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'Just go for it': Missional Action Planning spreading across the conferences

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A community steel drum group had lost their rehearsal space, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Pastor Lucinda “Cindy” Kent offered the group a solution: use her congregation’s downstairs fellowship hall.

“I told them, ‘I don't want to be your landlord. I prefer to be your ministry partner,’” Kent said. “I am not going to charge you rent. … Make this place your home, and I'm so glad that we have space that we can offer you.”

Since then, the church has built a strong relationship with the group. That act of support was a simple one, but it was also an act of solidarity with the local community that is part of a larger movement called Missional Action Planning, or MAP, being lived out in the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware Conferences. 

Christie Latona believes that MAP is a movement that can enable congregations to pursue a profound and meaningful goal -- to “participate with God for the good of the community.”

“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” said Latona, who serves as the BWC’s director of Connectional Ministries and the Affiliation’s chief program officer. “Missional Action Planning is how we actually live that out in the communities in which our churches are located." 

To better coordinate these efforts, which sometimes involve major property redevelopment, the Affiliation has engaged a Property with Purpose Coordinator: Kent herself. Her task will be to support churches  as they seek to use their land and buildings to meet the challenges and opportunities  in and with their communities.

Kent is hopeful her experiences in real estate will help congregations navigate this process. (See a related story about Kent.)

“It’s not to grow the budget or the number of members that we have, but to meet a tangible need in the community, while also understanding that we aren't the saviors of the community.” Latona said. “It's true partnership, believing that the assets that we have, the assets that God has given all of us, are not just the assets that we ‘own’.”

Meeting the moment — in the UMC and at large

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling started lifting up the principles of MAP soon after she arrived as the chief servant leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. She has continued to cast a vision, for the BWC and the Peninsula-Delaware Conference, of more transformed lives transforming lives. She also established a conference Missional Action Planning team to consider how leaders might faithfully and strategically use church assets in the face of shrinking congregations, potential disaffiliations and the need to reposition the church for a new age.

These considerations come at an important time — not just for The United Methodist Church — but Christianity at large. According to a 2019 study by Lifeway Research, before the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through congregations, 4,500 churches closed that year. Only 3,000 congregations were started in the same year.

“In the next 20-30 years there’s going to be the largest sale of church property across all denominations, which in some communities will be devastating because there'll be no more community space and no more non-profit presence,” Latona said. “There'll be no more space where AA groups or Scouts can meet. ... Some sociologists are saying that's going to be the greatest shift in the social fabric in the U.S. since the GI bill."  

Congregations have been called to become 100% vital. Vital congregations see and respect all people, deepen discipleship, live and love like Jesus and multiply impact through identifying and strengthening next level leaders, collaborative outward facing ministry and strong youth engagement. When congregations organize themselves accordingly, more transformed lives transform lives, Latona said.

Structurally, there are MAP teams within the conference, districts and individual churches. The conference MAP team helps set priorities and protocols and may be called upon to help make decisions about where funds go in a particular year. District MAP teams — 11 in total — work to be the ears to the ground for their areas and encourage the vitality of their congregations. Each one works to understand the opportunities and needs in their areas and help set priorities.

This isn’t a program Latona said.  Local congregations should “just go for it.” Sometimes going for it looks like experimenting with collaborative ministry with people in the community or joining efforts already underway. 

The conference offers training to equip leaders and congregations to assess who they are, who their neighbors and where God is calling them to reimagine what “successful” ministry looks like. It takes deconstructing traditional beliefs on ministry and getting back to the basics. This is required for all congregations – regardless of whether they end up redeveloping their property. 

A successful MAP movement within a local congregation begins with an honest assessment and renewed understanding of being disciples,  rethinking their impact, and building authentic relationships with people on the margins, Kent said.

“There are a lot of folks who want to just have more seats filled on Sunday,” Kent continued. “Our relevancy has a lot more to do with being the hands and feet of Jesus Monday through Saturday. I think some of the mindset that needs to be shifted a bit are the people who are in the churches looking at the empty seats trying to figure out how we get more people in here. When we ought to be humbly reconnecting with Jesus at work in the world to heal, reconcile and love." 

The movement in action 

Every community doesn’t have the same needs, Latona emphasized. In the Greater Washington District, the need has regularly been identified as housing. But not every community’s need will be revolve around housing. There are a vast variety of other ways churches could use their property to address community needs. 

Churches seeking to be vital are now discerning creative ways to be in partnership with and serve their communities.

Silver Spring UMC recently went through an extensive discernment process and determined that offering affordable housing was, in fact, one way they could make a vital difference in transforming people’s lives. It is also intricately woven into the congregation's anti-racism ministry.

According to the Rev. Will Ed Green, the Washington Post wrote that Montgomery County was one of the top ten wealthiest counties in the United States. That designation, Green said, also brings large amounts of income inequality.

Throughout the 21st century, whatever progress had been made to stop homelessness was thwarted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In 2022, Washington, D.C. had the highest rate of homelessness of any state in the United States.

 Silver Spring UMC decided it could make a difference. Two churches merged in 2014 to create Silver Spring UMC. Green said the congregation kept both buildings, but each was poorly maintained. Once one of the buildings was sold, Green said the congregation went through a discernment process on how they wanted to use their resources in line with their reconciling identity. 

“What does it mean for us to be faithful stewards of past generations of faithfulness, for the sake of the next 150 years of ministry on this corner,” Green asked. “What does it mean to take our resources and use them, not to build a church, but to build in bricks and mortar our values in community?”

For Green, remembering the past is heavily influencing his congregation’s plans for the future. One of the first landowners to use redlining — a policy meant to segregate neighborhoods and withhold homeownership from minority groups — was a member of their church. In fact, he donated one of the original parcels of the land to the church 

“What we committed to doing is telling that story to move from the repentance that the church is so good at doing, toward reparation,” Green said. “Understanding that repentance requires reparation in order for healing and wholeness to happen.”

Much like Kent and Latona, Green is focusing on how to make his congregation relevant for the 22nd — and even 23rd — century.

“If we don't make that shift, the risk that we run is that the witness that we're offering today will be just that, Green said, a witness today and not tomorrow."