Investing in Congregations grants help churches ‘dream bigger dreams’

September 09, 2014

By: Amanda Willis

Grace United Methodist Church in Paynesville started Uzone, an after-school program for youth in grades 6 through 12, nearly seven years ago. At the time, its members never imagined that the center would have more than 20,000 student visits—but that’s exactly what happened thanks, in part, to an Investing in Congregations grant that helped the program get off the ground.

Such grants, offered through the Minnesota Annual Conference’s Office of Congregational Development, are awarded annually to churches that demonstrate a potential, capacity, and commitment to reach new people, grow in love of God and neighbor, and heal a broken world—and applications for 2015 grants are being accepted through Oct. 15.

Since 2007, youth in the Paynesville area have been able to drop by Uzone to do homework, hang out with friends, and wait for evening activities to begin. Uzone was one of the first projects to receive an Investing in Congregations grant. The money helped to pay for a site manager and two assistants.

“Having the support of the annual conference in those early days helped to give us time to nurture other giving avenues,” said Rev. Ric Koehn, pastor of Grace UMC.

Grant funding—which is awarded for new ministries, programs, or staff positions—ranged from $2,000 to more than $26,000 in 2014. A committee of six, which includes both laity and clergy, reviews applications each year and decides how to divide up the $200,000 in grant money that’s available through the conference’s apportioned budget. Projects are funded for up to three years. Grant money is reduced each subsequent year for projects that receive funding more than once, and the goal is for each one to become self-sustaining by the end of the three years.

Uzone no longer receives grant money from the conference. Its funding sources now include a variety of organizations in its community, along with individuals and the church.

Back in 2005, the Minnesota Conference started thinking about ways to provide a catalyst for reaching new people. The idea to use apportioned money for grants given to individual churches emerged during that process.

“In addition to some seed money, the grants encourage churches to dream bigger dreams,” said Dan Johnson, director of congregational development.

In 2014, 16 projects received Investing in Congregations grants. Those projects range from opening a new preschool in Alexandria to funding a director position for a bread-making outreach program in White Bear Lake.

After Wells United Methodist Church went through the Healthy Church Initiative, a transformational program through the conference that’s designed to help churches grow and become more vital, members discovered a need for a youth and family ministry to complement its children’s Sunday School program.

A few years ago, the church’s Sunday School attendance averaged about 20 children. But now—after two years of focusing on children, youth, and families in a variety of ways—that number has doubled.

With an initial grant of $10,000, Wells was able to hire a part-time person to lead youth ministry.

“[The grant] was a good shot in the arm to get a boost in that program,” said Rev. Paul Woolverton, pastor of Wells UMC. “It’s hard these days…trying to meet people where they are and have meaningful opportunities is our main thrust.”

Thanks to the first-year grant money Wells was able to revamp its nursery, offer a support group for parents, and establish a mobile children’s library. Thanks to a second-year grant totaling $7,000, the church is establishing even more programs and events for families and youth, including a local Pioneer Club chapter.

Through that club, which launches this fall, children in third through sixth grades will have the opportunity to meet on Wednesday nights after school to learn about the Bible and scriptures, participate in arts and crafts, and learn other life skills. After each four-week lesson has been completed, each student will receive a badge to add to his or her church-provided tote bag.

“This is not about competition,” said Woolverton. “It’s about relationship, encouragement, and affirmation.”

The church has learned some lessons as it has increased its focus on children and families, and it recently shifted gears to help reach more people in the community. Wells now has a combined children and family ministries position rather than two separate positions—and it has identified new ways to reach people in its mission field. Pioneer Club and a health fair—featuring a dietitian demonstrating healthy eating, exercise for youth and adults, and booths for mental and physical health—are just two examples.

Connecting with people is what inspires Woolverton and other members of the church to continue ministering within their community. “Ultimately, one by one, we heal a broken world.”

The grant deadline is Oct. 15.

Amanda Willis is communications associate for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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