New Connections (Fall 2021- Winter 2022)

Survey after survey reveals a truth that we all know intuitively: Churches of all denominations are struggling to recover post Pandemic. The challenges are numerous and often daunting.

How do we resume in the face of the many latent concerns and fears that the Pandemic has exacerbated? More importantly, how do we help our congregations rebound and thrive?

In August 2021, United Methodist Communications conducted a follow-up survey on the Impact of COVID 19 on United Methodist Churches. The study had first been issued in 2020.

The new data confirm that many of our UMCs are challenged on several fronts—most notably finances and attendance:

 

  • Most (59%) say “finances are tight, but they can manage by reducing expenses”, and 15% say “finances are not a concern”. The remainder expect to make significant changes.  
  • Over three-quarters (76%) say church giving is down, and 1/3 (34%) say giving is down more than 40%. Having said that, overall, the 958 clergy and lay leaders who responded to the survey remain hopeful and optimistic, despite the physical, psychological and emotional upheaval that the Pandemic caused.

“Throughout each study phase we’ve seen that the United Methodist body and leadership have been adaptive and capable of finding creative solutions for conducting ministry and supporting members, despite unprecedented circumstances” shared Teresa Faust, Research Manager for United Methodist Communications, the denomination’s global communication agency. One model that has emerged as a transformative means of ensuring the longevity of the church is that of Cooperative Ministry.

Three years ago, NYAC made the decision to break down into Cooperative Parishes. It turned out to be a fortuitous move. Within the United Methodist Church, cooperative parishes enable congregations, church-related agencies and pastors in a defined geographic area to develop a relationship of trust and mutuality that results in coordinated church programs and ministry.

When COVID uncertainty was at its peak, Cooperative Parish systems empowered churches to quickly facilitate collaboration and collective support. 

At its core, cooperative ministry is more a style of ministry than any particular structure or organizing technique, explains Rev. Clay Smith, a consultant with The Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, North Carolina. It starts when church leaders (whether lay or clergy) explore best ways to pursue effective ministry to benefit all of their congregations. 

Cooperative Parishes work to break down all kinds of boundaries (including racial and ethnic barriers) that divide people and congregations. The approach has been used to organize a few churches in one community, as well as a means to provide highly-effective ministry across entire Annual Conferences. At its essence, the structure speaks to the heart of what United

Methodist Connectionalism is all about. Consequently, many believe that it is the most hopeful and promising way of going about ministry within the United Methodist connection.

The blessings, both financial and relational, are clear: Cooperative ministry enhances and builds up the identity and strength of local churches, as it helps them increase outreach and witness to their communities.

Yet the downsides are also real. It takes time, hard work, and trust to establish a connection in a large group and, quite frankly, sometimes it may seem easier to just accomplish things on your own.


“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Confronting prevailing misconceptions ensures Cooperative Parishes are well positioned to build up the body of Christ.

Rev. Smith has been on the front lines of this movement for more than 40 years. His experience with Cooperative Parishes has taught him that you will need to address prevailing misconceptions about them. Only then, will they be well positioned to build up the body of Christ.

For one thing, he stresses the need to communicate that Cooperative Parishes do not superimpose a new structure on a group of congregations. Nor does this approach seek to eliminate small, struggling churches.

“From the very beginning,” he stresses, “some people will say ‘what you’re trying to do is consolidate all the churches into one church,’ and that’s not what cooperative ministry is about. Still, it’s the automatic default position many assume is the hidden agenda,” he says.

For this reason, getting the right people involved in a Cooperative Parish is almost as critical as the mission of the Cooperative itself. “It’s very important to have key lay people on board from the very beginning involved in the discussions around the table about this so it’s just not something the pastors think is good,” he continues. “You have to have lay people see the vision of what cooperative ministry can be among a group of congregations.”

 

In 1975, as a newly-ordained pastor, Rev Smith joined a small group of about five other church leaders in Caswell County, N.C. With the goal of supporting each other, their churches and the community at large, they formed the Caswell Cooperative Parish.

At the time the six pastors served 15 small churches between them. In this BC era (before computers), many struggled to juggle the tasks of typing and printing Sunday bulletins, along with their other assignments. But there is strength in numbers, and after some back and forth, the Parish purchased the necessary equipment and hired a part-time secretary to help.

This gave all of the pastors more freedom to do other things. Rev. Smith says another big benefit of Cooperative Parishes—one the average person in the pews wouldn’t be aware of—is how it brings pastors together to support each other. The clergy get a chance to form friendships and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

In Caswell, Rev. Smith says pastors would dissect scripture or talk about different sermon ideas in their weekly lectionary study group. He and his colleagues greatly benefited from this communal approach.

“I loved to preach, but I dreaded preparing to preach because it took so much time and energy,” Rev. Smith recalls. “And it was great to have everybody kind of reflect upon what the text said about a particular situation and provide feedback.”

 

 

In the New York Annual Conference, the Greater Meriden Cooperative Parish provides a good example of how joining together and sharing resources can benefit all parties involved. “We’re not silos anymore. We’re really seeing ourselves as one group or one parish with different campuses,” says Rev. Richard (Rick) L. Hanse, the Greater Meriden Parish Coordinator.

“The model enables us not to be so concerned someone is going to take our ideas. We can bring the best in us and through us.” “They are NOT repeating the old cluster concept. We’ve blown that up,” adds Connecticut District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Alpher Sylvester. “Instead, they focus on strategicministries to find best practices and best ideas.”

Dr. Sylvester—who also serves as the current Dean of Cabinet—modeled the Connecticut District Cooperative Parishes after the structure of Bishop Bickerton’s Cabinet. Each of the eight Parish Coordinators in his district functions as “Mini District Superintendents” while the clergy within the parish “specialize in cross pollinating experiences,” he explains.

For the ten pastors who represent 12 churches in the Greater Meriden Cooperative Parish, this meant leaning into their strengths—or, as Rick Hanse puts it, into what “makes them come alive,”—for the good of the cooperative.

Last year, during the height of COVID, the Connecticut Parishes—clergy and laity alike—met weekly via Zoom. Currently, they meet monthly. These initial, regular meetings enabled participants to form close bonds and connections.

Four of the churches in the Parish that were fairly close neighbors—First UMC Meriden, First Middletown, East Berlin and South Meriden Trinity—formed their own little subset within the parish. They call themselves “The New Room.” 

“Every situation is going to be a little different. It has to kind of evolve out of the specific need and what’s appropriate, so you can do cooperation on many different levels,” Rev. Smith notes. “For example, one of the great things cooperative ministry does is it allows you to, say, bring in an expert about Christian education in the small ministry of the church—and do that kind of training in the local community rather than have people go to a district headquarters or even an Annual Conference event.”

In the case of Greater Meriden Cooperative Parish, the first step was to commit to share and capitalize on each other’s strengths. Rev. Chinma Uche, Pastor of East Berlin UMC, has a PhD in computer science and mathematics. She also enjoys teaching, so she holds a parish “Lunch and Learn” every few months to discuss issues around the faith.

Rev. Jacob Eun, Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Wallingford, is a technology guru. He is responsible for the Cooperative Parish website and the one newsletter that highlights news and developments across the Cooperative and goes to all of the churches in the parish.

And on the heels of moving First United Methodist Church in Middleton, Connecticut from its old building into a brand new facility, Rev. Barbara Marx has become the parish expert on the details of managing such transitions.

Ongoing reciprocity is a linchpin to success. For example, prior to the October consecration of First UMC’s new facility, Rev. Marx was short of funds to pay for the extra-large rental tent they needed to accommodate all of the worshippers. All ten of the parish pastors chipped in to help defray the costs.

And when First UMC gathered for the consecration service, four congregations (about 40 or 50 others) showed up to pray for, support and celebrate for the ministries at Middletown. “It was such a testimony to our support of each other. In the old model, it would have been–it’s not my church—but we’re all saying Barbara’s church is my church,” Rev. Hanse says.

“What drives the entire thing is just being intentional about developing and nurturing healthy relationships with each other—among the clergy and laity—and then going out into the community with it.”

Rev. Hanse says the idea of having a “home church,” and a “home-away-from-home” church is already taking root. He notes a member of his congregation revealed he had always wanted to check out services at East Berlin, but previously felt sort of awkward about it.

Now, because the Parish has established the concept of having a “home church,” and a “home-away-from-home” church, members feel comfortable just showing up at East Berlin.

 Like others across the nation, pastors in the Greater Meriden Cooperative Parish spent much of 2020 taking a deep dive into possible instances of bias and systemic racism in their local churches. At First UMC Meriden, Rev. Hanse realized their nominating and leadership committees weren’t reflective of their congregation. They’ve since worked to correct this and are moving forward with implementation of a plan to address the problem. Based on conversations with the nearly a dozen clergy and laity who offered anecdotal insights for this article, the future for Cooperative Parishes appears more than promising for those willing and able to embrace this “new thing” God has placed before us to ensure the life of the church.

 

 

If past is prologue, however, the example set by Caswell Cooperative Parish in North Carolina more than 40 years ago may hold a key to what’s ahead. Although Caswell started as a resource for six pastors serving the needs of 15 local churches, it has morphed into something more far-reaching and inclusive. It’s mission now is to help any and all in need in Caswell County.

The result? The Cooperative Parish grown into an interdenominational conglomeration of more than 40 churches. By pooling their resources and centralizing their ministries the parish has become a primary source of emergency food and utilities assistance for the underserved. It also provides a thrift shop, a community garden, and Christmas gifts for children in need.

By partnering with such organizations as Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwestern NC, Duke Energy, Food Lion, Walmart, and the NC Conference of the UMC, over the years Caswell has come to the aid of thousands. And in this age of racial divisiveness and restructuring, Rev. Smith sees the geographically-based cooperative parish as a promising way to promote and encourage cohesion and interconnectedness. 

“Racial issues were something we were always trying to make progress on, and the Cooperative Ministry, I think, has really helped bring people together. What you began to see is all the people who live here are of concern for us. The quality of life, all of the things people deal with from day to day… If we all worked together, we could have a more effective outreach and ministry than just one church doing its own thing. Caswell has evolved.”

Rick Hanse sees the wisdom in this thought as well. “We’re looking to rebrand Methodism so that we’re multi-campus, multi-church—truly connectional—in order to see all the different great things, we have to give to the body of Christ,” he says. “The Cooperative Parish Model is one way to do it.”