A Recipe for Vitality

via Wikimedia

On a beautiful fall Sunday last October, surrounded by gently rolling farmland, the time had come for the faithful to share their joys and concerns. Several prayers were lifted up for the ill and the struggling. Then a long-term member spoke up with tears of joy: “I am just so thankful to be here today and for this church and for all of you. And I’m so happy that two pews are filled with four generations of my family.” I was struck that I don’t often hear that kind of deep gratitude for the gift of a congregation.

This is a typical Sunday at Graham United Methodist Church, 5 miles east of the little town of Rice in central Minnesota. GPS won’t exactly get you there, but when you arrive you won’t want to leave, for this is a vital congregation. After worship, thirty kids spill out onto the baseball diamond or climb on the playground equipment while adults enjoy brunch. It feels so idyllic! Every time I visit I can’t help thinking of the 1980s movie Field of Dreams. When actor Kevin Costner is asked if heaven is his cornfield baseball diamond is heaven, he says, “No it’s Iowa!” If someone asked me the same question, I would smile and say, “No, it’s Graham United Methodist Church!”

Pastor for a Country Church

About a year ago, Rev. Ric Koehn saw that this church needed a quarter-time pastor and expressed interest. Ric had retired from ministry, then realized he wasn’t ready, so he thought he could stay busy ministering to a small group of elderly folks. But when he got to Graham, he was surprised to learn how large and how vital its congregation was.

How does a rural church, miles from the nearest town at a time when so many traditional congregations are declining, maintain such vitality?

I believe there are several factors that are contributing to Graham’s health:

  • The church has a heart for children and youth. Adults of all ages step up to care for and teach the kids in Sunday School, youth group and Vacation Bible School—which reaches 50-75 kids from the community each summer. When the church ended 2017 with a nice surplus of funds, Pastor Ric encouraged them to set money aside so 10-20 kids could go to camp and to fund the youth group. There was very little discussion—for this church, this decision was a no-brainer.
  • Older adults communicate to younger people that they are the future of the church, encourage them to lead, and promise to support and help them. But they don’t micromanage or tell the younger leaders that they have to do things “the way they always have been done.”
  • There is openness to change. Members have encouraged Pastor Ric to make changes to the worship service—especially changes that make worship more meaningful to young adults, children and youth.
  • Younger adults with children have made a promise to one another to raise their children together in the faith, and formed a fellowship group that they call “Friends for Life.” These young families are just as busy with school and sports activities as young families in big cities, but at Graham, you don’t hear folks complain that young families are too busy for church.
  • The church is planning its first mission trip for adults, so that people of all ages have opportunities to serve and grow in their faith.
  • The church is a strongly lay-led congregation. The pastor doesn’t have to pull teeth to get things done. If something needs to be done, like the annual financial audit, he trusts that someone will submit the necessary paperwork. People step up, and even recognize how God is calling some of them to specialized lay ministries. There are now four trained lay ministers who handle key areas of programming.
  • Hospitality is a genuine strength and not just something that they pay lip service to. There is warmth and authenticity. It would be easy for a church with so many generations of families to become clan-like, but not at Graham. They continually draw new people. No one feels like an outsider. The first Wednesday of the month, Graham hosts a meal for the community, and nearly 150 people show up are embraced. Vacation Bible School and the monthly meal are feeder systems to reach new people and make an impact in the community.
  • The church deals well with conflict, handling issues with grace and care for one another. Graham’s leaders don’t back down about important issues, but they don’t do things that damage their mission and vitality as a congregation.

I spoke recently with members of a church that has been through a season of conflict. When they shared with me their belief that it is not possible for churches these days to reach younger generations I told them about Graham, where older members have let go of the reins and let the younger generation lead. A member of the conflicted church said, “That could never happen here! We have folks that will never let go of control.” I felt very sad to hear this.

Granted, it is hard for a congregation to reach new generations, especially once it loses all its younger folks. But I know that when leaders have the courage to make major changes and live deeply into the mission, churches can rebuild. I know this, because it’s happening now at Graham.

Susan Nienaber embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, and occasionally consults with congregations on issues of conflict, dialogue, crisis, personnel, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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