New Life for Willmar UMC

August 23, 2023

By Rev. Laurie Kantonen

Let me tell you about one of the churches of the North Star District that has rediscovered how much fun it can be to do mission and ministry together.
About three years ago, members of the Willmar United Methodist Church seemed to be stuck. They couldn’t seem to get the traction they wanted with some of the things they were doing. And this was leading to unhappiness within the church. Since they were going through a pastoral transition, when I met with their Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC), I suggested the idea of an intentional interim pastor. After some prayer and discussion, they agreed to the idea. They understood that we would bring to them someone who was trained to help them look at themselves with fresh eyes, to re-examine their unique identity, as well as examine their activities to see how they could move forward together.
Rev. JoAnne Taylor spent two years with this congregation. Some of the conversations had were uncomfortable—some were painful. Pastor Taylor challenged them to look underneath some of their practices, even as they were also dealing with COVID-19 and the limitations a pandemic put on being a church community together.
But they did the work. They adopted the practice of beginning their meetings by asking one another where they saw God at work in their own lives, in the life of their church, and in the greater community of Willmar. They made some staffing changes, some leadership changes, and some activity changes. A small group read “Unbinding the Gospel” and met to discuss the lessons as they applied to their church.
Last year, the church and the cabinet believed Willmar UMC was ready to receive a fresh appointment. Rev. Debra Schaffran came to the Willmar congregation, and she discovered a church that was ready to embrace change and try some new things, while keeping some programs that were clearly tied to their identity.
I have had a few opportunities to talk with Pastor Debra this summer, who says, “It is not unusual now to hear people say there is a new attitude in this church—a feeling of happiness.”

Willmar UMC has held a bazaar for 50 years, which draws hundreds of people from the community.
She pointed to a variety of events that were held this summer and will be held this fall. This year, Oct. 14, is the 50th year they will open the doors to their “beautiful bazaar.” This is a labor of love draws hundreds of people from the community, but also provides the joy of working together and crafting for many people from the church.
At the same time, the church formed a new team called “Mission Possible.” This team held three gatherings or social events. The original purpose of these events was outreach to Willmar’s collegiate baseball team, the Stingers. At the first event, none of the baseball players showed up—yet the church folks had a great time of fellowship with one another. The second event still saw no one from the baseball team, but in addition to many from the congregation, a number of folks with special needs had heard about the gathering and showed up for a great time of food and fellowship. At the third event, about half the folks were from the church and half were from the community. Even though the baseball team never did appear, the church had fun and began to form new relationships with community members.
An off-shoot from the Mission Possible Team that is just developing is a Kid’s Mission Possible Team. The kids are organizing a lemonade stand for the community and the congregation. The Mission Possible team is hosting the lemonade stand and bake sale on Saturday, Aug. 26 and after church on Aug. 27. Kid’s Mission Possible are donating the proceeds to a local animal shelter.

Willmar UMC's Mission Possible team held social events that drew members of the community.
One of the programs developed under Pastor Taylor’s ministry was a community garden. This program is in its second year after adding more plots, all plots are filled this year. The majority of the garden plots are taken by members of the larger community. Extra produce is brought to a mission table where people can take what they need, make any donation they would like, and the money is given to a mission project.
And they aren’t done yet! The Leadership Team will be discussing where their next outreach focus will be: ideas include reaching out to the collegiate hockey team or adopting a nearby local school.
I am so proud of this church for accepting the idea of an intentional interim to lead them in looking within and identifying ways to become healthier. I am excited for them as they continue to identify new ways of being church and blessing their community together. I am very thankful for the leadership and ministry of both Pastor JoAnne Taylor and Pastor Debra Schaffran. I look forward to hearing more from this vibrant congregation!
Rev. Laurie Kantonen is the district superintendent of the North Star District.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058