By the time Holston Conference’s annual educational event for clergy had completed its Feb. 17-19 run at Music Road Resort, one of the few times division was referenced was during an invitation for clergy to gather in small groups and pray for each other.
For three days, 234 pastors focused instead on learning from three speakers how to manage their time, be better leaders, and grow rural and urban congregations. This year’s convocation theme was, “Flourish! Health & Growth for Every Church,” hosted by Holston's Wesley Leadership Institute.
The annual event in Pigeon Forge happened exactly three months prior to General Conference 2020, when many expect The United Methodist Church to finally divide over disagreements around homosexuality. Attendance dropped by 20 since Holston’s 2019 convocation, according to staff member Sue Weber.
Speaker Carey Nieuwhof shared wisdom on leadership and personal growth from his experience as founding pastor of a large church, author and podcaster based in Ontario, Canada. He encouraged his listeners to manage energy as well as time.
“Most people only have three to five highly productive hours in a day. Sync your time and your energy,” saving your best hours for your most creative work, Nieuwhof said. Creative work should be devoted to the answer of the question, “When I do these things well, what moves the mission forward?”
Nieuwhof also told his audience to “stop reacting” by deciding ahead how to spend time with a fixed calendar. “No one will ever ask you to complete your top priorities,” he said. “They will only ask you to complete theirs.”
He encouraged his listeners to fear not opponents of change, but to actually write down and count their names. In most cases, opponents make up 10 percent or less of the congregation, Nieuwhof said. The group seems larger because they’re louder. “Is it more frightening to lose a handful of people or to never accomplish your mission?”
The Rev. Jasmine Smothers, lead pastor of Atlanta First United Methodist Church, spoke to clergy about creating new ministries with a “blank slate” (based on one of her recent books) and developing urban ministry. She shared the challenges and victories her congregation has experienced in serving the homeless, hungry and addicted in the city.
Smothers also shared her congregation’s $114 million vision for expanding the physical plant to provide affordable housing for neighbors and a new, expanded space for an interfaith nonprofit that provides emergency assistant to low-income Atlantans.
“The vision is so big that without God, it’s bound to fail,” she said. “We’re trying to grow a church that looks like the neighborhood and God’s kingdom.”
The Rev. Jeremy Troxler spoke on rural and small church ministry. Troxler is currently serving as lead pastor for Guilford College United Methodist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. He previously served as pastor of Spruce Pine United Methodist Church in the mountains of western North Carolina and director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School.
Troxler weaved the writings of Wendell Berry, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien and others with scripture to show pastors how they and their ministries were created to flourish like a tree ... or flourish like ingredients in a recipe that aren’t measured, yet produce a wonderfully homemade gift.
He encouraged his listeners to understand and learn the culture in the small, rural church; speak the language; to work hard alongside; and to be humble. “If you give off even a whiff of condescension, it’s over.”
Troxler spoke of the power of a “be with” ministry versus a “doing for” ministry. He said some ministries are best suited for a “what’s the next right step?” approach rather than a five-year strategic plan.
“It is way easier to fix a bowl of soup and hand it to you than it is to sit at the table, eat soup with you, and listen to the craziness of life,” he said.
Closing worship included Holy Communion and a message by the Rev. Susana Lopez, pastor at El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo in Sevierville and Rios de Agua Viva in Morristown. She preached on the 12 scouts Moses sent to check out the land God had promised them. Ten of the 12 returned with complaints and negative reports, doubting God and his gifts.
“We belittle what God is doing now. God keeps his promises, but we have to do our part,” Lopez said. “Let us not belittle what God has given us these last three days ... The land God has given us is exceedingly good.”
Music was led by Alan Eleazer, Wendel Werner, and the Rev. Willie Kitchens.
Convocation participants gave an offering of $1,452 to Camp in the Community.
Bishop Dindy Taylor led a commissioning ceremony for Holston’s newest Appalachian Trail circuit-hiker chaplain, Michele Gourley.
Video recordings for most sessions are available at http://Convocation.Holston.org.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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