Congregational specialists

What do they do and how can they help me?

By Jessica Connor

You’ve seen them in your districts or your churches, listening, dialoguing, connecting. All for the good of the Kingdom.

Officially titled congregational specialists, these seven men and women are known behind the scenes as the “doers,” the ones who make it their business to help United Methodist churches across South Carolina figure out what they need for programming – and how they can turn those ministry dreams into realities.

“The one word they don’t have in their vocabulary is ‘no,’” said the Rev. Willie Teague, director of Connectional Ministries. “It is their job to equip and serve all congregations.”

But while congregational specialists have been helping local churches throughout the state since 2006, many churches and pastors still don’t really know what a congregational specialist is, or how they can help.

What do they do?

Congregational specialists are seven United Methodists whose primary task is to help local congregations determine their needs for ministry programming, then assist in finding ways to meet those needs and evaluate their effectiveness. While they do not help with personnel, they can help churches struggling with staffing issues find resources where they can get the help they need.

In a sense, some consider them to be like “connectional muscle,” equipping the church to make disciples in its own unique way.

“What I tell churches is if you’re sitting in a meeting and you think, ‘I wonder what other churches do’ or ‘what resources are available’ or ‘we need help,’ then call your congregational specialist, because if I don’t know how to help you, my job is to find somebody in the conference who can,” said Congregational Specialist the Rev. Kathy James.

Congregational specialists do everything from leadership and stewardship training to Natural Church Development – even how to get more youth in Sunday school.

“We do whatever churches need us to do,” said the Rev. Judson King. “Churches call you for just about everything, and we try to help them with whatever they need.”

“I help churches be successful,” said Congregational Specialist the Rev. Jim Arant, who said his definition of success is, first, trying to understand God’s will for ministry within their context, and second, doing God’s will. “The local church is where ministry happens.”

Who are they?

Six of the seven congregational specialists are assigned two districts each: James works with the Rock Hill and Spartanburg districts, King works with the Charleston and Walterboro districts, Arant works with the Orangeburg and Greenwood districts, the Rev. Sonia Brum works with the Columbia and Hartsville districts, the Rev. Cathy Joens works with the Anderson and Greenville districts, and the Rev. Millie Nelson works with the Florence and Marion districts.

A seventh congregational specialist, the Rev. Ken Nelson, works with all churches to strengthen the black church for the 21st century.

Every congregational specialist can work in any district upon invitation. They work alongside district superintendents, complementing their efforts. Congregational specialists do not handle pastor-parish issues, supervision, administration, change charge lines, close or merge a church, or do anything else a DS would do.

How did they start?

Several years ago, during a time when the conference was analyzing the role of Connectional Ministries in relation to local churches, Teague was trying to wrap his mind around a practical way to help the local church. He knew large churches often had plenty of means to do grand ministry.

“But I wondered for years why we couldn’t provide conference staffing to assist small and medium churches for training and equipping them with tools for ministry,” Teague said.

At that time, the conference had associate directors of the then-Council on Ministries, who equipped committees. But Teague began dialoguing with James and others about equipping churches instead of committees – wouldn’t that be more effective? How would it work?

“I grew up in a larger church, Union (in Irmo), and went to seminary and came back thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way to get several smaller churches together and provide resources they don’t necessarily have access to,’” James said.

The idea percolated. And as the conference began to shift from a primary focus on conference-wide programming to a focus on local church and district ministry, it came to fruition. A small pilot project launched in November 2005, with James as the sole congregational specialist.

James, whose salary was then paid out of the Emerging Ministries budget, sent a letter to every lay leader and pastor in the Hartsville, Rock Hill and Spartanburg districts introducing herself as their church’s resource for ministry and asking them to contact her if they have a need.

The response surpassed expectations.

Less than a year later, in October 2006, it was official: The full-sized staff of congregational specialists deployed into districts across the state, ready to do their best to equip the churches.

Today, congregational specialists are working in more than 70 percent of churches in the conference. They respond when asked, and not all churches need them, Teague said.

But those that do need them rave about their effectiveness.

“Just having her presence made a big difference to our group and really encouraged us to work through the process,” said the Rev. Todd Davis, of Bethel UMC, Forest Acres, on their work with a congregational specialist.

Bethel worked with Brum on their second walk through Natural Church Development, and Davis said the church had been overwhelmed by all the different things it could try.

“Sonia was really sensitive about trying to get the group’s perspective on their life in the church, and not pushing us in any direction,” Davis said. “She just asked the right questions to help the church be honest about where we were, and that helped us see where we were needing to go.”

Davis also said Brum was “huge” on resources, providing workbooks, study guides and more that they never would have thought to try.

How are churches benefiting?

Congregational specialists help with a wide range of needs. Some church contacts involve a simple phone call or two about Sunday school curriculum. Others involve a large block of time spent in the church dealing with conflict resolution or strategic planning and visioning.

“What I do is meet with congregations and listen,” Arant said. “I take them through a process of exploring and discerning God’s will and then putting together a plan to make it happen. It is never the same in any church.”

Mostly, Arant said, his work is to help the church slow down from doing and, instead, hear what God wants them to do. Stopping and listening takes much time and effort, but it’s worth it.

“I have worked with congregations who have no interest in changing or moving in another direction,” Arant said. “Those have been les
s successful experiences. But in congregations who are willing to seek and follow God’s will, I have seen new energy and enthusiasm.”

And sometimes, just the very presence of a “neutral outsider,” who doesn’t have a preconceived agenda in the church, can help all voices be heard during a time of heavy discernment.

“When you are in the system, you don’t always know you’re not letting all voices be heard,” James said.

James said she will often ask questions church members haven’t thought of, which aids them greatly – such as, “How do you want your church to be known in the community?”

One church she is working with recently finished construction on a building, and now members are visioning their next step in ministry. Another is dealing with shrinking membership numbers and is exploring how to better connect with people in the neighborhood.

“A lot of time in the church we’re doing the same things we’ve always done and getting the same results, and in order to get different results, we’ve got to try something different,” James said. “I’ve seen two key things I can do as a congregational specialist – one is to help them see how God is already at work among them. ... The other is to challenge them to take that next step in discipleship. We’ve got to do some work to change our thinking and change our doings.”

The Rev. Paul Wood, First UMC, Cheraw, said Cathy Joens was a major help to training teachers of youth and children his church.

“We benefited immensely from her leadership, guidance, hope and energy level,” Wood said. “She helped us to develop an appropriate schedule for the training; she advised us regarding the creation of a new Sunday school class for teenage girls, a new class for women and a Children’s Sunday School Assembly. She helped us to work through our Safe Sanctuaries Policy and spot some issues. And most importantly, she gave our teachers excellent guidance, as well as inspiration.”

The Rev. David Bauknight, senior pastor of Edgefield UMC, Edgefield, said his church’s work with Arant was a tremendous asset to their long-range planning process. He said Arant was able to come in, explain their situation very clearly and give them an opportunity to ponder. Then he worked with the church to develop a fitting long-range vision.

That was two years ago, and today, Bauknight said the church has a totally different picture of its future thanks to the experience.

“What is really good is that this was not something driven by the pastor, but driven by the church,” Bauknight said. “When the church starts to take ownership of things, more opportunities exist for people to be involved. Jim has done a wonderful job getting a cross section of our church involved in different aspects of future planning.”

Bauknight said the experience really helped to broaden Edgefield’s thoughts and get members out of the box of where they felt comfortable, while offering opportunities to be more trusting of God.

Ware Shoals UMC pastor the Rev. Tina Thomas, who also worked with Arant, agreed.

“It has made a big difference for the church,” Thomas said. “Our attendance and membership have increased. We have added small groups and additional Sunday school classes. We had Vacation Bible School last summer for the first time in several years. The congregation is inspired to use their gifts to work together as God’s people. Jim Arant and the NCD process have helped this good church become even better.”

Michael Cameron, chair of the Natural Church Development Health Team at Trenholm Road UMC, Columbia, said working with Ken Nelson was extremely helpful from multiple standpoints. Cameron said Nelson, along with other specialists, work with such a broad spectrum of churches that they can’t help but have a vast bank of knowledge and experience that can be helpful.

“They are able to pull from that larger experience much more so than even your most dedicated member of an individual congregation is able to do,” Cameron said, citing the way Nelson helped them understand how other churches overcame certain obstacles. “Many of things we faced were common challenges other churches have faced.”

How can they help my church?

To talk with a congregational specialist about how they can help your church with any need, small or large, contact a specialist directly at or call the Connectional Ministries office at 888-678-6272.

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