Story & Photos by Patrick Scriven
Des Moines, Wash. – Last weekend, over 60 leaders from the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho (OR-ID), and Pacific Northwest (PNW) Conferences gathered to continue conversations on how they could marshal resources toward vital mission and ministry across the Greater Northwest Area. The Vitality Stewards Summit 2.0, as the name suggests, was the second formal gathering aimed toward this task, expanding the circle of those who met in September of 2018.
The event began by orientating new and returning “stewards” on the aspirations of the summit and some of the resources that the area has available to it. An opening devotional by Rev. Shalom Agtarap, centered on the story of the early church in Acts, emphasized the opportunity and challenge of sharing. Agtarap asked, “How can we move from a transactional economy to one of kinship?”
While denominational conversations often center around scarcity, leaders were encouraged instead to recognize the significant assets under their care. Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky shared that we often don’t consider these assets or remember that radical growth is in our DNA. “If we pool our resources, share a common vision, couldn’t we do more if we focused on a few big things?”
Stanovsky addressed the elephant in the room as she talked about the impact of General Conference upon United Methodism. Instead of being a roadblock, she framed it as an opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of the past. To avoid old behavior, we need to invite “younger, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people to the table to help shape what is coming.”
This call for more diverse leadership echoed throughout the meeting.
Stanovsky also advised that the work of the meeting be considered provisional in anticipation of the challenges, and opportunities for greater inclusion, in front of us. Drawing upon the biblical story of the crossing over into the Jordan, the bishop offered, “It’s time to leave the wilderness. Not everyone is going to cross over to the Jordan.”
Next up was Eric Walker, who is serving as a special assistant to Bishop Stanovsky, charged in part with organizing the Summit. A lay person from Vashon UMC with non-profit management experience, Walker helped to keep the event moving, reminding participants of its goals. Those goals were:
- Developing a good understanding of vitality work across the area.
- Creating the first draft of Area-wide funding criteria.
- Arriving at a basic agreement on the kinds of projects that would excite Area-wide funding.
- Sparking movement towards a culture of Area-wide collaboration.
Walker offered a big picture look at the challenges and opportunities facing the Area as it seeks to have more churches engaged in vital ministry. Sharing that a significant number of churches are in some stage of decline, he framed the goal of innovation and vitality work across the area as bending bad trajectories toward more positive possibilities.
Inclusion is the Starting Point
Rev. Dr. William Gibson followed Walker by sharing some of the learnings of the Innovation Vitality Team (IV Team). After one year together, the team has landed upon the understanding that Inclusion, Innovation, and Multiplication are crucial practices, and measures, of church vitality. More recently, they have begun to understand inclusion as foundational to the success of the other two practices.
Participants next engaged in a presentation from Kristina Gonzalez, Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, and Gibson on Intercultural Competency and its effect on the IV Team’s work. Gonzalez gave an overview of Intercultural Competency reflecting on her own choice to be a United Methodist. “The United Methodist Church appealed to me because of its emphasis on practical divinity, and the use of practical tools like Intercultural Competency to effect change.”
Barber shared how some of his work, specifically internships and revivals, had embodied these principles of inclusion in making deliberate connections between the Church, persons of color, and younger people. Some of the participants in the first cohort of interns are now being tracked to provide leadership in local churches.
Gibson concluded the IV Team’s report by sharing how they have developed new guardrails to better steward monies allocated to church plants and other revitalization projects. Experience has helped them to understand that there is no necessary correlation between age and innovative ability and that some churches “aren’t interested with changing to pivot in the moment.”
The afternoon continued with reports from several District Superintendents and, separately, the lay leaders of each Conference. Erin Martin, chief missional strategist for the Columbia District, has been asking her district to consider what it would mean “to envision ourselves as a community of United Methodist Congregations.” A success story she shared involved the arrival of the Rev. Alan Buck, a gifted Native American church planter from Oklahoma, who is helping to revitalize Wilshire UMC, recently renamed Great Spirit UMC.
Rev. Rich Lang spoke about three practices found to be present in early Christianity, but often absent in the churches he serves in the SeaTac Missional District:
- The Practice of Non-violence
- The Practice of Self-emptying
- The Practice of Giving Away
He shared how funds from recent church closures were being reinvested in other churches to provide multi-ethnic leadership teams toward the goal of fostering multi-ethnic communities. Lang named Valley and Mountain, soon to give birth to a third iteration, as an example of excellent ministry incarnating inclusion and innovation, leading to multiplication.
Seven Rivers Missional District Superintendent Rev. Mary Huycke offered a non-urban perspective as she serves a region stretched across the central part of Washington from the Canadian border down to Oregon. The district has intentionally invested in laity with the understanding that “clergy come and go, the laity are the ones who stick around.”
A number of the churches in her district are very small. Helping some of those churches to end their ministries gracefully, while finding creative ways to extend the life of others with alternative leadership structures, is a portion of the work. A lack of diversity, and inclusive practice, is a challenge many are wrestling against.
Offering her perspective on the OR-ID Conference, lay leader Jan Nelson shared that many laypersons there are unaware of the work of the IV Team but not incapable of embracing innovation. She pointed to the example of the Open Door Churches in the Salem area while advocating for more leadership training to make use of laity who feel under-utilized. “We need a better structure, or system, to engage laity.”
PNW Conference lay leader Nancy Tam Davis also noted the absence of leadership development among lay people in her conference. She added that Certified Lay Ministers were often serving in challenging appointments but lacked the same network of support afforded to clergy. “Morale is low,” said Davis. “How do we bring lay leaders together for support?”
Jo Anne Hayden, lay leader in the Alaska Conference, named some of the same concerns. On a conference-level, there are efforts to train local church leaders underway through Zoom with hopes to expand the number of groups soon.
How we are working together already
The second day began with a presentation by the Area treasurers detailing some of the resources available for vitality work and some of their other projections. Currently, expenses for shared work are split between conferences – PNW (54%), OR-ID (40), and AK (6%) based on conference size and budgets.
Disaster response leaders in the OR-ID and PNW Conferences shared how they have been collaborating because it makes sense. Jim Truitt began serving in March as Disaster Response Coordinator for the Greater Northwest Area, leading a pilot program building upon years of collaboration between leaders in OR-ID, PNW and Alaska.
Truitt, along with Kathy Bryson (PNW) and Dan Moesler (OR-ID) shared with the group how clear common goals, shared practices, and trainings have made collaboration work for them. Programs like “Connecting Neighbors” embody some of the vitality practices of developing intentional partnerships beyond the Church.
Next up was a presentation by Revs. Karen Hernandez and Gregg Sealey, and layperson Lynn Egli. As superintendents of mostly rural districts, Hernandez and Sealey shared their excitement for the Rural Church Engagement Initiative’s promise to translate Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) training for a rural context.
Egli, described as the “Energizer Bunny behind all of this,” helped to explain how he has applied his background as a CPA for Hewlett Packard to the design and implementation of the pilot program. “We have to be demanding, to expect performance,” he shared. “It’s going to be tough for local leaders to put together a team.” He expects to learn from the pilot, and adapt subsequent iterations based on that learning.
Three cohorts (including 14 pastors and local church teams) of the Rural Church Engagement Initiative are already meeting together monthly, sharing learnings and support for each other.
Representatives of Committees on Native American Ministries (CONAM) offered the final presentation on shared ministry and collaboration across the Area. Duane Medicine Crow (OR-ID) shared a desire to do more. Sharing when “we get money, we give it away,” he talked about a recent project supporting a Nez Perce intern at Wallowa Lake Camp.
Rev. Charley Brower (AK) offered some historical context on Christian missionary outreach to Native American populations in Alaska and how some denominational decisions years ago continue to impact the mission field today.
Finally, Kristina Gonzalez shared how the PNW was inviting a Native American developer from OR-ID to evaluate three ministries in the conference which have been struggling.
Proposals and Next Steps
Much of the remaining time was spent in small group exercises to determine how leaders might collaborate together on projects besides the IV Team and how those projects might be funded.
Rev. Mary Huycke and Kristina Gonzalez helped to surface some evaluative measures after small groups had defined individual lists of priorities. The next step was the hearing of “pitches” from several individuals who had submitted Concept Notes.
In addition to funding pitches from Lynn Egli (Rural Church Engagement Initiative) and Jim Truitt (Disaster Response), five other short presentations were received and evaluated using the evaluation criteria previously identified. These were:
- Multicultural Hubs, an innovative urban initiative presented by Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber of the IV Team;
- A Land and Housing Coalition designed to build knowledge for wise, social good with property assets presented by Rev. Erin Martin;
- Latinx Ministry in the Cascadia District presented by Rev. Tim Overton-Harris;
- The Awesome Project, a lip dub designed to help the Area rebrand itself after General Conference 2019 presented by Rev. John Tucker;
- A Dreamworks and FailFest proposal designed to encourage bold innovation by Rev. Overton-Harris.
Before a concluding conversation, Eric Walker presented five possible ways to fund Area-wide projects: Tithe, Syndicate, CrowdSource, Pathways, and Pledge. Some of the approaches were familiar to existing practices while others have shown potential outside of the Church.
In a final conversation with Bishop Stanovsky, several participants expressed feelings of being stuck. They named the need to be bolder than we have been in embracing a future together. Other comments were made to remind the group that too few of those named at the outset—younger people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people—were present in the room.
In her closing remarks, Stanovsky embraced the idea that we should allow something to surface from the time spent in conversation together. She suggested that we work toward funding the most popular Concept Notes—the Multicultural Hubs and Rural Church Engagement Initiative—work out the details of contributing 10% of their funding to a shared area-wide Vitality fund, and begin thinking about how our leadership makeup is more apparently young, people of color and/or LGBTQ+
A date was set for another gathering in September with the explicit goal that at least 50 percent of those in attendance will be young, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+. She asked leaders to covenant together to invite these new voices into meaningful decision-making.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.