By Melissa Lauber
Eleven congregations in the Baltimore-Washington Conference have been working as pioneers during the last year, blazing new understandings of what the church might look like in the future.
They made up the pilot wave of the Catalyst Initiative, a process of discovery, exploration and renewal designed to ignite faith into action. This initiative was made possible by a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.
The experience, held on the BWC’s new online learning community, Assembly, and during Zoom retreats, enabled small teams from each church to uncover God’s call for their congregation.
To do this, participants explored how their congregation’s skills and gifts, combined with the passion of church leaders and the needs of the community. Where these things intersected, they began to see God’s call. Catalyst also provided them with new approaches for mapping out and experimenting with ministry tied to this call and maturing in discipleship.
Along the way, the churches, divided into cohorts, learned to transition from program to process, from deciding to discerning, from preference to purpose and from an inward to an outward mindset. They discovered how context is essential and pivoting is important and in so doing they grew from fear to love and from apathy to empathy.
Together, they began to recapture the essence of the early church – gathering together to be sent out in service. Participants began the practice of having many 1 on 1 conversations with new people in their communities and most teams named that practice as one they will continue beyond Catalyst.
The churches in the pilot wave of the Catalyst Initiative included: La Plata UMC in La Plata, Smith Chapel in La Plata, St. Matthews UMC in Turner Station, Brook Hill UMC near Frederick, Chews Memorial UMC in Harwood, Middletown UMC in Middletown, Covenant UMC in Gaithersburg, Dumbarton UMC in Georgetown, Mt. Zion UMC in Baltimore, Davidsonville UMC in Davidsonville, and Colesville UMC in Colesville.
At a retreat in March, the participants took time to evaluate the spark that had been lit in their church. In addition to the practical lessons, many said their core ideas about their faith had grown. Several said they were feeling more confident about venturing out of their comfort zones, others spoke of being brave enough to share God’s love, being able to call their neighbors by name, being vulnerable and risking at love, and finding their authentic selves and purpose in the community.
A three-member team from the BWC staff, which included Christie Latona, the BWC’s Director of Connectional Ministries; Program Coordinator Kayla Spears; and the Rev. Bill Brown, the Director of Innovative Evangelism, along with four synergists/consultants who worked with the congregations, were energized by the discoveries made during the Catalyst Initiative.
“Watching teams persist to discover a real need or opportunity in their community that they were uniquely positioned to engage was powerful,” said Latona. “Seeing lightbulbs go on, hearing revelations, and celebrating contact list growth of people not already a part of the congregation was exciting to witness. Not only did the first wave position churches to thrive, the pilot group provided invaluable feedback for us as we continue the initiative over the next several years.”
The staff and synergists were impressed that even though Catalyst launched in the midst of a pandemic, and the congregations were never able to meet in person, most participants reported renewed energy, confidence and hope for the future. “Some teams even developed adaptive leadership skills as they became stronger and more flexible,” Latona said.
At the retreat, they also shared Pechakucha presentations, sharing 20 slides and speaking about each for 20 seconds. In these slides, they unpacked the experiments they had performed as part of the Catalyst experience, to test out the call they had begun to discern.
The experiments included a broad spectrum of activities, including: a health webinar for the community, blasts of love bags sent out to those in need as a gesture of compassion, a geocaching event for young people, reading and gifting the book “Strictly No Elephants” to 91 second-graders, a gathering to increase connection that included remote car races, art therapy for teens to address mental health concerns, conversations that created relationships with area college students.
During the next 90 days, from the learning gleaned in these experiments and processes, the groups will move into new ways of doing and being church; ways that keep life-giving, relational discipleship at the center.
Spears is confident that the Catalyst congregations are a little more open and a little less afraid of trying something new. It is her hope that “they remember that church is about community, and less about filling the pews.” Catalyst created a safe space for learning, failure and discovery,” she said. “I hope that stays with the congregations long after Catalyst is over.” -
Brown was also impressed by the churches’ resilience and ability to think in new ways. “As I look back over the past few years, I recognize that this has been one of the most challenging seasons in the life of the local church. I also realize that many of the issues we are facing were not caused by the Covid pandemic, they were revealed by the pandemic,” he said. “The Catalyst Initiative brings me a renewed sense of hope as we are seeing churches make the missional turn toward the future.”
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling expressed delight with the “trailblazers of the Catalyst Initiative.”
Fulfilling the vision of “100 percent at 100 percent” – 100 percent of our churches becoming 100 percent vital – will require skilled, resourced, next-level leaders. People need to know that when they see the United Methodist cross and flame they will encounter Christ-centered, disciple-rich environments, informed about the community and the community’s needs and partnering with community leaders to affect positive change. Catalyst will help us achieve that.
“The time of our entertaining ourselves in the pews on Sunday morning is long past,” the bishop said. “Our goal is not to bring people into the pews. Our goal is for God’s vision for humanity to go forth through us as God’s vessels.”
Churches have already applied for the second wave of Catalyst, and those who were accepted will begin their work in May. Each year the application opens for all Congregational Vitality Pathways – including the Catalyst Initiative – on January 1st and closes on March 1s at bwcumc.org/catalyst.
Looking back on the first wave of the Catalyst Initiative, Latona had just two words: “Only God.” Her vision for the Catalyst Initiative remains a bold one. “It’s my prayer that we will be able to inspire and equip more than 100 congregations to discover God’s call, see all the people, deepen discipleship, and live and love like Jesus,” she said. “And, that, together, we will reignite a movement of love, grace and liberation in this region under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”