“Hope! Talks,” a recent Eastern PA Conference seminar offering short, upbeat, revealing, TED Talk-style* presentations, sought to provide nearly 200 local church leaders with what its hopeful subtitle promised: “Inspiration for Small Congregations.”
The six-hour event, held on Saturday, Oct. 21 at Lighthouse Fellowship UMC in Glenside, offered engaging narratives of diverse ministry experiences, ideas and insights from clergy who labor in the vineyard of nurturing small-membership churches. Their suggestions were focused not on how to make small churches big, but how to make them successful.
About 100 leaders from about 30 congregations attended in person, and about 70 more viewed livestreamed video of the event. Recorded video of the speakers is available on YouTube.
With titles like “Let It Go,” “A Vision Without Limits” and “You Just Need to Get Out of the Boat,” presenters urged the gathering to dream and dare faithfully, to follow God’s lead and to build networking relationships that can lead to survival and success. Their remarks could have benefited many more small-church leaders who could really use the help.
Eight exemplary elders and licensed local pastors spoke, each recommended by the conference’s Cabinet, which sponsored the event. Bishop Peggy Johnson substituted for a ninth. They were each limited to about 10 minutes, in true TED-Talk style. But they filled their remarks with rich, empirical wisdom and encouragement for their peers.
Vibrant, on-your-feet worship music by the praise band and choir from Bickley’s New Beginning UMC in Philadelphia, set the stage in the morning. So did Lighthouse Fellowship’s own choir to start the afternoon session following lunch.
The Rev. Cindy Brubaker, host pastor, led off the seminar by recounting a frightening dream of driving off a cliff. It was a dream that, like several of her pastoral appointments, turned from bad to good once she let go and let God lead her.
“Every time God wants you to go off a cliff for Him, just say ‘Yes,’ she advised. “He always has a plan.” She shared some risk-taking decisions and selfless mission ventures made by her churches that paid off, including the Lighthouse Fellowship congregation’s merger and move into its current home 19 years ago.
When Bishop Johnson asked them to welcome some deaf/special-needs residents of a nearby group home, the church said “Yes” and made needed changes to accommodate them. Now those neighbors are an integral part of the church’s worship, ministry and fellowship.
“God will provide what you need to serve him,” Brubaker asserted, decrying the common emphasis on raising money before attempting ministry. “Get the car out of the garage…Stop protecting what God wants you to give away.”
With “Get Out of the Boat,” the Rev. Bill Ritzenthaler (left) had a similar message worth repeating. He shared his journey from a very successful retail business career to serving for the past nine years at St. Peter’s UMC in Emerald, a small church making a big impact on its community.
“Either you grow or die,” he said, recalling a heavily indebted church that was close to shutting down when he arrived. When a company initially offered him 21,000 pounds of free food to give away, Ritzenthaler said “Yes” and found his mission. He has since secured contracts with restaurants and grocery stores, trucks to transport goods and ample storage space. Benefiting from his enthusiastic networking, solicitation and organizing abilities, the church, which still has few monetary assets, will give away this year a million dollars-worth of donated food and other necessities to residents through churches and nonprofits, he reported.
Ritzenthaler warned listeners to not fear failure in trying, which can be the best teacher, but to rely on God obediently and courageously. “The moment you find a reason not to move forward is the moment you’ve failed.”
Other speakers emphasized fostering a church’s collective imagination and the ability to understand, embrace and connect with its community. That’s what Cokesbury UMC in Marcus Hook has done for years, said the Rev. Sandi Cislo (left), who was raised in that church and now serves as its pastor. The small, working-class but economically depressed town, full of mostly dormant oil refineries, depends on the active church for its food pantry and monthly community dinners and its programs to teach and feed children.
The Rev. Robert Johnson is also trying to “make an impact” on the church where he was raised and now serves, Tindley Temple UMC in Philadelphia. They are experimenting with blended traditional and contemporary worship that is livestreamed, and maintaining weekly outreach ministries to feed, educate and serve the community.
The Rev. Joe Martin of Fallsington UMC encourages his members to recognize and share “your God story” with people everywhere as a means of sharing the gospel and inviting others to experience their church’s worship and ministry.
“Building Hope in a World of Alternative Facts,” was the title of the Rev. Victor Gimenez’s talk (left). At Union Memorial UMC in Darby he believes in using firm diplomacy and leadership transitions to advance progress, but also building trusting, outreaching relationships to stir discipleship and serve the community. “It’s not about attendance; it’s about engagement,” he offered as a recipe for small-church success. “Our survival depends on engagement.”
The Rev. Jason Perkowski, who serves Faith UMC Manheim and Oregon Community UMC, offered three main points: “You are bigger than you think you are,” “Being small ain’t bad,” and “If you do small well, you won’t be small for long.” He extoled the far-reaching value of our connectional participation in The United Methodist Church and its worldwide mission and the special benefits and close relationships found in many small-membership churches, “where everybody knows your name.”
The Rev. Joong Hyuck Kim (right), pastor of the Korean UMC of Bethlehem, stressed the need for patience and persistence in serving and nurturing a small church, which often must happen slowly. He also spoke of the importance of celebrating and teaching older members’ culture to younger generations, while making room for young people to create and enjoy their own iterations of culture.
In her closing talk, Bishop Johnson taught about the root systems of sturdy plants like mint that can maintain vitality despite harsh conditions and treatment. “It all comes down to love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” she said, reciting the virtues of love from 1 Corinthians 13.
During the lunch hour, it was participants’ turn to talk and network. After hours of quiet listening, they filled the fellowship hall with conversation about what they were learning and about their own churches’ efforts to keep hope alive through visionary and vital ministries of discipleship.
“We were pleased that over 30 congregations took part,” said Brubaker, who first discussed the idea with fellow clergy at the East District dialogue on race back in February. The planning team made a concerted effort to invite diverse presenters.
“This really was an idea from God that the Bishop and Cabinet helped to support,” she explained. “They suggested pastors to invite who are doing great things in their small congregations, mostly of them under 100 members.”
Feedback has been mostly positive. “We heard clearly the desire to do this again,” said Brubaker, “and I think it would be great to have one in Philadelphia, as well as out in the western and northern corners of the conference.”
*TED Talks, a nonprofit, began in 1984 organizing conferences to share ideas and learnings about Technology, Entertainment and Design. Today it is a teaching model that educates and engages participants on a broad array of topics through short, compelling, often visually-aided talks by practitioners.