By Anne Marie Gerhardt*
The church reaches out to the poor in many ways, but some United Methodist leaders are re-examining how the church ministers with the poor and if it can do better.
To look for strategic answers, nearly 40 clergy, laity, agency and nonprofit leaders gathered Dec. 10-11, 2013, in Chicago at the second of two Ministry with the Poor roundtables. Two United Methodist agencies — the Board of Global Ministries and the Board of Church and Society — organized both meetings. The first roundtable was in Dallas on Nov. 6-7, 2013. Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference was the host to that gathering. The hope is to bring in new people, develop new ideas and start new ministries with the poor, one of the four areas of focus in The United Methodist Church.
“We want to do lots of listening, sharing, critiquing, brainstorming and strategizing,” Mary Ellen Kris, ministry with the poor consultant for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, told those gathered at the meeting. “This is hands-on, roll up your sleeves and let’s figure out how to do things better and differently than we are doing it right now.”
Participants agreed the church still needs to move beyond the notion of ministry “to” or “for” the poor and be more intentional of being in ministry “with” the poor.
“It’s relationship-driven rather than resource-driven,” said one participant. Others said it’s about dignity, empathy, inclusiveness and is transformational, not transactional.
Host Bishop Sally Dyck of the Northern Illinois Conference welcomed the participants and prayed that the two-day meeting would help rediscover the Wesleyan foundational movement to be with the poor in the world.
“There is extreme poverty in the city of Chicago that concerns us, and we pray that we may walk more closely with those who are out in the cold, those who are homeless and those who have no food,” the bishop said.
In the spring of 2013, Dyck put together an urban strategy summit in Chicago to begin to address some of the issues of poverty in the city around four areas including; community safety, restorative justice, education and literacy and food security.
“The United Methodist churches have a long history of helping to address these issues in the city and we have a lot of shining examples, but we can do more,” she said. “We need more shining stars. It can’t be just one or two churches — every church needs to be engaged with their community.”
Ways to move forward
In addition to some general agency staff, the Justice and Reconciliation Team of the Council of Bishops is also in conversation on this area of focus. Dyck reported observations and suggestions from their recent meeting:
- There is not now a movement of ministry with the poor and not a sense that people identify with and connect to that idea
- There is a need to identify ministries with the poor from around the connection
- Explore what being in ministry with the poor means
- Organize experiential training events around the country
- Get churches involved in healthy partnerships with their communities
- Continue using the website (ministrywith.org) to promote resources for the movement
The Rev. Andrea King, associate director of Ministry with the Poor of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, attended the roundtable and said their cities and churches are facing many of the same challenges. “It goes back to community over and over again,” she said. “Even if you’re marginalized for a time, you’re still part of the community, and the church can serve as an advocate and facilitator to reach the community a little better.”
The Rev. John Fanestil, executive director of the nonprofit organization Foundation for Change in San Diego, said he came to the roundtable to learn how local churches can be more engaged. “A lot of work such as advocacy, lobbying, partnering, mobilizing is being done well outside of the church, but the challenge is bringing it inside the church,” he said. “Some may not be comfortable with it or feel it’s part of their church experience.”
Building on the energy and ideas of the Dallas gathering, facilitators said the Chicago roundtable strengthened the groundwork for mobilizing more local churches to model Jesus’ example of servant leadership by intentional ministry with the poor, not to or for the poor. Planning efforts are already underway to offer experiential ministry with the poor trainings at multiple local churches 2014.
* Gearhardt is director of communications for the Northern Illinois Conference. Myka Kennedy Stephens contributed to the report. She is the public communications consultant for the United Methodist Women’s offices of Deaconess, Home Missioner and Home Missionary.