together to assess the necessary technology needs and costs. Funds were raised (through an East Winds District grant, private donations, and two designated church funds). The work of that group resulted in hiring Sound Planning Communications (out of Troy, MI) to upgrade our current audio technologies and install high-quality video and streaming technologies in the sanctuary. As of the writing of this report, we anticipate this work to begin this coming October. A vital part of this commitment to a high-quality worship experience will be finding and training people to run the technologies we will be utilizing.
It’s important to note that investing money and energy into livestreaming our worship service was a mission-based decision. We feel it is vital that we have a high-quality online worship presence in a day when more and more people are connecting to churches through their digital devices.
- Connecting with our homebound members: Soon after my arrival, Jennifer Ward shared with me her desire for our church to reach out to our homebound members, especially in light of the fact that we had not been meeting in person for worship. Our conversation led to Jennifer enlisting the help of a handful of persons who each committed themselves to personally calling and talking with a few of our homebound members every few weeks. To the best of my knowledge, this phone ministry has continued. So, a big thank-you to Jennifer Ward and that team of callers!!
When the Rev. John Hice, our district superintendent, first contacted me about being appointed to Port Huron: First, he informed me that this church is facing the same challenge which confronts most of our United Methodist congregations, namely, an “aging” congregation which is reducing in size (numbers of members and participants). Obviously, the desire and hope of the bishop and members of the cabinet is that God will use me to help lead this church through a turn-around of sorts. More importantly, it’s the desire and hope of the good people of this congregation that together we will become a vital and growing church whose positive impact on the community deepens.
With that “mandate” in mind, I came to Port Huron with a single purpose, and, frankly, church growth was not that purpose. I believe that growth (numerical and spiritual) is possible, but that it will be the outcome of effectively living into and fulfilling our primary purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. More to the point, developing disciples who in turn disciple others. Growth is the byproduct of making disciples who make disciples.
To be honest, this isn’t really my agenda per se; it comes to us from Jesus himself. For the sake of the church to come, Matthew recorded the final decree Jesus gave to his disciples before he ascended to his glory. In essence, Jesus says, I’ve given you many things to do once I’m gone, but here’s the most important one of all. Everything else I’ve told you to do rests on doing this: go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you” (see Mt. 28:19-20).
Today, one of our biggest challenges will be to develop and adopt new paradigms for doing ministry. Like many churches our size, historically we’ve been a program-focused church. For many years, we’ve been able to measure success by the number of programs we’ve offered, the range of programs we’ve offered, and the number of people in those various programs. The motto for churches like ours has been “the more, the merrier.” In program churches, the thinking is, if it’s a good idea, then we should do it. In these cases, it’s not uncommon for a church member to brag about “how much our church does.” But the fact is, we now live in a day when being busy isn’t the goal. While programs are certainly one tool in our ministry toolbelt, it’s vital that we see them as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Any programming we offer must be for the purpose of helping us to achieve our mission of developing followers of Jesus Christ.
Here are six areas of ministry which I believe are most essential for us to address this year if we’re going to return to vitality:
- Prayer. Does it seem strange that I begin this list with prayer? Isn’t that something we all do? Isn’t prayer automatically interwoven into our church life? Yes, to a certain degree. But when it comes to churches proactively turning themselves around, everything I’ve read and heard said is that revitalization is built upon the foundation of prayer. INTENTIONAL prayer is the power and backbone of any attempt to move in a forward direction. This kind of prayer ministry has to happen on two levels, and both are important. Personal prayer and team/group prayer. Starting a prayer ministry will involve equipping people to be daily “prayer warriors” at home and providing regular opportunities to gather together for briefs times of prayer during which the focus is the mission and ministry of the church. These prayer teams are typically not large in numbers but almost always have a significant impact on the life of the congregation.
- Adult faith formation. I believe it’s imperative that the great majority of the adults connected to our church are actively and intentionally growing in their faith and practice as Christ-followers. Attending Sunday worship is one part of that, but by no mean the only part. In fact, relying on Sunday worship as the main source of faith development is as good as relying on one meal per week as the main source of nutrition.
- Sunday morning hospitality. It’s been said that most first-time guests will decide whether or not to return the following week before the worship service even begins! What they experience between getting out of their cars and finally entering the sanctuary has the greatest impact on their decision to come back again! Churches which see a “high return rate” are churches who have made hospitality a very high priority—and not a type of hospitality based on what we think is most appropriate or necessary.
- Ministry which is externally focused and prioritized. The author of one book I read a while back said that no matter what, a congregation will always take care of itself; if they do nothing else, they’ll at least look after their members. His point was this: if a congregation commits itself to making people outside their church their highest priority (#1), then the church will ultimately minister to both groups—those outside AND inside the church family. However, where those outside the church are not the highest priority, then by virtue of the inherent challenges of externally-focused ministry, very little ministry will happen to those outside the church and most of the energies will be focused on the existing members. In other words, if we intentionally focus on those outside, then both ultimately get cared for.
- Congregational Care. A significant aspect of discipleship is care-taking of those we love. This includes taking care of the members of our faith community. Even St. Paul reinforced the importance of looking after one another in the church. One level of congregational care is social events such as meals, picnics, and other gatherings where the main objective is to have fun together. The next level might be endeavors such as the ‘Flowers for the Seniors,’ Mother’s Day/Father’s Day observances, Club-90 Celebrations, and the phone calls to the homebound members, where the main objective is to intentionally stay connected to certain groups of people in the congregation. In addition to continuing the above, I’d like to see us take our congregational care to the next level. This would be where we would offer ministries of support such as divorce care, grief support, financial counseling, parenting classes, etc. At this level, we would be offering support to people in the surrounding community as well as our own church members.
- Worship which generates more worshippers. Although I don’t think it should be our motive to get more people into worship each week, I do believe that intentional God-honoring worship has the effect of inspiring deeper faith and generating more worshippers. The aim is to create and carry out a worship experience which clearly focuses on and offers the Good News of Jesus Christ and speaks to the worshipper in the “language” which best resonates with them. It’s been suggested that style is less important than authenticity. If we intend to be around in 20 years, it’s probably a good idea to discern a way to offer worship which speaks the hearts and needs of persons across all generations.
I’ll draw this report to a close with both a warning of sorts as well as a word of hope. First, the heads-up. The right thing and the easy thing are rarely same thing. Human nature is peculiar in that given the option of choosing between that which is difficult but in our best interest and that which is easy but ultimately not good for us, most of us instinctively gravitate toward the easy option—even though we know it’s not the best one. During my cardiac rehab in 2014, they told us that the majority of people who have heart attacks as a result of very poor health and diet continue with the same lifestyle that resulted in their heart attack. Why? Because changing one’s lifestyle is difficult, and a lot of us would rather avoid the challenge. It’s also been said that most people are fine with change…until that change effects themselves!
So, I fully anticipate that moving into uncharted territories will naturally raise the anxiety levels in many of us, including those of us who are committed to becoming a more vital congregation. As leaders, we should anticipate this happening, and so be prepared to take a big breath and remind each other that the goal isn’t to be a care-free church, but one that is learning to follow Jesus, even into places that cause us concern on account of not ever having been there before. The truth is, it’s the unknown which causes the anxiety.
With that said, I also believe that if we’re intentional in our endeavors to become a vital congregation, and we’re willing to live with ambiguity and the anxiety that comes with it, we will discover a deep joy and excitement that will have a spreading effect. It will result in greater numbers of people serving and volunteering. It will lead to new professions of faith as well as the deepening of faith of current believers. It will result in fewer open parking spaces on Sunday morning as well as more classrooms being used. There’s a good chance it might even result in new church leaders, new Sunday school teachers, and maybe even a new pastor or two could come out of it!!!
I’m grateful for the year behind us, for God has been at work. Now, I’m excited for the year ahead of us, for I know that God will continue to work in and through us to accomplish his purposes, both for us and for those we’ve been called to serve in Jesus’ name.