Program helps ministers settle into new assignments

August 09, 2010

The following article is re-posted with permission of The Anniston Star.
by Laura Tutor
Special to The Anniston Star
Jul 31, 2010

In his first month as senior pastor at Anniston's First United Methodist Church, the Rev. Bill Brown has learned a few things they don't cover in seminary.

The second time around at a church is more intimidating than the first. The congregation might not recognize the unofficial "honeymoon" period that United Methodist churches observe during the annual pastor peach-basket turnover every summer.

The second time around, you have an idea about what the congregation struggles with, but you also see the potential and recognize what it can take to fulfill it.

"You don't really appreciate what you have until you leave it," said Brown, who was associate pastor at Anniston First from 2001-04. "We always kept tabs with the people of Anniston, with that church. And it was great to look out from that pulpit and see people you knew."

Brown, like other United Methodist ministers settling into their new assignments, is among the first to go through the denomination's program The First 90 Days. The program, modeled around management and communication techniques from the business world, is designed to get new pastors and their congregations operating on the same page — fast.

After all, everyone isn't like Brown and familiar with the church they were assigned to in June. The program helps pastors and the lay leaders of the congregations determine strengths, weaknesses and goals. More important, pastors say, it helps them target specific and practical ways of reaching those goals.

"We wanted to get them to look at finding a plan to succeed and what it was they wanted to accomplish," said Bishop Will Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. "When someone asks them, 'What are you doing here?' we want them to have a better answer than, 'Well, the bishop sent me.'"

Rev. Sandra Felkins is new to the Anniston district and was appointed to two churches: Saks and Union United Methodist. The First 90 Days is giving her a systematic approach to meeting both congregations and assessing their goals and talents.

For instance, the congregation she sees at Union at 8:30 Sunday mornings is comprised mostly of families who've attended that church for generations. Her drive down U.S. 431 to Saks takes her to a different audience for the 11 o'clock service: That church is still recovering from a membership hemorrhage that occurred with Fort McClellan's closure more than a decade ago.

"The training program will help me and the congregation get to know each other and decide where we want to go," she said.

Willimon said the orientation program should shake churches from two pillars that keep many congregations from reaching new people. The first is the pastor's attitude that if something worked at a previous church, it'll work again. The second — and perhaps the hardest — is to get congregations to understand that times change, and churches must change with them. The idea that dominated previous generations — put up a steeple and you're in business — doesn't work anymore.

"We're struggling with all the challenges the mainline denominations have struggled with in the past 10 years," Willimon said of Methodist membership numbers. "But I do get the sense that we are past the hand-wringing stage, that now we are in a position to meet this challenge and are doing something to address it."

For instance, data shows that the under-30 crowd that seems to have checked out of the mainstream denominations of their childhood are interested in coming back once they become parents.

There's also a focus on church development beyond the Sunday morning regulars, Willimon said. "The good news is that I really feel a new spirit, a new commitment to reaching people who wouldn't have been reached before," he said. "We're trying to get much more responsive and supple to what people want."

For Brown, that means encouraging his church to take a role indicative of its position. Not only is the church in the heart of downtown Anniston, it's also got deep roots throughout Calhoun County and should be a resource for improving quality of life in the area.

"Anniston over the last 20 years has faced a lot of challenges, and this church needs to see what it can do to meet those challenges," he said.

When Brown was last at First Methodist, the church was tackling a building project: a multi-purpose center behind the main building in the 1400 block of Noble Street. The Bridge has been up and running and housing many of the church's outreach programs for some time now. The church's other satellite facility, Camp Lee in the Choccolocco area, is another asset the community needs to tap, he said.

"We can't be just an island by ourselves. To help our church grow and be vital, we have to help the community grow and be vital."


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