When the Rev. Judy Stephens talks about church, she frames the conversation around people “going out” rather than “coming in.” Instead of thinking of church primarily as a destination, she wants to help people think of it as “a launching place for sending forth.”
“For a lot of us growing up, church has been a place to go to,” she says. “But we’re trying to promote the idea of coming to church to be spiritually renewed for the purpose of going out to be in partnership with others. That’s a major reorientation for many of us.”
Stephens is the program coordinator for Project Bountiful, a three-year initiative designed to help strengthen rural congregations and communities in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Through retreats and coaching, Project Bountiful will include nearly 50 churches before it ends in 2017.
Participants will discover how to:
- Listen to their communities in the church and beyond
- Build teams around mission and passion instead of simply filling committee openings
- Design a ministry that is vision-driven, intentional and relevant
- Examine ways to connect with other community agencies
- Manage conflict
- Explore best practices
The Academy for Leadership Excellence in Raleigh is leading the effort in collaboration with the North Carolina Conference. Partial funding is through a $90,000 grant from The Duke Endowment to the Conference.
“Rural churches have deep roots in North Carolina,” says Bill Gattis, the academy’s executive director. “Project Bountiful is working to help them begin a journey together to become renewed and revitalized through deepening their connection to the community.”
Stephens and Gattis share more about the initiative in the following interview.
What’s behind the name "Project Bountiful?"
Bill: We are confident that rural churches and rural communities are bountiful – and they have been over our history. They languish a bit now because of the cultural and demographic changes taking place across our state, but they have the capacity to be bountiful again. For churches, that means becoming more intentional in engaging with their communities.
How do you describe this initiative?
Judy: Project Bountiful is a journey of faith for congregations. Resources and support are provided to help them develop a plan to assess their gifts and how they might be in ministry with their community. Participation leads to a strategic plan or a pilot project for each church, or for several churches participating together.
How do they come up with a plan or project?
Judy: We bring in people to share what they’re doing and discuss best practices. We do a lot with data and demographics. Do you know your neighbors? Do you know how the community has changed?
Bill: We, as clergy, have not been trained to think systematically in terms of planning. So they might discover that they have a number of children in the local school that are in the federally-funded lunch program. They might decide that this group of families might really value a relationship with them. So they would create a program or a ministry that reached them.
I think in time, whether in their community or their church, God will raise fruit from that kind of interaction.
Judy: Teams from each congregation – a pastor plus two laity – participate in five two-day retreats over nine months. Those teams receive support from a home team back at the church. The idea is to get greater and greater buy-in as we try to shift a culture – and obviously it takes more than one person to do that.
Bill: It’s important to help these churches connect and know each other. Leadership development is one piece of this effort, and the clergy will have a chance to build partnerships with each other.
Between the retreats, participants meet three times with the extended home team to share what they experienced. A ministry coach is assigned to each church team.
How are the churches selected?
Bill: Churches are nominated by their district superintendent initially. We’re seeking congregations that are poised to move from maintenance-centered to ministry/mission-centered. We also are looking for continuity in pastoral leadership and a strong partnership between clergy and lay leaders.
Why focus on rural?
Bill: There's a great mission field there. That's part of our heritage. It's shifting the perception that “We're small and we, therefore, cannot do anything.”
So it's really about empowering these congregations to be involved in mission and outreach.
Judy: It's getting them out in mission in their community, but it’s also helping them to grow spiritually and to see their potential for being greater than they ever imagined. It's about affirming them as they build their capacity and confidence in leadership for the purpose of moving out beyond themselves in kingdom building.
Learn more about Project Bountiful
Learn more about the Academy for Leadership Excellence
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick