By Walter Fenton
The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Church Revitalization Task Force has launched Nehemiah Journey, a pilot program for local churches seeking revitalization. Three cohorts of eight to ten members have been organized in the United States and Zambia. The cohorts will help the diverse seven member team that leads the Nehemiah Journey refine the curriculum and resources it has created. The team hopes to add new cohorts every three to six months.
At present, the Nehemiah Journey involves three 12 week phases involving pastors, then lay leaders, and finally whole congregations in the work of revitalization. The Nehemiah Journey is predicated on prayer for guidance throughout the revitalization process. Team members emphasize that sustained renewal and growth involves far more than selecting a pre-packaged revitalization program. While acknowledging that there are similarities among local churches that need renewal, the team says it is important not to lose sight of each church’s unique circumstances. Consequently, sustained prayer ministries are essential for every local church that joins the Nehemiah Journey.
“When the task force members started their work in late 2019 and early 2020, they were focused on examining roadblocks to church revitalization and exploring successful pathways around them,” said the Rev. Dr. Leah Hidde-Gregory, a district superintendent in the Central Texas Annual Conference and the Nehemiah Journey’s team leader. “Our task was to pull together a report that could help churches that had fallen on hard times for whatever reason but were committed to revitalization. We of course had no idea a pandemic would essentially force every local church to think about revitalization to one degree or another.”
Well before the pandemic hit thousands of local United Methodist churches in the U.S. experienced slow declines in worship attendance during the first decade of the century only to see those declines accelerate in the decade thereafter. Approximately eighty-percent of the 31,000 local UM churches in the U.S. average less than 100 in worship attendance and over half of them average less than fifty. A number of reasons are cited for the dwindling size of local churches. Some find they are in communities where the wider population continues to decline. Others recognize that the historic ethnic and racial composition of their congregations do not reflect their surrounding neighborhoods. And other local churches have fragmented or even divided over the theological and social issues that have challenged the general church.
The effects of the pandemic have exacerbated the challenges many churches face. Pastors, often serving two or even three local churches or working full- to part-time jobs in addition to leading a church, have found themselves trying to hold congregations together any way they can. Many have turned to virtual worship, but others are in areas where bandwidth makes online worship impossible. They have managed, often just barely, to hold congregations together through daily or weekly emails, phone calls, and socially distanced visits. And while many local churches have returned to in-person worship, they have limited the number of people who can attend by roping off pews or limiting the number of chairs in worship spaces. Most church leaders recognize a season of revitalization is essential as pandemic induced restrictions are lifted.
“Our hope as a team in creating the Nehemiah Journey is that it will be a journey to wholeness, health, and revitalization,” said the Rev. Dr. Scott Pattison a team member designated to help create curriculum and material for guiding clergy covenant groups. “In a sense, we need to understand we’re all in a season of revitalization, as we prepare, pray and work toward a new movement of vitalized clergy, laity and churches.”
Pattison, the lead pastor at St. Luke’s UM Church in Kokomo, Indiana, has been engaged in revitalization ministry for years. He has served as a mentor to clergy in Indiana and worked with pastors in Kenya as they explore principles for renewal and revitalization in the church. His congregation in Kokomo has agreed to join the Nehemiah Journey pilot program.
“I jumped at the opportunity to get involved in the program, and I shared it with our church leadership and staff,” said Pattison. “They’re not only honored to serve in this role but see it as an opportunity to engage in this process of prayer, congregational health, and discipleship building in order to be a part of what God is creating.”
Many local churches and their pastors often feel isolated and alone as they face the challenge of trying to stem decline and then grow again. Both Hidde-Gregory and Pattison noted that the sense of isolation has only been heightened by the pandemic. They believe the Nehemiah Journey has the potential to connect clergy and local churches in similar situations that are miles apart and help them with revitalization strategies.
“Local churches face tremendous challenges, there’s no doubt about it,” said Hidde-Gregory. “But I’m always amazed at how resilient most of them are despite the challenges. It’s the rare congregation that’s satisfied with where it’s at; the vast majority, whether they’re small, mid-size, or large, want to grow but are sometimes confronted by roadblocks they’re not quite sure how to get around. Given all the work we’ve done over the past year and the diverse team of leaders we’ve pulled together, we’re confident the Nehemiah Journey will offer ways for congregations to move forward.”
Pastors and local churches wanting to join a future Nehemiah Journey cohort can contact the Wesleyan Covenant Association for more information.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.