Who’s Watching the Children?

Jesus called the children over to him and said, “Let the children come to me! Don’t try to stop them. People who are like these children belong to God’s kingdom. You will never get into God’s kingdom unless you enter it like a child!” (Luke 18:16-17, CEV)

This familiar passage from Luke was the text on the Sunday in 2005 when I was convicted by my own sermon.  On that Children’s Sabbath I asked, “Who’s Watching the Children?” and I sensed God’s strong call for us to do more for the children in our community.  It was time to expand the church’s long and ongoing commitment to the community.  We decided to begin close to home, with the public elementary school in our neighborhood, which reflects the struggles and the need in our community.  More than 65% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and breakfast.  Like Centennial UMC the children are diverse;  more than fifty percent are children of color.

The next fall the congregation responded out of their wealth of knowledge and love, building a relationship with the school by starting an after school tutoring program.  Over these past six years, every week during the school year, members of Centennial have helped children who are struggling with their homework, one-on-one.  We have seen children grow and excel.    Our tutoring program has also grown through the years.  More than that, our relationship with the students and staff has deepened through the years.  We have occasionally provided a luncheon for the teachers and have collected school supplies and backpacks for the children.  Last Christmas we decided to do more.  As a Christmas gift to Jesus, members of the church decided to give a $50 gift card to every staff member of the school: teachers, teacher’s aides, custodians, secretaries, after school caregivers and the principal.

Although it was our Christmas gift to Jesus, we gave the cards as New Year’s gifts to the staff members, along with a simple note of our deep appreciation for all they do for the children in our community.

The ripple effects of that gift to Jesus have been ongoing.  If you had been at the school in the immediate weeks following you would have heard the sounds of God’s Kingdom celebration breaking out.  When Joyce Rasmussen, the leader of our tutoring team, handed the envelopes to the principal her eyes got big.  She started to tear up, saying, “Oh, my goodness!  We rarely get any appreciation, even a note!”  Later, the principal told us that staff people kept thanking her.  She told them, “It wasn’t me, it’s from Centennial United Methodist Church.”

Our tutors say it’s even more fun to go to the school these days!  When they come on campus, everyone stops them to say thank you, from the aide in the resource room, teachers who come by the tutoring classroom to express their delight and thanks, to the parent (also an aide on the playground) who was thrilled!  One woman said she had been at the school 18 years and had never experienced anything like it.

Another person from Centennial recently joined the tutoring team.  She said the first day she was on site every single adult she passed asked if she was from the church.  They were full of thanks.  They said, “It was such a wonderful surprise for all of us!”  It was clear that they had been talking, celebrating.

A couple of months later a staff member from Hollywood Park Elementary delivered a beautiful bouquet of roses to the church with a handmade thank you card signed by several staff members saying how much the gift meant to them.

We hope and trust that this small gesture will have a positive impact on the children too.  Just last week, we saw signs of that impact as the ripples still continue.  As our tutors were setting up, before the final school bell sounded, a teacher and class of students with special needs filed into the tutoring classroom.  The teacher told the tutors that is was how she and another teacher had used the gifts.  The children thanked the tutors and presented a cake they made themselves.  Just this week another teacher invited our tutors to come by after open house to see how she used the gift from the church.  Aren’t they remarkable teachers, using those gift for their students?

We hope to find more ways to follow Jesus and partner with these wonderful people who give so much to the children in our community.  It’s hard to tell who’s been having more fun: the children, the school staff, the tutors, or members of the church! Can you hear the Kingdom celebration?  It seems everyone involved has been lifted by the experience.  That’s just like God.

lindalossRev. Linda Loessberg-Zahl
Centennial United Methodist Church

Signs at Carson City 1st

Over the last five years Carson City 1st has become a vital congregation. How do we know? Ask anyone in this congregation and they will point to the transformation among individuals and as a church family. Transformation is the bottom-line, but the numbers also point to this change. In 2012, Carson City 1st was in the top ten congregations in the Annual Conference in six out of the seven VitalSigns that we track and was in the top five congregations in three of these categories. The two most significant numbers for us were the 106 new people joining our church family and breaking the 200 mark in average attendance in our small groups. How did it happen?

Here are a few key factors:

  • The Lay Leadership decided that we were going to be a vital church.
  • We adopted the 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations as our mission and burned it into our consciousness through constant repetition, resulting in bringing it into reality.
  • We kept it simple, focused on 2 main things at the same time, Diversifying Passionate Worship and Developing Small Groups.
  • We diversified our worship by making our most attended Sunday hour an alternative style worship experience and made each of our 4 services unique in style. We also encouraged various worship styles in small settings outside the Sunday morning format.
  • We geared our alternative style service to young families, made Summer a bring-your-kids-to-worship-Sundays, and brought Disney and Pixar into Summer worship. This accelerated the presence of young families.
  • Started using the Worship Design Studio with Dr. Marcia McFee to bring more creativity to worship, including two artists to do creative altar design.
  • We formed a task force of energetic and passionate lay leaders to launch small groups. They established a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to have 500 people in small groups in 5 years. It had to be big and seem impossible. We are half way there and are now turning to the greater community as we form new groups.
  • We decided that to be the church is to be small groups.  We made a specific definition of what constitutes a small group. Each group meets at least every other week, is less than 15 people, prays and cares for each other, and most important, is focused on at least one of the 5 practices of our mission. This makes every small group a mission group. Many existing groups like the choir and fellowship groups did not fit the definition. Everyone is encouraged to be in small groups.
  • Our small groups are formed around leaders. Our small group leadership training happens in quarterly parties, with food and fun. Small group recruitment happens in a festival of quarterly Sunday “Group Links.”
  • Power and ministry is now more decentralized. Small groups have functionally taken the place of the old committee structure because the small groups meet peoples’ needs and are the front lines of mission. Staff now works as support to lay people who have a more active role.
  • We see ourselves as a teaching church on behalf of the greater church and the world. In the last year we have put on a Small Group Conference, Circles Out of Poverty Trainings and Stephen Ministry Workshop for churches of our Annual Conference.
  • And we know we are not there yet, but we are being constantly transformed and energized.

Question for thought:

* In what ways are your small groups working to vitalize your church?


rob jtRev. Rob and Rev. Dixie Jennings-Teats
Carson City First UMC

We are a part of God’s big picture!

I love our United Methodist Church. We are a connectional church and “connectionalism” is our trademark! Connectionalism is not in the dictionary and every time it is used in a document, you will see it underlined, signifying that it is a “wrong” word or does not exist.

Many people understand “connectionalism” as an organizing principle. Bishops appoint pastors to local churches and every church is connected in that sense. However, to me, “connectionalism” is more meaningful in mission and ministry. For example, on one given Sunday, if everybody gives one dollar to a mission, we could have 10 million dollars for that purpose. This was distinctly how African University was started. We gave money to the “Imagine No Malaria” and “Nothing But Nets” campaign in a similar fashion. The Bill Gates Foundation pledged to donate 2 billion dollars for  malaria prevention research and 1.4 billion dollars for the cure over the next couple of years. Our “Imagine No Malaria” campaign, on the other end, will help raise 75 million dollars over the course of two years. This is something that even some mega churches cannot do. I have read that some mega churches give millions of dollars to support social services. However, the United Methodist Churches are able to give billions of dollars to stop hunger, to support housing projects for homeless people, and to fight diseases globally. Every small church gives small amounts but eventually turns into a large pile of love. We are all small pieces of God’s big picture.

layetteAs pastors, we are willing to go to serve any church in the connection. Church members are all members of one big church. When we work together, the impact can be great. For instance, one ministry we are doing in our church is Layette Mother’s Day. Traditionally, on Mother’s Day, the men sing for the women and cook for them. We recognize mothers and appreciate their love by giving them flowers. However, this year, we decided to collect items for Layette Kits that UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) is helping our Annual Conference to assemble during our annual conference session. These Layette Kits will be delivered to the mothers who do not have resources for their babies. If our church is the only church doing this, we can only make a small number of kits. However, with all of our churches in the conference and all the conferences participating, it will fill many containers for the needy mothers.

We love to pay apportionments and paying apportionments is one part of connectional accountability. Every time our conference is doing something bigger than our own local church and our own conference we like  to participate in those missions and ministries. We can enjoy being a small church, small enough to care for our members but also be a part of the big church to transform the world. In this way, we are able to grow together, serve the world together, and be accountable to each other!

Questions to consider:

* What area(s) of connectional accountability is your church passionate about?

* How has your church responded to connectional accountability as a whole?

PastorLee2Rev. Sungho Lee
Concord United Methodist Church
Concord, CA

Connectional Giving – a great cloud of unknowing

All of the smaller churches I’ve served were not paying their apportionments in full when I got there. I understood that it was the pastor’s responsibility to improve connectional giving, as well as to strengthen the connection with the denomination, one of the five developmental tasks of Transitional Interim Ministry. I was not surprised to learn in the late 1990’s that GCFA’s longitudinal study showed that it was not that there were apportionment-paying churches, districts, and bishops, but that actually there were apportionment-paying pastors, superintendents and bishops!  So just as I tell churches that fortunately and unfortunately, I grew up in a family who tithed, likewise they now have an apportionment-paying pastor. I don’t tell them this right away, of course, because there’s usually a need for plenty of education about the benefits of our connectional system, which sets the context for what their new pastor is encouraging them to do.

There seems to be a “great cloud of unknowing” hovering over churches, with regard to connectional giving. Most church members, and even church leaders, have no idea how our apportionments are determined, and even less idea of how the money is spent.  I make it a high priority of our time together as a faith community to provide many opportunities for the congregation to learn how our connectional giving enables them to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” in ways and places they could never reach on their own.  During our first stewardship campaign, I invite a conference leader to come to a special congregational event, including a delicious meal if possible, to explain the purpose of apportionments, and to celebrate the ministry accomplished through them.  I try to find someone who can talk meaningfully about World Service, to tell stories of people whose lives have been transformed through our giving.  It inspires people to know how their gifts are being spent.

I also place great emphasis on the significance of the role of lay members to Annual Conference, and invite them to share a report the Sunday after conference.  Often that position has not been filled for awhile, or if there has been a lay member, he or she hasn’t given a report during worship.  But to a person, when lay members come back from Annual Conference, they are  excited to share the great work being done at all levels of the denomination, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

All of this education is done as part of an overall emphasis on increasing people’s stewardship of their time, talent, and especially treasure.  I invite congregational leaders to begin designing a stewardship campaign as soon as I arrive in a new appointment.  We set about creating a campaign which is fun for the congregation.  Really. We mostly focus on connecting with God through giving.  The reason to encourage everyone to give more money to and through the church is because generous giving is the simplest (although not easiest) way to grow in faith.  It’s true that an increase in giving enables the church to do more ministry, but that is not the primary reason to encourage people to give more.  People give at a certain level, and through giving, their faith grows, then their giving grows, then their faith grows some more.  It’s a process which increases blessings to themselves, the church, and the world God loves.

One challenge in increasing connectional accountability through increased stewardship at a church of mostly immigrants is that some have less “disposable income” than some United Methodists born in this country, and many have much greater responsibility for the financial well-being of family members, here and in the Philippines. Many members are also supporting churches “back home.” Another challenge is that while church members enjoy giving, and it’s part of their response to God’s grace,  they also have a tradition of “fund-raising” which is different from proportional giving, simply making a pledge of an ever-increasing percentage of their income each year.  Proportional giving is more beneficial for spiritual growth than fund-raising, which can have more of a “transactional” dimension. We try to incorporate both types of giving each year.

As part of our ongoing discussion, I’d love to hear your reflections on these questions:  What is your favorite aspect of the United Methodist Church? In stewardship campaigns,  when have you had the most fun?

IMG_3183Rev. Chris Shiber
Geneva Ave UMC
San Francisco, CA

¡Grande gozo! ¡Cuán hermoso!

¡Grande gozo! ¡Cuán hermoso! That’s how I responded this week to a brief e-mail report that I received from the Sacramento Emanuel United Methodist Church.

It’s a line from a mid-19th Century hymn that says (translated from Spanish) “Great joy! How beautiful! I’m so happy all the time. Because I see the smiling face of Christ, great joy I feel in me.” What brought on that rush of Spirit-powered joy? It was a report from Pastor Jola Bortner that the Emanuel congregation was not only on track for 100% apportionment payments this year, but that they were also reaching “second mile” giving AND making up for apportionments unpaid from last year. I can see the smiling face of Christ and the joy within me is real!

How beautiful on the mountains (and valleys) are the hands and feet of those who bring the Good News of the transforming power of God into someone else’s life. Is that how you interpret our Shared Giving? It brings great joy to my heart every time I sign a 100% Apportionment Giving certificate for a local church. It brings great sadness to my heart every time I hear Pastors or lay leaders complain about the “tax” they are expected to pay. Are we no longer leading our disciples into accountable discipleship?

John Wesley understood that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian – not only because Jesus established a community of faith, but also because the mission we have been entrusted with is one that can only be carried out with the collaboration and cooperation we know as the Body of Christ. This was the genius of his “Method” for making disciples with Bands, Classes and Societies! I dare anyone to name any single congregation that could eradicate the disease of malaria and the scourge of suffering and death it brings every 60 seconds from the face of Planet Earth all by itself! In United Methodist connection with one another we did imagine such a joy – so we have made that choice and we are systematically working day in and day out to change everyday lives on the continent of Africa where malaria takes its worst toll.

Our Shared Giving (apportionments) is a commitment of faith that we are called to do far more together than any individual congregation could do alone.  After six years of watching congregations of all shapes, sizes and financial ability earn those 100% certificates – no one could ever convince me that faithfulness in shared giving is about anything other than the conviction that Christ calls us to put others first.

When that great day comes, when the scourge of malaria is wiped from the face of Africa along with the tears of her mothers, will your congregation share in the joyful knowledge that they answered the call of Christ when it came?

Beyond our Shared Giving, it also brings joy to my heart to see how many congregations and their Pastors have embraced the vision of “Circuit.” We used to call it a “parish,” but whether circuit or parish, the vision of collaboration in mission strategy and accountability is growing in our Annual Conference. What began as clergy gatherings to share best practices in congregational renewal is now blossoming in the Bridges District with 7 congregations and 2 pastors working through the challenges of finding their own Pathway to Renewal” with coaches Rev. Dan Smith and Rev. Mary Huycke. As with any process that is truly transformational, progress needs not only support but also accountability. Coaching offers just that. Watch for the fruit that is certainly coming!

It brings great joy to my heart to see how far we have come from strictly “silo” congregations, to shared services of worship, housing and feeding, and now – most importantly – congregations are entering the new waters of shared mission strategy. Even as I write, the Marin “Short” Circuit is exploring the possibility of a “yoked/shared” parish (not merger!) that will strengthen each individual congregation with the varied gifts of an appointed Pastoral team while also forwarding the collaborative engagement of their unique mission field. Did you know that Marin County is the second least “churched” county on the entire West Coast of the United States? (You thought your mission field was challenging!) Seeking the transformation of lives calls for more than a shared food pantry. We want to see what the connectional power that will eradicate Malaria in Africa can do in Marin County too.  ¡Grande gozo! ¡Cuán hermoso!

Rev. Renae Extrum-Fernandez
District Superintendent
Bridges District