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Cookman United Methodist Church: Surviving Fears, Change, and Conflict

Cookman United Methodist Church: Surviving Fears, Change, and Conflict

From a ministry perspective, in the mid 1990s, Cookman United Methodist Church was doing great. New holistic ministries were taking root-meal programs for children and adults, a youth entrepreneur program, and an evangelistic play that shared the gospel with hundreds of neighborhood residents. The church even won a state contract for an extensive Christ-centered welfare-to-work program, and women in the program were coming to faith.

But under the surface, tensions and conflicts within the congregation were coming to a boil. A significant segment of the membership were unhappy with the changes initiated by the energetic new pastor, Rev. Donna Jones. The church board wondered if Cookman was stretching itself too thin and exposing itself to too many risks. The welfare-to-work program, in particular, raised misgivings. Some members did not like the idea of having so many people on the property throughout the week who were not attending Sunday services, and they feared for the safety of members and of the building. Some were uncertain whether it was proper for a church to work with the state. Compounding matters, the small church had significant financial struggles. There was a danger that the church could not cover their debt to the denomination, and the building might be sold and the congregation merged with another church. The question was raised whether Rev. Jones was the right pastor for the church at that time.

One factor underlying the conflict was the question of the church's identity. The church had nearly closed after the original white congregation moved out of the neighborhood. For the last 15 years before Rev. Jones' installation in 1993, it had been considered a "mission church" by the denomination, and this influenced the congregation's view of itself as needy. The congregation was more familiar with being on the receiving end than the giving end. Some felt that their own needs were now being neglected for the sake of ministering to "outsiders." Rev. Jones promoted a different image of the church, as a ministry outpost with valuable gifts to share with the community. She pushed the congregation-too quickly, she now admits-to reorient its sense of purpose and take ownership of the hope the church could offer to the community.

Rev. Jones had been caught off-guard by the strength and immediacy of the congregation's resistance, and as a result had to spend a lot of time putting out relational and administrative fires sparked by the conflicts. She reflects now that it would have been wiser to develop a stronger base of support and understanding within the congregation before moving forward with major ministry projects. As time went on, she found a better balance between taking visionary initiative, and cultivating the congregation's sense of ownership and responsibility for ministry. She also strengthened her relationship with core lay leaders who shared the vision for outreach.

One pragmatic response to the conflict by the pastor and lay ministry leaders was to set up a new nonprofit, called Neighborhood Joy Ministries (NJM), as an umbrella for the church's outreach. This measure was intended both to reassure the congregation that they would not be financially and legally liable for the programs, and to protect the ministries from opposition by the church. NJM was run by an independent board, which by stipulation included the pastor and at least one officer from the church board. Everyone selected for the board was enthusiastic about its vision. This arrangement allowed the work of ministry to go forward without getting bogged down by the conflicts, while maintaining the connection between NJM and the church.

Rev. Jones took another major step toward resolving the conflict by listening more intentionally to the voices of opposition in the congregation. She explains,

    The "old guard" did not understand what the "new guard" was doing. And we had not respected and honored what the old guard had done. . . . When I started listening to all the parties-when I stopped fighting and started listening-things changed. I got into the heart of each faction and discovered that people I thought did not have passion for ministry really did. I had made assumptions about the old guard, about how they thought about themselves and ministry. I did not see what they had done before I came. Their contributions were not lifted up.

Rev. Jones looked back through old church records and discovered ministries that had been discontinued before her arrival. She asked the members who had originally been involved, "How did you feel about what you did? How did you feel when this ministry stopped?" This helped her-and the congregation-realize the importance of community ministry in the church's history. This encouraged a shift in people's view of the new ministries, from a risky innovation to a reversal of a decline. Then she got people talking about what kinds of ministries they hoped to see develop. Says Rev. Jones, "I helped connect their past with the future."

Along with listening to members, Rev. Jones and a core leadership team also invested in re-shaping the congregation's theology and self-understanding. A key theme in teaching and preaching was the central importance of holistic mission in the Christian life-that Christians are saved not only for themselves, but for the sake of reaching out to others with the love of God. Another significant step was helping the congregation see how the church's community service also served them. Ministry leaders invited members to sign up for the computer lab, GED classes, and other services. This eased members' feeling of being in competition with non-members for the church's services. It helped break down the wall between members and "outsiders" receiving services. Along with the effort to motivate and equip the congregation for outreach, Rev. Jones addressed their need for internal nurturing as well. Pastoral teaching and counseling encouraged members to grow in the knowledge of their salvation and to rest in Jesus' forgiveness and healing. New discipling ministries were started, such as a women's group. Times of intentional reconciliation allowed the congregation-including the pastor-to confess their faults to one another and receive forgiveness. These steps helped to create an atmosphere where people could open up to one another about the hurts and struggles in their lives, and build trust.

For Rev. Jones, the crisis prompted a period of soul searching. Was she committed to staying with the church? Was she willing to continue making outreach a priority, despite the resistance? Did she have the strength or the leadership ability to carry on at Cookman? A turning point came, she says, when she found she could "let go and trust God to be in charge of the process." Giving the church and its ministries over to God was one of the hardest things she had to do as a pastor, but it brought her peace. "I decided if I was going to stay there, that was God's will, and I would stop worrying." Her confidence grew that Cookman's mission was the work of the Lord, and that by God's grace it would continue.

Despite all these constructive steps, the conflict did not entirely go away-but by the new millennium it had significantly lifted. The congregation increasingly accepted the vision for community ministry. New funding sources providentially appeared, and the threat of closure grew more remote. The congregation did lose some members, especially those who clung to the desire for a more traditional church. But slowly new members have been added to Cookman's family, some who found salvation through a church ministry. The "trial by fire" strengthened Rev. Jones' leadership, and brought a team of dedicated lay leaders closer together.

The growing acceptance of holistic ministry has "completely transformed the congregation. We are more capable, more confident, and more effective in what we do," says Rev. Jones. She reflects on the change the church has undergone. "We used to be a mission church-people sent us money. Now we're a church in mission."

[Adapted from Churches That Make a Difference, chapter 14].