The room is humming. At every table sits groups of people from different churches, pouring over handdrawn maps.
Each map depicts the territory around churches that have been grouped together by region. There's Wal-Mart, the elementary school, McDonald's, the railroad tracks ...
The conversations are lively and colorful, much like the maps that draw these church members together over common ground.
"So Fairlawn is the limit. What about the people in that neighborhood. Do they get served?"
"The group that needs attention -- the one that comes to mind -- is the young adults."
"These are professional people: doctors and lawyers. They've got money but ... "
"I guarantee, when you see a lot of basketball goals, they've got a lot of youth."
"What about the shift workers who can't go to church on Sunday morning?"
"The Wytheville race track is a huge place. We don't want to go there ... but maybe we need to go there."
On Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6-7, about 150 members of the Wytheville and Tazewell Districts met at First Pearisburg United Methodist Church for a "Partnerships for Shared Ministry" workshop.
The facilitators were the Rev. Julia Kuhn Wallace, author, consultant, and former director of small-membership church ministry for the General Board of Discipleship; and the Rev. Drew Dyson, author and chair in evangelism at Wesley Theological Seminary.
The workshop participants represented 24 (out of 39) charges in Tazewell District and 43 (out of 116) churches in Wytheville District. Their district superintendents put them into groups geographically suited to collaborate in their work for Jesus Christ. (See photos on Facebook.)
Most of the churches were small-membership congregations, with fewer than 120 to 125 in average worship attendance.
In the old days, Dyson noted, "we were taught that the station church is the successful church." A "station church" comprises only one local church, in contrast to a circuit, comprising two or more.
However, these days, with 82 percent of Holston's 894 churches categorized as small-membership churches, ministry experts teach that churches partnering with others will help them reach more people for Christ.
"This isn't rocket science," said Victor Dingus, chair of Holston's Small Membership Congregation Team. "We now have a process in place for small-member congregations to be more successful." (See related story.)
No church is an island
The concept of working together ("connectionalism") has been central to Methodism since its beginning. Congregations working together in parishes or clusters have always had more strength in numbers, skills, locations, resources, experts say. As parishes in other Holston districts have demonstrated, small churches can do more together (youth ministry, building handicap ramps, feeding the homeless) than they can do alone.
"A lot of these churches are already doing it, they just don't know it," said the Tazewell District Superintendent David Tabor.
When the workshop participants gathered over their community maps at First Pearisburg UMC on Aug. 6, many had the advantage of knowing each other. They discussed and answered four questions to arrive at a possible ministry to share by the end of the day:
Who are we as a congregation and body of Christ?
What's God calling us to do?
Who is our neighbor?
What action will we take for the next right step to glorify God?
Wallace reminded her audience that "shared ministry depends on people committed to working together for mission and ministry, not mere maintenance."
So when each group finally stood to share their proposed ministry ideas, they didn't talk about pooling money for a new roof or having a big dinner for church members.
Instead, a few groups proposed a backpack ministry, like the one currently supported by First Independence UMC: On Friday at school, needy students receive a backpack full of nutritious food to take home for the weekend. The backpacks are returned for filling again the following week.
One group of churches decided to hand out water bottles at a rival high school football game that engages two large communities, while gathering information about the region's needs.
One group proposed delivering pizzas to low-income neighborhoods on Friday night, when children or the homebound might be left alone.
Another group planned to partner on a new chemotherapy patient outreach.
Another group conceptualized a prayer-station rest stop for travelers on I-77.
It wasn't lost on many attendees that the workshop not only aided the small-membership churches, but also helped to fulfill one of the United Methodist Church's Four Areas of Focus (revitalizing exisiting congregations) as well as the Call to Action (specifically, the ministry plan for vitality and fruitfulness).
Some participants praised the workshop because it gave them opportunity to develop plans suited for their particular churches and communities.
"Sometimes we hear that you've got to do ministry like this -- like Adam Hamilton, for instance. He's a good man, but we can't do what the big churches do," said the Rev. John Grimm, senior pastor at the Gladeville-Mt. Olivet Circuit in Wytheville District. "It's important to consider our context, what our churches are like."
When the workshop concluded, each group had a ministry plan to go home and begin collaborating on -- or at least, the beginning of a shared ministry plan.
"The district superintendents will follow up with each group leader to see how the new ministry is unfolding, and if they need any other help or support," said the Rev. Meg Taylor, Wytheville District superintedent.
See photos from this event at Facebook.Holston.org.