This is the first in a series of stories about South Georgia’s Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century initiative. Participating churches include St. Andrews UMC and Horse Creek UMC in Sylvania; Asbury UMC in Savannah; Haven Sheffield UMC, Nesby Chapel UMC and New Hope UMC (Nahunta Circuit); Speedwell UMC in Savannah; and Canaan Community UMC in Savannah.
When Rev. Debora Richards was appointed as pastor of Horse Creek and St. Andrews United Methodist Churches last June, the churches were in decline. Active membership in the Sylvania congregations was down and worship attendance had not grown in quite a while.
Just a short year later, both churches have welcomed three new members, weekly worship attendance has risen, and the congregations are actively engaged in ministry to their community.
Through the Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century initiative, also known as SBC21, Rev. Richards, Horse Creek UMC and St. Andrews UMC are working together and with a mentor to develop disciple plans that will help them grow and become more vibrant.
“The congregations knew that for the churches to live and be vital they needed some help,” Rev. Richards said. “So when the SBC21 initiative was presented, it was like a lifeline; it was like a rope. It was a place for us to start and to see that the churches could thrive and grow.”
The SBC21 program is designed to strengthen African-American congregations of The United Methodist Church and help them become more effective in mission and ministry. It does this by linking successful congregational resource centers with congregations that are in search of new ideas and revitalization.
“SBC21 is a tool by which God is providing a means of grace and an avenue for us to do and be who he has called us to be since the very beginning,” said Rev. Abra Lattany-Reed, associate director of Connectional Ministries. “This is an opportunity for congregations to say, ‘we’re not going to close – we’re going to do ministry in the context of where we are and we’re going to find a way and a means to contribute.’ Ministry still needs to be done whether there are 50 or 100 people there. There is still need for the church to be the church.”
The program focuses on six key values: discipleship, stewardship, evangelism, vital ministries, connectional strength, and community outreach.
“We have an opportunity, thru SBC21, to grow exponentially – locally all the way up to the national church – and to be evangelistically fruitful and vibrant in our current settings,” Rev. Lattany-Reed said. “Even though our average churches are rural … they can experience the same growth and vitality of a metropolitan congregation if we engage in the components of SBC21 … all of the things a vibrant church would find themselves participating in.”
A year-long program, the SBC21 initiative is lay and clergy led. The participating congregations engage in a rigorous application process during which they develop goals and objectives and analyze and reflect on their strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.
During the year, the congregations and pastors are paired with trained coaches who walk alongside them and provide leadership and support. Monthly coaching sessions help keep them focused and on track.
“Bishop King talks to us a lot about discipleship plans and making sure every person and every congregation has one,” Rev. Lattany-Reed said. “The SBC 21 initiative helps us carve out a unique discipleship plan for that congregation.”
The congregations at Horse Creek and St. Andrews UMCs took a close look at their resources and community as they set their goals and objectives. Members began inviting friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers to attend worship services. Recent “Pack the Pew” Sundays have been well attended. Church members have also reached out to a local nursing home, sending notes and birthday cards to residents and providing refreshments for their bingo games.
“It’s been great; it’s a good start,” Rev. Richards said. “The congregations are excited.”
Five South Georgia congregations and pastors are currently participating and a few more are working through the application process.
SBC21 is a soul-searching program with a high level of accountability, but it’s time well spent, leaders say.
“It’s been good to know that there’s hope,” Rev. Richards said. “Something as simple as getting a plan and starting small and working it does work.”