Photo by Glenn Riegel
Northern Plains District held an Insight Session to explain a program that was developed and implemented to help bring healing at a time when the district had become deeply divided and tensions were high.
While dealing with this strife, district executive Tim Button-Harrison attended a conference on the Missional Church. The focus was on Luke 10:1-12, the story of Jesus’ sending of the seventy into the mission field, two by two. He began to imagine how a visiting program within the district might work.
Button-Harrison and other district leaders designed the plan, originally implemented in 2008 and carried out for a second round in 2012. Each congregation was to appoint two or three members who would visit another congregation. Then each of these visitors would be paired with a visitor from another congregation and together they would visit a different congregation. Their main tasks were to listen to the people and take notes during their visits, and later report back to an area gathering of the visitors.
Visitors were trained and congregations prepared to participate through scripture study, prayer, and reflection on prepared questions about what God is doing in their church and community, and what the church is doing.
A panel of several persons who had participated in the process told about their experiences and how it affected them and the congregations. Hope, healing, and new, deep friendships were common themes in the presentations. Even the long car rides that the visitors shared on their way to the churches turned out to be valuable experiences. Many friendships were formed in long conversations together.
One pair of visitors almost got stuck in the deep mud of a back road on the way to a rural congregation that had been feeling upset and not part of the “body.” The members were surprised the visitors had made the effort to come to them and to hear them out.
Panelists also spoke on how important it was for congregations to tell their stories to outsiders. As they did so, they often were able to better appreciate their own ministry efforts. Validation from the visitors was of great value to them. One panelist said that a church had been talking about shutting down, but participated in the process and described to their visitors some “huge things they were doing in the community. It made a lot of difference to them to see how someone from the outside appreciated their report. It gave them renewed energy.” This congregation and another struggling congregation elsewhere in the district are now talking about planting new congregations in their areas.
Panelists did not say that the process had created uniformity in the district on the issues of concern, but that people now are more appreciative of one another, have more respect, and are working at treating one another with love. One panelist said that his is one of the more conservative congregations. He said, “Now when we get together with other churches in the district, it’s not about those [political] views, it’s about doing God’s work.” Others agreed, saying that the mood on the district board is different now and that the focus is more on mission than on what has divided them.
The Northern Plains District Office is eager to share plans, training documents, and other written materials with anyone who would like to take a closer look. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 641-485-5604.
— Frances Townsend is pastor of Onekama (Mich.) Church of the Brethren and a member of the Annual Conference News Team.