News and Views

BWC launches ground-breaking Catalyst Initiative

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 By Melissa Lauber and Erik Alsgaard

Imagine you asked for a million dollars and received it. How would you spend the money? It’s a question made for daydreams and grand visions.

For the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the answer was easy. The core of the Conference mission is to inspire and equip local faith communities to develop disciples of Jesus Christ so that more transformed lives transform lives.

So, when the opportunity to apply for a grant arose, they jumped at the opportunity to invest in building discipleship and providing opportunities to allow 108 local churches to be transformed as they learn to thrive and build content and a learning community that multiply fruitful ministry. This winter, the conference received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.  

Recognizing the enormous possibilities of such a grant, conference leaders, led by Christie Latona, the director of Connectional Ministries; Rev. Bill Brown, director of New Faith Expressions; and Kayla Spears, the BWC’s business data administrator, began to build a vision of strategic transformation and bold change that put faith into action in churches and communities.

With this vision, the Catalyst Initiative was born.

The Catalyst Initiative, Latona said, “provides a 10-month congregational cohort process of discovery, exploration, and renewal. It empowers a church to initiate a Spirit-led vision and understanding of its community, ignite faith into action, and invigorate people to claim God’s call to empower and enliven their communities.”

One quarter of the grant will benefit all members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference through the creation of a digital learning community called Assembly. This will enable more experiential online learning for many ministries and initiatives, including CLMs and work on antiracism.

In May, 12 pilot churches, who were chosen after an extensive application process, will embark on the Catalyst Initiative.

The churches are large and small, urban and rural, Black, White, and multi-ethnic and come from every corner of the Conference. They are:

  • Brook Hill UMC in Frederick
  • Chews Memorial UMC in Owensville
  • Colesville UMC
  • Covenant UMC in Montgomery Village
  • Davidsonville UMC
  • Dumbarton UMC in Washington
  • LaPlata UMC
  • Matthews UMC in Baltimore 
  • Middletown UMC
  • Mount Zion UMC in Baltimore
  • Mount Zion UMC in Highland
  • Smith Chapel UMC in Marbury

Using a cohort learning model, they will begin to claim a holy imagination, discover interesting ways of expressing their faith that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, shape new discipleship systems, and develop achievable metrics for measuring impact, Latona said. As they move deeper into the Catalyst Initiative, they’ll pioneer ideas about how they operate in a post-pandemic world, discern ways their congregations can be relevant to new generations, build enthusiasm and contextual paths for growth in ministry and discipleship, all while remaining rooted in the best of Methodism.

In a letter about Catalyst, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling noted that “in recent months, we’ve had to lay aside many of our traditional ideas about being church. We’re now called to dream new dreams and behave almost like new church starts as we discover powerful ways to use our strengths to build different kinds of relationships with people in our congregations and communities. It’s a season of great potential and great risk. It’s a kairos moment that calls on us to trust God and dare to believe that God will provide us with the things we need to build God’s kin-dom.

“One of these God-sent gifts,” she said, “is the Catalyst Initiative.” 

The Rev. Wendy van Vliet of Davidsonville UMC echoes the bishop’s thoughts. “The COVID changes made it abundantly clear that we could not go back to the way things were, but instead needed to go forward toward a God-inspired vision,” she said. “Our leaders saw the necessity of a new direction and they understood Catalyst could be the gift that would take us there.”

Others, like Pastor Keith White at Smith Chapel UMC, believe Catalyst will help his small church find “forward momentum in ministry. This initiative is right on time!” he said.

At Brook Hill UMC in Frederick, where the congregation had begun a visioning process just before the pandemic hit, they hope Catalyst will be a “blueprint” to help its members “live and love like Jesus,” said the Rev. Dana Werts.

Participants will experience Catalysts in cohorts, and each cohort will be composed of seven leaders from three congregations. Synergists – Bill Brown, Brian Brown, Michelle Chaney and Kay Kotan – will support active participation and application of cohort learning.

In May, Catalyst 2021 begins the first of three, one-day retreats. Throughout the next 10 months, they’ll also join in six online, interactive learning sprints, completed over a two-week period of time, and the congregations will participate in the Who Are We study. The learning experience in these settings will enable congregations to exegete their neighborhoods and find the strategies and tools to make God’s vision a reality for their church and community.

Chews Memorial UMC in Owensville and its pastor, the Rev. Valerie Barnes, are excited about this opportunity for a “deep dive.” Barnes hopes Catalyst will provide insights into what God is expecting of this small church of senior adults and show them how to “break out of our traditional patterns” and “move out of our rut into God’s intended future.”

And, the Rev. Rachel Cornwell is excited about how Dumbarton UMC in Georgetown, a vital and healthy church that doesn’t shy away for taking risks, “will gain clarity around where God is leading us to dream big and act boldly, so that throughout the Catalyst process we will be energized and emboldened.”

In January 2022, and at the start of each new year through 2025, a new wave of churches will apply for and participate in the Catalyst Initiative.

During the Catalyst creation process, a logo had to be created for the Initiative. The design firm Twenty and Three worked with BWC leaders. In the work, the image of the burning bush provided inspiration, representing a spark to ignite something holy. The “C” in the logo was designed to represent the church – “mobilizing, collaborating, and coming together to help transform congregations and their surrounding communities. The upward motion denoted forward-thinking and the act of connecting.”

This kind of creative thinking has touched every aspect of designing the Catalyst Initiative. A million dollars is a substantial gift. This new Initiative of the BWC will respond with equally meaningful measures, serving as a catalyst for growth, encouraging bold thinking and action, and for living out Gospel-inspired visions that enable churches and their communities to thrive.