By Jessica Brodie
FLORENCE—Pastors and laity from across South Carolina headed to the Florence Center Oct. 6-8 for the Summit on the Black Church, a time to focus on helping the Black church stay strong and address obstacles keeping it from doing all God intends.
With the theme this year of “Heathy Churches: It’s Time for a Checkup,” the event featured a host of powerful teaching.
The summit opened Thursday evening with a time of praise music led by Nichelle McCann, then a welcome from Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, who asked those present to take a good, hard look at themselves.
“If the church is not healthy, then what are Christ, then what are we doing?” Holston asked, reminding all, “The church was created for God’s purpose, not your pleasure, and God’s purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Next, State House Representative Chandra E. Dillard, also a United Methodist lay servant and district lay leader, brought greetings on behalf of the State House of Representatives.
The Rev James Friday issued a call to worship, and the Rev. Victoria Richardson led the body in prayer.
The Rev. Corey A. LaSane brought the Scripture reading, which was Jeremiah 17:8-10 and 13-14.
Then the Rev. Walter Strawther brought his message, focusing on healing.
Feasting on Christ
As Strawther noted, diet, exercise and physical fitness are a million-dollar business, and it’s always pushing a “better you.”
But when we look at Jeremiah, we realize he understands his healing is not within; rather, God is his source of healing. And God gives us the tools, whether that is medication, diet or counselors.
Baptism is our exercise program, Strawther preached, for we confess our sins and then experience forgiveness. And similarly, communion is our nutrition program.
“The meal is the medicine,” he said, for in partaking of Holy Communion, we partake of the body and blood of Jesus, our saving grace and the true intersection of human and the divine.
We have to remember that we are joining Jesus in saving the world, Strawther said.
“Sometimes we think we can meet wickedness with wickedness, but instead we are invited to resist evil, injustice and oppression,” he said.
Communion is an opportunity to get right with God and each other.
“But I’ve got to ask you: Are you feasting on Christ or on the junk food this world has offered?” Strawther said to a chorus of amens.
‘God in the midst’
The summit continued Friday morning with a time of worship music by McCann. Then the Rev. Ken Carter opened with a morning devotion, drawing from 3 John.
Carter’s message was that we all should pray for each other’s “better self” that we can obtain through Jesus.
Our spirits can grow weary and cause us to do bad work, Carter said, and taking care of our entire self must be an effort, one that we focus upon. Physical problems, negative thinking and bad spiritual habits can overwhelm and drag us down. But we must dominate and replace them with praise, replace them with good and worthy things.
“It doesn’t just happen when you show up for church,” Carter said to applause. “God has to be in the midst of your calls for healthiness.”
A spiritual checkup is important, and not just for us. The church must do the same.
Next Strawther welcomed all, and then came a ministry glimpse from congregational development.
A skit, “Healthy Churches from Head to Toe,” narrated by the Revs. Doris Bright and Jeffrey Salley and written by the Rev. Mary Johnson, used humor to emphasize its main point: We must assess our church and get a checkup from head to toe, then ask now what? Is Christ our head? For a church without Christ as the head is a brain-dead church.
Understanding emotional and mental health
Dr. Michael Bowie, SBC21 national executive director, brought the day’s first plenary, “The Why for Healthy Congregations and Pastors.”
Bowie said it is critical we help people understand the importance of mental and emotional health and how a soul reset can impact our health and well-being. This does not only impact us but the church and community as a whole.
After all, Bowie said, the church must do an annual checkup just like we do at the doctor, and not just physical but mental and emotional, too.
“Pandemic taught us many things, and the key is that we must focus on the main thing,” Bowie said, which is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Bowie said we must understand the importance of mental health, which can cause changes in how we think and feel and affect our mood. It also can be realized through post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, mood disorders and suicide.
Bowie offered several statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, including that 1 in 4 adults have experienced a mental health issue; 1 in 10 young people have experienced major depression; 1 in 25 have had a serious mental illness; and suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
Many throughout the Bible suffered with mental health issues, from Jeremiah (extreme grief) to Job (grief, loss, PTSD) and Elijah (depression and suicidal thoughts)—we are not alone in this.
He taught about signs of mental health issues including sleep issues, increased substance use, lack of energy, family issues and feeling unsafe or anxious. Help is available, Bowie said, urging people to consider medications, therapy, support groups, exercise, yoga and expression through writing or music.
“People of color hear me: You can’t pray harder or fast more to get rid of bipolar,” Bowie said.
In 2014, Bowie shared, he hit a wall and had to take eight weeks off to reset. The experience taught him that we often struggle with embarrassment, shame, pride and fear about mental health.
But, he said, “God can’t heal what you don’t reveal.”
Secondly, Bowie said, we must understand the importance of emotional health, when we are in control of thoughts, feelings, behaviors and able to cope with life’s challenges.
Emotional health is about how we feel, he taught, while mental health is about how we think.
Bowie offered five ways to improve emotional health, including to be aware of your emotions/reactions, manage stress, strive for balance, stay positive/surround yourself with positive and nontoxic people and take care of your physical health.
“When we’re not emotionally well, a molehill becomes a mountain,” Bowie said.
He encouraged people to consider a “soul reset,” which is a hard stop of chronic busyness to take a deep look within and to God. It’s seeking God’s presence through prayer and fasting and living your life how God planned in the beginning.
“To get to a soul reset, you must admit something isn’t working,” he said.
Dr. Robin Dease brought the day’s second plenary, on stewardship. Dease shared that data is essential to church growth, and we need to learn how to make the most of the data we collect.
With 84 percent of churches plateauing or declining, it’s vital to put data to good use.
“We need to tell the truth about our numbers,” Dease said.
She noted that Black churches are seeing an increasing number of small congregations, declining numbers and a drop in giving.
“The average giving is $17/week, but in the Black church it’s $11/week,” Dease said. “Yet U.S. Christians make $5.2 trillion annually! Our issue is not that we don’t have money—it’s a spiritual one.”
She said data shows Black spending power reached $1.6 trillion in 2021, but net worth declined.
As well, 99 percent of Black churches are behind in direct billing (more than $3 million).
“We spend our money to cover up the pain, spend on what we wear and drive, give the appearance we are doing OK, but we live paycheck to paycheck,” Dease said.
This needs to stop, she said.
God can do great thing with the remnant—what is left. We need to consider our plan: Where are we now, where do we want to be and how will we get there? Instead of two- or three-point charges, we need to be cooperative parishes. We also need to recognize the fastest-growing churches are multiracial and multicultural and we need to start equipping churches to do this. Other churches are taking unique approaches to funding in order to stay afloat financially. For example, she said, Ebenezer in Washington, D.C., is now offering some of its space as condos for rent. A church in Dallas, Union Dallas Coffee, is part worship space and part coffee shop.
“Get creative,” Dease urged.
Next came a luncheon and time of sharing with Holston, who talked about leadership and relationship-building when it comes to difficult times.
“People visit you Sunday the way you visit them Monday through Saturday,” he said. “When you connect with your community, your community will connect with you. What are we willing to do?”
If want to be a church that thrives, he said, we have to challenge ourselves.
We are Boomers and Generation Xers in a Millennial and Generation Z world
“That means people we are trying to attract are not like us,” Holston said. “So what we do Monday through Saturday can’t just be for Boomers or Gen Xers. We’ve got to start doing things Millennials and Gen Zers recognize.”
It’s the same thing when it comes to the difficulty facing the denomination.
“Our denomination is at a place of a tough challenge, and we are going to have to learn to thrive,” he said, noting the next General Conference will be in 2024, though the official dates are not yet set.
As General Conference is the only body in the denomination that can change the Book of Discipline, he said, everyone must remain patient until that time comes. In the meantime, we must focus on the mission of the church.
Currently, there is one pathway for a local church to disaffiliate from the UMC, and that is Para. 2553.
For now, Holston said, he is establishing a task force across the annual conference of people identified by district superintendents to give him input how to lead well during this time.
Beyond that, Holston said, there are a few others things all can do: Pray for our church, be patient and focus on ministry and missions, trusting that God is with us.
Workshops rounded out the afternoon on a host of topics, including church administration, technology and the church, avoiding predatory lending, Faith-Activity-Nutrition Ministry, economic empowerment and the Here I Am app.
Saturday concluded with another skit, as well as a teaching session on discipleship and church growth regarding reaching Millennials (led by the Rev. Zachary Dillard).