RETHINKING CHURCH IN KINGSPORT: How a district superintendent is teaching his small churches to share

RETHINKING CHURCH IN KINGSPORT: How a district superintendent is teaching his small churches to share

“Parish ministry,” “strategic plan,” and “intercessory prayer team” are not the sort of terms that make you want to leap out of your chair.

But when the people involved in a revitalization plan in Kingsport District describe how the activities behind these dull words are waking up their small churches and building ministry – you really do want to applaud and wave on the parade.

“It’s really changed the DNA in our district,” said the Rev. David Graves, Kingsport District superintendent. “These folks are now taking out the message about what shared ministry can do – and it’s kind of pushing us just to keep up with them.”

For example:

  • Two churches considered cutting costs by cutting their local pastor’s hours from full-time to part-time. Instead, they retained the pastor at full-time status and joined with three other small churches to hire a full-time youth director. The goal is to reach 20 to 25 youth within the six congregations as well as attract teenagers from the community.
  • Three small churches prayed for youth and children to populate their pews. Today, about 25 youth and 25 children come out each Wednesday night for a snack dinner and program created by the three churches together. The program recently outgrew one church building and was moved to the largest of the three.
  • A congregation with 15 in worship attendance had the idea of providing all-day Vacation Bible School – with two meals and two snacks -- to needy elementary school students during spring break. Three other small churches quickly joined in to contribute money, vans, meals, volunteers, and arts and crafts supplies. A fifth church said, “If you need anything else, give us a call.”
  • Three smaller churches came together to take 60 youth to Resurrection weekend this past January in Gatlinburg. The youth later led Resurrection-inspired worship services at each of the three churches.

This “shared ministry” approach – which groups churches into “parishes” that help each other -- is not new or original. It’s United Methodist “connectionalism” at its best: A so-called no-brainer, church leaders say.

Yet, congregations often resist working with their sister congregations.

“They’re afraid that if they partner with each other, they’ll lose their identities,” Graves said. “Our churches are finding that shared ministry will actually strengthen them. Most people just have to experience it before they can see it.”

Fear of closing

Graves started the process of revitalizing his district 18 months ago, a few months after arriving in Kingsport as the new superintendent. He previously spent 11 years as senior pastor at Ooltewah United Methodist Church, which has more than 600 in average worship attendance.

“When I came here in 2009, there was so much fear and anxiety,” he says. “People thought, ‘He’s only been in larger membership churches, so he can’t relate to us.’ There is a real fear of closing churches.”

Instead, Graves wanted to help the small-membership churches, which make up the majority of Holston’s 899 congregations.

“Decline goes against all my grain in leadership,” said the 53-year-old pastor. “And typically, pastoral leadership is reactive. Most of us really don’t think strategically but just try to keep things going.”

As a self-described “pastor of 12,000 members in 57 churches,” Graves said he knew he had to do something different to make a difference.

“If we were going to get anywhere in our district, we were going to have to think strategically,” he said.

Using the name of a United Methodist campaign, Graves assimilated a “Rethink Church Team” that now has 14 clergy and lay members of varying age and gifts.

As the team prayed and developed its internal relationship, it also participated in assessments and training led by ministry experts Lovett Weems, Julia Kuhn Wallace, and Lewis Parks

The consultations were paid for by a $50,000 grant from the Foundation of Evangelism, acquired and shared by the Kingsport and Johnson City Districts.

In October 2010, the Rethink Church Team developed a strategic plan with shared ministry and prayer as centerpieces.



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