Wesley UMC in Winona experiments with new models of being church

October 28, 2021
Rev. Robert Hicks preaches to an online audience amid the COVID-19 shutdown last year.

By: Christa Meland

How do you build community during a pandemic? All churches have asked themselves some version of that question, and Wesley UMC in Winona came up with an especially creative approach.
“The church council decided one of its goals is to create a ‘semi-permeable membrane’ between the church and the world around us so the world around us is bleeding into us and we’re bleeding into the outside world,” explained Rev. Dr. Robert Hicks. He and his wife, Rev. Tori Hicks, moved to Minnesota from the Alaska Conference and began serving Wesley UMC in 2017.
The church is building community through three key avenues. One is the creation of a video production studio inside of its building. Hicks’ son, Isaac Hicks, creates professional-quality videos for use in worship (watch one here). But the church has also used the studio to support local nonprofits.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, members engaged in a campaign called “Wesley4Winona,” which spotlighted a different organization each month and encouraged the congregation to support that organization in a variety of ways. Each time a new nonprofit was featured, the church interviewed its director about the organization’s mission, the population it serves, and how COVID-19 had restricted its work and income; the interview was shared as a short segment during online worship.
More recently, Wesley has made videos for nonprofits to help them get the word out about the services they offer. For those on a shoestring budget, Isaac Hicks will create videos for free—and those who have funding sources pay the church a fraction of what a company would charge for a beautiful and professional video.

Isaac Hicks works in the church's newly created production studio.
“We’re not seeking to build out the institution,” said Hicks. “We’re seeking to build friendships that lead toward an inclusive community where there’s listening and there’s neighbor care going on. Wherever neighbor care is happening, the mission of Jesus Christ is being fulfilled.”
Another avenue through which Wesley UMC is seeking to build community is through the hire of a director of community-based justice, which was made possible thanks to a $20,000 Investing in Congregations grant from the Minnesota Conference.
That hire, Nicole Weydt, will focus on building relationships with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ persons, especially on the college campuses in Winona. She’s also interested in receiving training on how to become a “trauma sensitive congregation” and will take a lead role in finishing a hospitality shelter in part of the church. Housing-insecure individuals in the community will be able to come to the shelter to access washers and dryers, hot showers, and/or a place to stay.
“We want to be able to get into relationships rather than simply being a ‘Jesus Pez dispenser,’” said Hicks.
A third avenue for community outreach that the church is pursuing involves giving musicians and other local artists a platform to express themselves. This means getting away from the idea that the arts are to be performed by the congregation for the congregation. The church plans to hire an intern to seek out college students interested in having a space to perform music, poetry, or some other form of art.
“Our goal is to reach out to artists of all kinds, people who maybe are marginalized and don’t have a way to express themselves,” said Hicks. “We want to give them a place to share their art with no expectation that we’re trying to suck them in.”
In recent years, as Wesley UMC has honed in on its core mission, vision, and values, members have become ready and eager to try something new. Hicks is focused on leading the congregation in neighbor awareness outside the building while at the same time transforming the ministry and worship expression within the building into a true means of grace for personal and social healing. Today there’s new energy and momentum as the congregation is doing just that. 
“My hope is that we can show a new way of being church…new forms of faithful community that can help to redeem and recharge the life-giving practices imagined by Jesus in the formation of his church,” said Hicks.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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