By: Christa Meland
In 2017, another couple from Minnesota talked Rev. Duane Gebhard and his wife, Jennifer Therkilsen-Gebhard, into joining them at the Midwest Mission Distribution Center in Illinois to work on a project. It was their first experience with the United Methodist NOMADS, and they quickly knew it wouldn’t be their last. Since then, the Gebhards, who are retired, have worked on a few NOMADS projects each year—and found great joy in doing so.
NOMADS—"which stands for Nomads on a Mission Active in Divine Service”—is a denominational group that provides volunteer labor for United Methodist organizations throughout the nation. They mostly do construction, remodeling, and repairs for churches, children’s homes, camps, colleges, outreach missions, and disaster rebuilding.
“I like the phrase ‘retirement with a purpose,’” said Therkilsen-Gebhard, who contends that NOMADS is one of the best-kept secrets in United Methodism. “You can combine travel with meeting new people, doing meaningful work serving God and our United Methodist agencies, and living in Christian community. It is just really healing.”
NOMADS can sign up for specific projects that pique their interest from a wide variety of options in various locations. They are responsible for getting themselves to the project location and providing their own housing. Most live out of RVs, and the host organization is required to provide RV hookups. Each project lasts three weeks, and volunteers work Monday through Thursday and have Friday through Sunday to relax and explore the area.
The Gebhards were leaders for two recent NOMADS projects that took place in Minnesota (watch video about local projects). One involved rehabilitating the parsonage at Sunrise UMC in Mounds View—including removing ceiling lights and fixtures, washing walls and ceilings, installing flooring, painting, and trimming and removing trees and shrubs. The group also renovated the child care center at Coon Rapids UMC to create more space for the infant room, which included replacing ceiling tiles, painting, and tearing out a wall.
“Having the NOMADS in the building was like a breath of fresh air, every day,” said Rev. Dianna Dunham Foltz, who serves Coon Rapids UMC. “Working alongside a few of our volunteers, they accomplished more than we imagined.”
The nursery remodel will allow the church to offer infant childcare to four or five more families, and additional employment as well. And the ceiling tiles that were replaced after a decade of a leaking roof brought a brightness to the entryway and hallways.
“Even more importantly, they worked with perseverance and joy,” said Foltz. “It was a wonderful experience, and we are so grateful.”
While working on the local projects, one volunteer contracted COVID and had to isolate at the Gebhards’ home in Park Rapids. But he was later able to rejoin the group after testing negative multiple times.
NOMADS often say God puts together the team needed to get each job done. Many volunteers come with a set of tools and have experience with specific building-related tasks. Others, like Therkilsen-Gebhard, see themselves as assistants who problem solve and learn alongside the more highly trained volunteers.
Each morning, the NOMADS have a devotion time together, and their shared mission gives them an opportunity to build friendships.
“By working together, we learn about the different ways that people approach life and experience their faith,” said Therkilsen-Gebhard.
There are approximately 850 NOMADS, and last year, they collectively donated 84,983 hours to United Methodist organizations, valued at $2.4 million. Over the past 10 years, they have donated more than $25 million worth of skilled labor.
There are a few things Therkilsen-Gebhard wants Minnesota United Methodists to know about NOMADS:
1. They are always looking for more projects, and NOMADS love working in Minnesota. If your church or ministry needs skilled labor, request help.
2. If you enjoy travel, mission work, and living in Christian community, and particularly if you are a retiree with some time on your hands, you are invited and encouraged to join the NOMADS.
3. Another way to get involved and support the NOMADS’ work is by donating your vehicle or making a donation.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church