Working with Resurrection: Two Arkansas churches enter pilot program03-02-2012
Working with Resurrection: Two Arkansas churches enter pilot programBy Amy Forbus
The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., fits the definition of “megachurch”: a congregation of 15,000 people spread across multiple campuses. But one of its key goals, renewing the mainline church, breaks the megachurch mold.
Church of the Resurrection has a history of reaching out to help other United Methodist congregations. Its latest partnership effort includes two churches in the Arkansas Conference, Decatur and Highfill UMCs.
What does the partnership mean for these two small congregations? Several things, but the most obvious is that in 2012, about two-thirds of the Sunday sermons come not from their local pastor, but on video from the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection.
Conference director of connectional ministries the Rev. Phil Hathcock last summer alerted district superintendents to a Facebook post from Hamilton, who was seeking partner churches for a special project. Northwest District superintendent the Rev. Mackey Yokem forwarded the message to the Rev. Russ Hall, pastor of the Decatur, Highfill and Springtown churches.
Hall figured the odds were slim that his charge would be chosen to participate.
“I thought and prayed about it a little bit, and then I decided it doesn’t hurt to try,” he said. He submitted the online application on behalf of the two worshiping congregations he pastors (Springtown, with two regular attendees, currently shares in Decatur’s worship services).
Near the end of July, Hall found himself on a Skype conference call with a team from the Kansas church. At that point, he alerted leaders in his charge that partnering with one of the largest churches in the denomination was a real possibility.
In August 2011, Hall, a licensed local pastor, began coursework at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. The news came on his first day of class.
“I was sitting there being a little blown away by God and where he’d brought me in such a short period of time,” he said. “I was already kind of in a thankful and worshipful mood to begin with, when during a break, I thought I’d check my email. And that’s when I got the email from Church of the Resurrection saying, ‘Hey, you’re on the list of churches to be considered.’ I was pretty well amazed by that.”
Church of the Resurrection representatives made a site visit and explain what the partnership would mean for the congregations.
“And of course, we had to decide for ourselves whether or not we wanted to accept their offer,” Hall said.
The Church of the Resurrection visitors included Travis Morgan, who directs Resurrection Online and the Partner Church Ministry; Debi Nixon, managing executive director of regional campuses; and Jack Highfill (no relation to the Highfill church), chair of the staff-parish relations committee at Church of the Resurrection. The visit provided an opportunity for the Kansas congregation to outline the concept of the partnership, and for leaders from all of the churches to get to know each other.
One week later, the Decatur and Highfill churches agreed unanimously to join Church of the Resurrection’s Partner Church Program.
How it works
The inaugural class of the Partner Church Program includes churches in three different settings. Decatur and Highfill churches are in small-town rural areas; St. Luke UMC Odessa, Texas, is in an area of the mid-sized city that is seeing renewed growth; and Hampton UMC Baltimore, Md., is an urban church with waning membership, but the promise of young professionals moving in to populate the surrounding neighborhood.
“Some of it was around demographics, some of it was around just a fit with the church leader and leadership of the church,” Morgan, the Partner Church Ministry director, said of the selection criteria. In this first year of the program, the team wants to see whether the model they have devised works in different contexts.
Each church selected made a one-year commitment to work with Church of the Resurrection for worship planning, technology improvements and leadership coaching.
“We pilot with these three churches, we determine if this is a viable option for creating partnerships with congregations that may be either struggling or looking for ways to reclaim their vitality,” he said.
At this point, the Partner Church Program team expects to find that the model helps pastors who have part-time appointments or who must split their time among multiple churches. Having access to Hamilton’s sermons will free the local pastor to focus on outreach, first-time visitor follow-up, missions programs and caring for congregants. “If they’re part-time, those get pushed off a little bit when they’re having to prepare a sermon each week,” Morgan said.
Neither Decatur nor Highfill had the necessary equipment to show video in worship, so Church of the Resurrection provided the technology package needed for both churches—including a sound system, projection and the capability to play DVDs.
In exchange for the setup, Church of the Resurrection asks that if the partner church gets the opportunity, it pay back part of the investment to help further this type of ministry. Decatur and Highfill received close to $11,000 in grant money from the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas and an additional $2,000 from the Arkansas Conference, which enabled them to provide repayment.
“That money is available and will be used in the next phase to help make sure that another church gets the technology that they need,” Hall said.
In addition to what goes on inside the congregation, the churches receive help with marketing. A direct mailing went to the surrounding communities before the first Hamilton sermon series, and Hall says they had some new first-time guests. They plan to continue the mailings in advance of each series. By reaching out repeatedly, churches gain credibility with their neighbors.
“Usually it takes three or four mailings for people to really start responding,” Hall said.
Hall also has regular contact with coaches. He talks with Morgan each Monday, and he and Jack Highfill also touch base during the week. On Wednesday afternoons, the pilot church pastors, Morgan and other team members have a call that focuses on worship planning and scheduling. Monthly webinars deal with topics related to helping the church grow and be more effective.
“It’s neat to be able to work with a team, when usually it’s just me,” Hall says. “It’s a little bit like being an associate pastor in a big church or something like that—an experience I hadn’t had an opportunity to be a part of yet.”
On the weeks that Hamilton preaches for the partner churches, the rest of the service still keeps a local focus and feel.
“[We get] every bit of flexibility,” Hall says. “The only thing that is required is Adam’s sermon. Otherwise, the order of worship is our own, the music we select is our own; everything else is our own.”
Church of the Resurrection also provides shells for worship bulletins to all partner congregations. Hall receives final information on the Scripture selection and sermon title by Thursday morning of each week to complete the bulletins.
The sermon comes last. Hamilton preaches at Church of the Resurrection’s Saturday evening service, and that sermon is available for Hall to download by 9 or 9:30 p.m. He burns two DVDs of it, one for each church to use the next morning.
Yielding the pulpit
While giving up the opportunity to preach every Sunday may help with time management during the week, it still would give many pastors pause. Such was the case with Hall.
“You know, I had to pray about that one,” he said, adding that he still considers himself “a rookie pastor.”
But ultimately, he remembered it isn’t about him.
“It’s a pretty obvious answer that Adam Hamilton is a far better preacher, so essentially, what’s best for my congregation? It’s not about my ministry, but it’s about God’s ministry, so let’s do this thing. Let’s do everything we can to help this little church start growing again.”
He already sees signs that it’s happening.
“Just during this first five weeks, we’ve had more first-time visitors than what I’d experienced over the previous year,” he said. Attendance at Highfill has risen by nearly 24 percent, and at Decatur by 17 percent.
At the end of May and beginning of June, Hall will preach three Sundays in a row, and will formulate his own sermon series for those weeks. Similar breaks happen in Hamilton’s series throughout the year.
Results so far
In September, Hall, lay leader Ike Owens and Flo Dickinson, a layperson from Decatur UMC, traveled to Kansas to participate in the Leadership Institute at Church of the Resurrection. Dickinson says she found the Institute inspiring.
“I see where some of the things that they have put into practice for their church would be excessive for our small congregation, but still, it would be valuable to put it on the same scale as our numbers,” she said. Not only was it worth the trip, but she also thinks it would be worth a return visit this fall.
She reflected on the decision to participate in the Partner Church Program.
“When I first heard [about] it, I thought, ‘This church is such a megachurch, and we are so small,’” she said. “And I thought, you know, it really wouldn’t be that practical, but you’re always willing to learn, I hope. And I was willing to go and listen.”
Now, Dickinson is glad the church is part of this experiment, and finds Hamilton and his preaching impressive. An 81-year-old widow, she says the first sermon series, which focused on marriage, didn’t connect as well with the part of their congregation that is older and single. But she found it valuable for applying to other relationships.
She already can see a positive impact of the Partner Church Program, and hopes Decatur and Highfill stay involved for the long haul.
“I am excited about it,” she said, “and I do believe that it is a very good and positive thing.”
Morgan expressed excitement, too, about possibilities this model may bring for other UMCs.
“Ultimately, the idea would be that Church of the Resurrection might be kind of a hub for multiple partners throughout the country,” he said. He hopes other large United Methodist churches might also become hubs, forming circuits with smaller churches.
Hall would like to see the model expand, too.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “For all we know, this may be the beginning of a new revival within the Methodist Church.”
Editor's note: This web version has been corrected to include the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas as one of the sources of the grant funding.