African-American listening sessions to help strengthen, resource UMCs

By Jessica Connor

How can the S.C. Conference help African-American United Methodist churches be as strong and vital as they can be?

That is the goal of tri-district listening sessions set for March across South Carolina.

All offices related to African-American ministries in this state will convene at central locations to better understand what clergy and laity need for their churches to be as vibrant, relevant and transforming as possible.

Dates are as follows:

  • March 8 “ Florence, Hartsville, Marion. Wesley Chapel UMC, Lake City. 10 a.m. to noon for clergy; 6:30-8:30 p.m. for laity.
  • March 15 “ Columbia, Greenwood, Rock Hill. I. DeQuincey Newman UMC, Columbia. 10 a.m. to noon for clergy; 6:30-8:30 p.m. for laity.
  • March 22 “ Anderson, Greenville, Spartanburg. St. Mark UMC, Taylors. 10 a.m. to noon for clergy; 6:30-8:30 p.m. for laity.
  • March 29 “ Charleston, Orangeburg, Walterboro. Shady Grove UMC, St. George. 10 a.m. to noon for clergy; 6:30-8:30 p.m. for laity.

Conveners include the Rev. Ken Nelson, conference congregational specialist for African-American ministries, along with representatives from Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the African-American Task Force and the Ethnic Local Church Concerns Committee.

This is the second time the conference has held such listening sessions. The first time, four years ago in January and February 2008, created a comprehensive plan for African-American ministries to reflect the unique needs of laity and clergy across the state.

It was essentially my job description, Nelson said. The most crucial step in writing the plan was discerning the needs, and we needed to spend time listening to African-American congregations and have them tell us what their needs are.

Out of that plan came initiatives such as the educational event Summit on the Black Church, the recent nine-month leadership coaching initiative for African-American pastors, deeper Natural Church Development outreach in African-American churches, mentoring African-American ministry candidates, an African-American listserv and more.

But a lot has changed in four years, and now, Nelson said, it is time to revisit that plan and do some more listening.

After all, not only have there been significant changes in the general church and the conference as a whole, but local communities have seen huge changes among the economy, lost jobs and changing resources, he said.

The listening sessions will help the conference better help the local church respond to needs in their communities, Nelson said: Our job is to come alongside and say, ˜What can we be doing to help? How can we resource and equip you?

Why an African-American focus?

Many feel a focus on lifting up specifically African-American churches is very much needed. While the nation and state have seen much progress since the 1972 merger of the primarily white and African-American churches into one, strengthening ethnic minority churches is still a priority for the global UMC. SBC21, or Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, is the General Church arm of what South Carolina tries to do locally.

After all, more than a quarter of all churches in South Carolina are traditionally African-American “ 269 of the 1,019 total. There are 201 African-American clergy, and nearly a fifth of all United Methodists in this state are African-American (44,338 of the 235,816).

With such a sizable percentage, the conference “ and the General Church “ believe that by doing what they can to strengthen a healthy segment of our churches, we are strengthening the whole, Nelson said.

The Rev. Ellis White Jr., chair of the conference s African-American Task Force, agreed.

Within our church we do declare there is strength in our diversity, and within that diversity there are some things unique within the African-American church that is both a blessing and sometimes a burden, White said. By being intentional and shining the spotlight on it, the church benefits from the uniqueness of the black church, but also the black church benefits from the connection.

Great hopes

Organizers of the listening sessions hope they will draw great numbers of clergy and laity to the sessions who will honestly share their concerns and issues.

A letter was sent in February to all pastors and lay leaders at African-American churches inviting them to attend the listening sessions with representatives.

White said the listening sessions are the conference s way of trying to hear people s needs, and these needs do not go unnoticed.

I hope it conveys the message to the local church and the laity that we are very sensitive to their concerns and their hopes and dreams, and we are connected, White said. By having a grassroots meeting, then normally what desires, wishes and concerns they feel don t get heard will get heard in a very intentional way that will help strengthen not only the local church, but the overall conference, as well.

The Rev. Carleathea Benson, ELCC chair, said she hopes the sessions will be a first step in hearing and responding to these churches needs.

It s my hope that the listening sessions will accomplish for African-American churches a venue where their hopes, dreams, frustrations, aspirations and leadership need, can and will be heard so that they may continue to be, for some, and may become, for others, a beacon of light for Christ in their respective communities, Benson said.

The bottom line is simple, Nelson said. The conference is listening.

It s time to ask and evaluate: Are we being as effective as we could be? How have our needs changed? Which direction do we need to go in now? Nelson said.

Once those answers come in, the team will craft a new comprehensive plan, which will be made available to the full Annual Conference.

Those who cannot attend the listening sessions, but would like to volunteer comments and concerns should contact Nelson at [email protected] or 803-786-9486, ext. 315.

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