By: Christa Meland
As with all congregations amid COVID-19, members of Willmar UMC have lamented not being able to see each other face-to-face much over the past year. But the pandemic has shifted the congregation’s focus outward and helped it serve and connect with its community in new and significant ways.
“There’s always something you can do to show somebody in the community you’re serving that God loves them,” said Rev. Jo Anne Taylor, who is in the middle of a two-year appointment as the congregation’s interim pastor. “There’s a new sense that God is using us and that God is doing something with us.”
A few practices have been instrumental in the transformation that’s occurring:
Agenda of thirds: One of the first things Taylor did after arriving at Willmar UMC last July was inviting committees and the church council to adopt an “agenda of thirds” process (borrowed from the Covenant Church) for all of its meetings. The first part of the meeting asks participants, “Where have you seen the Holy Spirit at work in your own life?” The second poses the question, “Where have we seen the Holy Spirit at work in our congregation and our community?” And the final third of the meeting considers, “Given what we have shared and heard, what decisions do we need to make to join in God’s work?”
Other church committees have since adopted the practice at their meetings as well. “It’s helped them discover how God is working in them, and the committees suddenly saw lots of ideas for ministry springing forth,” said Taylor. For example, when the final question was asked at the September Finance Committee meeting, one person shared that a local residential facility had been on his heart and Taylor suggested he contact the facility to ask how the church might be able to partner. A leader at the facility noted that the sleeping rooms are cold and said residents would benefit from quilts to keep them warm. The facility has 35 beds and the church’s members made and delivered 39 quilts in December after blessing them in worship.
“We are discovering that God is already at work and all we have to do is open our eyes to it and join in that work to be fruitful,” said Taylor.
Cross-committee collaboration: The congregation also started having all committees meet on the same evening, which has resulted in more collaboration between them. The Staff-Parish Relations Committee meets first, and then other teams gather all together via Zoom. After a short prayer and devotional time, each committee enters its own breakout room to conduct its meeting. If one committee has a question for or sees ways to partner with another, one of its members returns to the main Zoom room and asks to join another committee’s breakout session. Taylor noted that there were initially no cross-committee interactions, and in the last meeting there were five. After each committee meets for about an hour, they return to the main Zoom room as a large group and report out any actionable items for the Church Council—which meets immediately after the other committees adjourn and adds these items to its agenda.
The cross-committee collaboration recently led to a community project that’s now underway. The church’s parking lot is heavily trafficked because its path leads to a walkway at an adjacent park. Leaders are looking at enhancing the path to the park, adding a community garden, and refurbishing a volleyball court that rarely gets used.
“We are starting to think of this place we’ve been given, on this corner of a busy street, not so much as how we can attract people to our building but how we can use the land around the church to reach the community and share God’s love with them,” said Taylor.
Multi-modal worship: Willmar UMC, which now has a limited number of people in its sanctuary on Sundays, is also doing hybrid worship for the first time in its history—and reaching new people as a result. On Wednesdays, a worship team records the entire Sunday worship service, including music and sermon. The whole service is uploaded to Willmar UMC’s Vimeo channel and also broadcast on a local access cable channel. Meanwhile, in-person attendees get a live version of most elements of worship but they watch the pre-recorded music on-screens, which both eases the burden on the worship team and minimizes the COVID-19 transmission risk by forgoing congregational singing.
The church, which prior to COVID had about 75 in worship on a given Sunday, now has roughly 45 people in-person, 25 to 60 households streaming online, and more watching on cable. The hybrid model, perhaps with some tweaks, will continue post-pandemic.
It’s clear to Taylor that God is at work in her congregation, and she rejoices in seeing the movement of the Holy Spirit.
“In every sermon I’ve preached since I’ve been here, you will hear the words ‘change’ and ‘transformation,’” she said. “We have gone from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance…One individual change at a time gives me hope.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church