The Rev. Patricia Patton (Stokes UMC) and the Rev. Ron Elkins (Robersonville UMC) were both part-time ministers in small communities who had been at their appointments for two years. Both congregations had been declining and both admitted their ministries had become stagnant.
When Rev. Patton and Rev. Elkins suggested their congregations enter into a coaching experience, church leaders were doubtful that the model would make any difference in their churches. But the congregations signed on.
A year later, the pastors and congregation members report a sense of renewal within their congregations as a result of the coaching experience and the ministries they have launched.
Both churches utilized demographic reports, generated by the coaches, based on 2010 census data. That data included a comprehensive analysis of each church’s surrounding area. Both churches assumed their church was an accurate reflection of the community, but the demographic reports opened their eyes to realities.
Stokes UMC, located in a community of about 300, had an average worship attendance of 10. Census data confirmed that the town is not growing, but it is changing. While the community remains predominantly white, there is a growing population of Hispanic families. And there are children—lots of them!
Robersonville UMC, located in a town of 1800, had an average worship attendance of 36. The town is declining slightly as employment opportunities dwindle. Even so, church leaders were astounded at the community’s median income. “We were blown away at the level of need in our community,” said Robersonville lay member Pat Nelson. There were many families struggling to get by.”
The coaches invited the churches to consider how their current ministries addressed the needs in the community. Both congregations began to wrestle with that question as they imagined new ministries to fulfill God’s purposes in their context.
Stokes UMC focused on outreach to children and their families. Church members went out and met the children: they held an Easter egg hunt in a low income, mobile home community and set up a Fifth-Sunday game booth at the flea market. Now, the church provides “birthday bags” filled with small gifts and a Stokes UMC bookmark for every student in the local elementary school – over 400 of them.
Robersonville UMC, focusing on the financial burden experienced by many of their neighbors, organized a “backpack buddies” food program. Because children qualifying for free or reduced school lunches often have little to eat when not at school, the church fills 15-20 backpacks with enough food to last children and their families through the weekend.
Both churches dared to ask that critical question: “What can we do with what God has given us?” And both churches were emboldened to shift the focus of their ministry. In turn, they experienced unexpected results.
At Stokes, some of the children and their families attend services. Lay member Barbara Flake reflected, “We have had to really think about how we react to children. They may seem poorly behaved by our standards, but that’s okay. We engage them in worship, inviting them to share readings, prayers, and to take up the offering. We adapt to them.”
At Robersonville, lay member Pat Nelson spoke of a renewed enthusiasm. “We have sensed a spiritual change in the church and in our own hearts. We’ve even seen some improvement in the attendance and giving patterns of our members. People are more committed and more interested than before.”
Both churches expressed confidence that congregational coaching can be especially helpful for small, rural churches struggling for identity and purpose.
As they continue to think about their church and their mission, hopes are high. Rev. Patton explained, “Just look at Jesus. He did go to the temple, but he did most of his ministry in the streets. We probably should do the same.”