Revitalization, in a Pastor’s Own Words

Neighbors at the Big Tent Revival

Neighbors at the Big Tent Revival, Delano UMC

by Susan Nienaber

I began this series with “What it Takes to Revitalize the Mainline,” an article I wrote with Bishop Bruce Ough. This article got a lot of attention in part because of how well-known and well-respected Bishop Ough is in our United Methodist circles. But it’s also an extremely important topic, and more needs to be written from the perspective of those like Bishop Ough who are on the ground experiencing success. Next, I wrote “What I No Longer Believe about Congregations,” a case study about what it took for one tiny church to begin to turn around and find new life. This article, too, received a great deal of attention and was reprinted on several other websites. I would encourage you to read these two articles first.

Pastors and revitalization

One question that I received after the second article was published came from a group of pastors who together read the story about the little Ogilvie church. They wanted to know more about what the pastor did to help this congregation begin to revitalize. That question stuck with me. I began to ponder how I would answer that, not just about Pastor Rob at Ogilvie, but based on what I am seeing across my district with pastors and lay leaders who are transforming their churches and communities.

In recent years my husband and I have begun doing podcasts together. I decided that another podcast was in order so that readers could listen in to one pastor’s perspective on how revitalization began to happen in his church. Here’s a little background on this pastor and his church before you listen to the podcast: Rev. Matt Sipe is a young pastor in his first appointment out of seminary. He has been at this church for a while now, and in recent months, extraordinary things have begun to happen.

Matt came out of a progressive seminary. This is important, because you will hear Matt talk a lot about the power of prayer. This is not always something with which we progressive folks are comfortable. Matt shares very honestly about his inner work that allowed him to lead his congregation to take huge risks. Matt and his congregation got the attention of their local community, and everyone in the annual conference was watching their experiment very closely as well. Folks were praying and offering support for Matt and the church. As their district superintendent, I was praying and holding my breath because I knew this was a very big risk!

Big Tent Revival

Here are three links that tell the story of the Big Tent Revival at Delano United Methodist Church. Please read at least one of these articles first and then go to the podcast to hear Matt talk about it.

As Matt describes in the podcast, transformation and revitalization can only begin with prayer. As I’ve watched the churches in this district that are changing, revitalizing, and doing deep transformative work, instead of just “rearranging their furniture,” every one of them started as a whole congregation in prayer. A particular type of prayer. A new program alone will not lead to revitalization. Copying what some other church is doing will not work. Revitalization has to begin with a season of prayer, and the work that results must be organic to each unique church in its unique setting.

Here’s an example of a prayer from Matt’s church that led to its Big Tent Revival, adapted from Bishop Ough’s “Prayer for Unleashing New Life,” used in the recent conference capital campaign:

Gracious and Holy God, send your Holy Spirit to:

  • Break through, renew, and revive Delano UMC, unleashing your vision for the mission of making disciples and transforming the world.
  • Empower the congregation and pastor to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you, O God.
  • Boldly use me, without limits, delays, or excuses, to: defend the poor, offer abundant life, and heal a broken world.
  • Create in me a clean heart and a joyful desire to follow your way of light, love, and truth.

We pray in the precious and powerful name of Jesus. Amen.

Here is another prayer, written by Pastor Jeanine Alexander of Minnetonka UMC, a theologically progressive church, currently engaged in a revitalization process:

Lord, we offer Minnetonka UMC to you. We are your people; this is your church. We come to you seeking your guidance, your purpose, your vision.

Align our will with yours, so that we will be willing to do whatever it takes to carry out your plan. We ask you to break through in new ways in our church. Show us the great ministry you have in store for us. Help us dream your dreams.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us, giving us the vision, boldness, and confidence to do all that you call us to do. Amen.

The work of revitalization sounds so easy if it’s only about saying rote prayers, but it’s also about what we believe is possible, and this can be an obstacle for us. A year ago I wrote an article on these words from Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you should care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor. (NRSV)

Whenever I read this psalm, my thoughts go to the fact that if God has made us just a little lower, crowned us, and so blessed us, then there is nothing we can’t do. All things truly are possible with God. The revitalization of the mainline is possible. Why is this so difficult for us to believe? One reason is that many churches have simply given up after decades of trying so hard to revitalize. They are just holding on a while longer before they die. I understand this despair, because many congregations have found that everything they tried did not work.

The peril of small dreams

Another problem I see, especially with the culture here in Minnesota, is our tendency to place a high value on humility. I’m all for humility, but I see something among despairing mainline churches, something that keeps those churches from dreaming God-sized dreams. Something that keeps us in the mainline almost content with the way things are – not really believing anymore that we can place ourselves in God’s hands and great things will happen. We have lost our faith and our spiritual center.

Many of you know this incredible passage from Marianne Williamson from her book A Return to Love:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I hope you hear Matt’s energy and excitement in the podcast. This is truly the most exciting time to be in ministry. God is not finished with us yet. God is doing a powerful refining work in the mainline, and I’m so grateful to be working alongside our pastors on the front lines.

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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