The purpose of a district

November 18, 2015
Rev. Matt Sipe of Delano UMC stands beside Bishop Bruce R. Ough as the bishop leads a prayer at Delano's Big Tent Revival in October.

Some of you remember the days when there was a strong sense of district identity and when the clergy and laity in each district gathered together in many different configurations. Some of this still happens—for example, with our wonderful and faithful Big Waters District United Methodist Women—but there aren’t many groups other than our district committees that meet on a regular basis. These days, it’s hard to get people together, especially with the geography of the Big Waters District, and even more difficult to try and figure out the purpose of a United Methodist district given the shifts in our American religious landscape. I’m still not an expert on the Book of Discipline, but even there, I couldn’t find any clear statements about our purpose as a district. Indeed, much of our sense of connection these days as Minnesota United Methodists is with the conference as we seek to live out our imperatives of growing in love of God and neighbor, reaching new people, and healing a broken world, which is a wonderful thing.
Having said that, I have come to see that districts are called to a unique and powerful purpose these days. As I see an increase in energy and hopefulness across the district and see a willingness to innovate, take risks, and experiment with new and different ways of being the church, I see more clearly the work of the district. Much of my role is about telling the stories—the stories of hope and transformation that are happening across the district. I am the steward of these stories and a connector. I help folks receive these stories and begin to ask the questions of, “What does this season of transformation mean for our church?” And, I put people together as they experiment and innovate so that they are continually learning, growing, and supporting one another. What a joy and privilege that is for me!
One of my key learnings is that transformation and revitalization can only begin with prayer. As I’ve watched the churches in this district that are changing, revitalizing, and doing deep transformative work, instead of just “rearranging their furniture,” every one of them started as a whole congregation in prayer. A particular type of prayer. The other thing I’ve learned is that a new program will not lead to revitalization. Copying what some other church is doing will not work. It has to begin with prayer, and the work that results from that season of prayer needs to be something that is organic to each unique church in its unique setting.
Here’s an example from Delano UMC, which led to its Big Tent Revival (as you will see, this prayer was adapted from the Bishop Ough’s 2015 Prayer for Unleashing New Life):
Gracious and Holy God, send your Holy Spirit to: Break through, renew, and revive Delano UMC, unleashing your vision for the mission of making disciples and transforming the world. Empower the congregation and pastor to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you, O God. Boldly use me, without limits, delays, or excuses to: defend the poor, offer abundant life, and heal a broken world. Create in me a clean heart and a joyful desire to follow your way of light, love, and truth. We pray in the precious and powerful name of Jesus. Amen.
Here is another example from a Twin Cities District church, Minnetonka UMC, which is currently in the Missional Church Consultation Initiative (a revitalization process for large churches). This prayer was written by Pastor Jeanine Alexander:
Lord, we offer Minnetonka UMC to you. We are your people, this is your church. We come to you seeking your guidance, your purpose, your vision. Align our will with yours, so that we will be willing to do whatever it takes to carry out your plan. We ask you to break through in new ways in our church. Show us the great ministry you have in store for us. Help us dream your dreams. Pour out your Holy Spirit on us, giving us the vision, boldness, and confidence to do all that you call us to do. Amen.
So, once again, I want to urge everyone to say a prayer for your church and to figure out which prayer God calls you to pray together as the people of Christ. I promise that it will change your lives and your churches!

Susan Nienaber is Big Waters District Superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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