(Kara Witherow for the AWFUMC) - A couple of years ago, children in Calhoun County, Florida’s foster care system had to travel nearly 30 miles to have supervised visitation with their parents.
Today, children and their parents can play together on nearby Blountstown United Methodist Church’s playground or meet in one of the church’s classroom’s.
Two years ago, the Blountstown UMC congregation, through its participation in the Alabama-West Florida Conference’s Next Steps process, decided to dream about its future, assess its current reality, and become a better version of itself.
As they worked through the Next Steps process, they discovered their community’s need for a safe, welcoming, neutral environment for supervised visitations.
“The church developed a mentality that we needed to open our building to the community rather than trying to safeguard and protect it,” said Rev. Nicholas Hughes, pastor of Blountstown UMC. “It’s a resource God has given us to minister. These are people who don’t go to our church, and it’s meeting a need.”
This January, the Conference will relaunch Next Steps, a collaborative and creative learning process to help congregations identify next steps in their mission and ministry.
“This is not just a program to help a church make a decision about what to do next. Next Steps is a process for how a church can take the next steps in its ongoing mission to its community,” said Rev. Bill Kierce, Alabama-West Florida’s Director of Congregational Vitality. “What Next Steps provides a church is the gift of a process. If they learn it, it will serve them from now on in making critical, strategic decisions on how to be engaged in their community.”
For Blountstown UMC, Next Steps was a useful process that helped them explore their past, answer some “difficult but necessary questions,” investigate their community, and, ultimately, ask, “who is our neighbor and how can we minister to them?”
Through the process, which included prayer walks through the surrounding neighborhood and conversations with community leaders, the congregation became more aware of the community’s needs and how they could help meet them.
“We can’t do everything, but we’ve learned that there are some things we can do and we ought to do,” Rev. Hughes said.
Ready for relaunch
Designed by ministry consultant Dr. Victor Dingus, Next Steps is based upon Dr. Lovett Weems’ model of church revitalization and transformation.
“Vic gave us a wonderful gift by starting Next Steps in our annual conference and then being gracious enough to hand it off to our conference leadership so we can multiply it,” Rev. Kierce said. “We took what he does and built on it and adapted it for our conference.”
As the conference prepares to relaunch the process and make it available to all congregations, 30 clergy have been trained as Practitioner Coach-Consultants (PCC).
“This isn’t anything new,” Rev. Kierce said. “We’re building on the success we’ve had, expanding it to be able to offer this opportunity to more churches.”
Each of the 30 coaches will only serve as a consultant to one church per year, he said.
“Our commitment is to make sure that every church that gets approved for a Next Steps consultation gets served thoroughly, adequately, and effectively.”
The Next Steps process is available to all churches, regardless of size. All that’s required, Rev. Kierce said, is a desire to learn the process and serve the community.
“Next Steps will really be for those churches that want to engage their community, who want to take the next step in their ministry.”
Reflect and engage
The required self-reflection and assessment are the most important pieces of the Next Steps process, along with the community assessment, said Dr. Doug Pennington, superintendent of the Marianna/Panama City District.
It’s important, he said, that a congregation have an honest and intentional look at whether or not they are engaged in their community. The Next Steps process requires such an assessment plus conversations with community leaders to learn of needs.
Dr. Pennington sees the fruit that Next Steps has produced at Blountstown UMC as they saw the needs in their community and began to help meet them.
“They have done this together and built a strong sense of unity, enthusiasm, and momentum in the congregation. The church has grown and reached new people and baptized folks,” he said. “I would love to see every church take whatever is the next step in helping touch their community for Christ.”
Not just another program
Next Steps is not just another program, another process for church health.
It is, at its core, an outreach-focused process and tool designed to help congregations become more engaged with their community.
“This is about doing what Jesus told us to do and giving purpose to the reason we breathe. As the body of Christ, we are here to serve our communities and the Kingdom,” Rev. Kierce said. “This isn’t an approach to helping churches survive. This is about re-engaging the purpose for which Jesus created us. I want to see churches rediscover and reengage the purpose for why they exist in their community.”
A lot of good was done and is still being done at Blountstown UMC and in the community as a result of Next Steps, said Rev. Nick Hughes.
Nothing, though, is better than the baptism they celebrated not long ago.
“Some remarkable things have resulted just by the seeds that were planted by Next Steps,” he said.
If you’re interested in taking the next step in your ministry and in your church’s engagement with your community, please contact either Rev. Bill Kierce or Sandy Gutting in the Office of Congregational Development or your District Superintendent.