God right now, right here

The REACH Networks are practical, hands-on experiences for learning and networking.


LESLIE SCHNEIDER BENNETT
REACH Network

Rob Cook sees how the face of America is changing every time he walks through his son’s elementary school. “Younger generations are much more diverse than older generations and, as younger generations continue to grow, our world is going to become more and more diverse,” says Cook, pastor of Lansing’s Mount Hope UMC, which welcomes people from communities nearby and countries far away.

“God is doing a new thing in our world and in our churches. We’re becoming much more diverse, connected and global,” Cook explains. “And the church is in a unique place to be a part of this.”

Besides widening his net locally, Cook will lead a new REACH Network Group in 2018 called the MULTIETHNIC CHURCH. Chip Freed, senior pastor at Garfield Memorial UMC in Cleveland, will help provide weekly coaching for participants as well.

Cook’s goal is to help clergy and laity “work together, pray together and be braver to be a part of this new thing that God is doing. We need each other, and we need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

REACH Network groups follow each fall’s Reach Summit, a conference of speakers and workshops for those who realize they must transform churches. Reach Networks are designed to be practical, hands-on, yearlong learning experiences in specific ministry areas.

For 2018, REACH Networks include those on Leadership, New Service for New People, Multiethnic Church, Reach Systems for clergy and laity, and Connecting Youth/Reaching Young People. Groups meet throughout the state, throughout the year.

Participation takes travel, time and energy, certainly. Yet the payoffs are so strong that many participants bring other clergy and laity to sessions, opt to continue in their network groups the following year, and even participate in multiple networks in the same year.

Network participants say benefits include the ability to learn how to work smarter, not harder, with new tools, ideas and strategies that work and those that don’t. They also include helping people feel less isolated, reducing burnout and increasing energy. Members get feedback, support and camaraderie, as well as the clear conviction that God is at work among us today.

After participating in the LEADERSHIP Network for the past two years, Port Huron First’s LuAnn Rourke has a deep sense of hope and confidence. “With all the transitions that are occurring in Michigan, with unifying our conferences, our shift in focus, our structural changes, this group has helped me feel like everything is not coming apart. God is in this, refining his people.”

While her group has provided support through inevitable struggles, it’s been invaluable in helping her “build relationships across Michigan and through our denominational connections as well,” Rourke says. She was impressed when Beth Estock, co-author of Weird Church, spoke and later told Rourke to reach out if she ever needed advice.

Pastors in the 21st Century must be entrepreneurial, self-starters and risk-takers, says Dirk Elliott, who heads up the LEADERSHIP Network and is director of New Church Development for the Michigan Area UMC. “They should also want to empower others to improve their leadership and ministry areas.” His group is designed to help lead churches to multiply into new venues, services and worship spaces. In short, to multiply ministries.

Churches wanting to reinvigorate ministries should ask themselves how well they are reaching young people, according to Bridget Nelson, Youth and Young Adult Ministry Coordinator for the Detroit Annual Conference. “Youth ministry can be a draw.”

Her Network helps youth teams address challenges youth face today, including bullying, mental health, drugs, alcohol, relationships, time management and social media, among others. “We’re constantly catching up with new media and its challenges,” Nelson says. “What are they facing that the church can help them with? How can we help kids create an authentic community?”

Her sessions include visiting successful youth programs, best practices, sharing strategies to address challenges, getting feedback, and a deep sense of community and support. Michele Ettinger, Fuel Youth Coordinator at Clarkston UMC, is hooked. “I call myself the groupie. I’ll be in again next year as well. I’m a lifer. It’s rejuvenating connection that you have with others in your same situation. It is absolutely worth the time invested.”

And while the Rev. Christy Miller-Black at Flint’s Court Street UMC was initially concerned about the time commitment, she never expected her Network to have such a huge impact on her ministry. “I was kind of on the fence, but this was a game changer for me personally, professionally and for my spiritual development.”

Clergy and laity have found Tom Arthur’s REACH SYSTEMS Network to be a game changer as well. “I have been a Pastor in the UMC for 31 years,” says Jim Britt, pastor at Calvary UMC in Flint. “The systems training is probably one of the most useful, practical and helpful tools available to our churches.”

REACH SYSTEMS, using Nelson Searcy books and real-life experiences of Lansing’s Sycamore Creek, illustrates how to organize internal church systems to point churches outward into their own communities. The sessions focus on everything from moving first-time guests to fully-engaged members, to developing extravagant givers and mobilizing people for significant ministry.

Britt, who pastors a church of 120, brought 3-4 staff and laity, depending on topic, to each session. “We’ve found the connection card to be particularly helpful in getting people to respond, not only to the message but to volunteer opportunities,” Britt says. In addition, he has begun to do more preaching planning with staff and lay members. “It’s encouraging. As lead pastors, we should not be expected to preach 50 times a year.”

The group helps churches not only with technical changes, but with the adaptive, or “heart changes” required for revitalized ministry. “What the systems give you is some ‘hand holds’ to move forward,” Arthur says. And while it’s not designed to automatically fix systems, in the right context, churches can move forward with astounding results. Like boosted attendance, new members, renewed interest in small groups and volunteer opportunities, and increased giving.

As LuAnn Rourke puts it, “It’s a whole new game.” It’s time to start seeing the world differently, and tap into power, ideas, knowledge, expertise, systems and resources. And see what God is doing in Michigan right now.

Leslie Schneider Bennett is a freelance writer in the Detroit area and a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Rochester.

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