By Jessica Brodie
HARTSVILLE—Imagine a church with multiple sites, all connected. At one site, there’s someone with a powerful gift for music, and another with a gift for organizing. At another site, there’s someone with powerful preaching skills, and at another, lots of space, plus a few people with outstanding technology gifts.
Then imagine all of these sites joining together, sharing their talents, gifts, financial resources and building space—one big church with limitless possibilities.
That’s the grand vision behind the Hartsville Cooperative Parish, and two years in, the ministry experiment is thriving, its leaders and members invigorated with the plethora of creative ways to reach and love others in the name of Jesus Christ.
“This is a laboratory, basically,” said Dr. Reginald Lee, supervising pastor of the four churches comprising the Hartsville Cooperative tive Parish: St. John UMC, Lamar; Wesley Chapel, Hartsville; New Providence UMC, Darlington; and Tabernacle UMC, Hartsville. “We’re not afraid to try new things. It’s literally taking the gloves off, learning as a parish, using all our conference resources.”
The Hartsville Cooperative Parish started two years ago after former Hartsville District superintendent Dr. Robin Dease—now bishop of the North Georgia Conference—recognized several needs in her district. First was the shortage of elders to serve local churches, and second was a need to pair younger pastors with more seasoned pastors to help them grow. That, plus the fact that some of the churches in the district were struggling financially, prompted her to appoint Lee as supervising pastor.
Theirs is not a new way of doing ministry, with successful models up and down the eastern seaboard, including many in Baltimore and New York, though it’s perhaps one of the only such group in South Carolina so far. Nor is it designated only for rural or struggling churches, either.
It is, however, a creative way of pooling resources, gifts and graces among several local churches for effective community ministry.
As parish leader Michael Woodham of St. John UMC, who’s known as the parish’s technological guru, says, “It’s like one church with many campuses.”
Parish leader Linda Gilliard of Wesley Chapel agrees with the analogy. “One church may not have the finances alone,” Gilliard said. “With all the churches coming together, we can do more.”
Not only do the churches pool resources—money, gifts and people—but they also have been the grateful recipient of a number of grants to help them accomplish much together. Lee said grants from the Conference Office of Congregational Development and from the Hartsville District, plus support from Bishop Gary Rivas and Lyttleton Street UMC, Camden, have made a huge difference in the impact they have been able to make so far, and they are working hard to be self-sustaining in three years. Without such support, their strides would not have been possible, he said.
“It’s very hard to do ministry without money,” Lee said.
For example, in the beginning they started holding joint Unity Sunday gatherings where everyone took turns visiting each church. Each church took a month and held a get-together with powerful speakers, which motivated people to come back again and again. At the peak of COVID-19, they partnered with Care South and held a mobile van vaccination clinic, and they recently held a joint vacation Bible school that drew more than 100 adults and children across the community. Last Easter, each church sponsored members of a family with six or seven children that one volunteer transports to church each Sunday, purchasing new clothes for the kids, gift cards for the parents and supplying a full Easter meal for all. They offer grief ministries and a joint Bible study. During the holidays, Wesley Chapel hosted a Blue Christmas, New Providence hosted Christmas Day service with a multicultural baptism and St. John hosted Watch Night.
“Our foundation is the congregations themselves,” said Paulette Lunn, a parish leader from St. John. “Without them saying, ‘We’re going to work together,’ it wouldn’t work.”
Roberta Balthrop, leader from New Providence, agreed. “It’s unified us, and we’ve continued working on maintaining that unity.”
Recently they added two associate pastors to their team: the Rev. Melissa Williams, who was a certified lay minister and now is a licensed local pastor, as well as the Rev. Lyndon Alexander, who will be helping to cultivate new relationships with youth and young adults. Lee said it has been helpful to have one elder shared among the parish, as that ministerial salary is one of the biggest costs in a church.
“It softens the blow when it’s spread across three or four churches, and then more can be used for ministry,” Lee said.
Lee said what is especially exciting about their ministry is that it’s diverse, not only in race but in age. For instance, Williams is Caucasian, and many of the churches are predominantly African American. Alexander is 30 years old, while Lee is approaching age 60. Many of the laity preach services, bringing what Williams said are outstanding, excellent, biblically based sermons that rival ones she’s heard from longtime pastors. They’re hoping to bring in some Latino leadership, too, as the community has a strong Hispanic population.
“Ministry is about working together to meet the needs of the people, and I’ve learned that whatever you want in the congregation, you must show that on the platform leading worship,” Lee said. “It’s saying we’re open for different people to be part of our ministry.”
And it’s working. Balthrop said at New Providence, their congregation has doubled after the pandemic dip, with people coming back not just in spurts but every single Sunday.
The others churches are seeing similar growth and excitement.
“The glue started to pull us together,” said Theressa Bess, a parish leader from Wesley Chapel. “We needed all that, plus the congregations, to build the foundation, and we started to learn together.”
Future dreams include a way to house people in need, as well as provide after-school care. They are actively raising funds to make that happen. In late February, lay and clergy leaders plan to go to Atlanta for an invitation-only church growth seminar, and they hope to bring free new ideas back that they can implement here in South Carolina.
“It’s an exciting time,” Lee said.
For more about exploring a cooperative parish, email Lee at [email protected].