Black Church Leaders Learn Tech-Savvy Ways

October 01, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert 
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

United Methodist black congregations seeking to use the gift of technology often find themselves somewhere between Skype and phone trees.
 
So when nearly 100 African-American pastors and lay leaders attended a gathering of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century in Nashville, they were eager to learn how to better present their message to today's congregations.
 
"The black church is faced with many issues," said the Rev. Fred Allen, director of the program. "Some of the challenges are perceived irrelevance, declining membership, closing churches, clergy and lay class division, and even racism and (disparity) in the allocation of resources."
 
Those issues have made recruiting, nurturing and retaining clergy challenging, he added.
 
At the heart of Strengthening the Black Church are partnerships between vital, dynamic churches, referred to as Congregation Resource Centers, and smaller, newer congregations. Nearly 20 such centers - United Methodist African-American churches ranging in size from 150 to 9,000 members - are working in their communities to inspire and grow strong churches.
 
Adapting to new technology was part of a full day of training for these church members before the initiative's biannual business meeting, Sept. 25-26.
 
"Our goal is not to teach partner congregations to go out and imitate our ministry," explained the Rev. Junius Dotson, Saint Mark United Methodist Church, Wichita, Kan. "We believe that successful and effective ministry already resides within partner congregations. Our job is just to draw it out of them."
 
Image makeover

Two corporate partners working with the organization introduced a new Web site, logo and e-learning portals. Level4 Performance Inc. is a learning and work force performance consulting firm based in Atlanta, and The Myriad Group is a marketing and public relations company based in Dallas.
 
Toska Medlock Lee (shown at right) with the Myriad Group took participants through a workshop on "Creating Your Message" that helped them identify strengths and refine their message.
 
Lee said first up for the initiative was an image makeover to signal a change. "We helped with developing the content so people could see internally that it was fresh and new and redefined," she said, of the new Web site.
 
Erick Allen, director of Level4, "beamed in" from London using Skype to give a technology overview. Skype, which uses the Internet to make computer-to-computer calls, is an important piece in a Congregation Resource Center's puzzle, he believes.
 
Technology can cut costs by connecting many people without anyone traveling around the country to hold meetings, he said.
 
Participants seemed energized by the sessions, according to Marcia Walden, a senior consultant with Level4. "Ultimately our goal is to win souls for Christ," she said. The goal is for the church leaders to take what they learned at the meeting and "go out there to do the work God has called them to do."
 
Academy of Interns
 
Another key component introduced at the meetings was an "academy of interns," which Allen described as an idea for identifying young people with the potential to be pastors and matching them up with experienced clergy for two years of training at established churches.

The expected outcome of the program will be "high-performing black clergy leaders for appointments to assist in the revitalization of existing predominantly black congregations," he said.
 
"Strong effective leaders will help our churches grow," Allen declared.
 
Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter are "great vehicles to reach massive amounts of people," said the Rev. Kirstie Garnes, associate pastor at Saint Mark's United Methodist Church in Wichita. However, building relationships is the main goal, she noted.
 
"I use Facebook, I started out as a youth pastor so I am all about texting," she said.
 
"Sometimes people are not comfortable with that face-to-face conversation, but they will say a lot through text messaging. I am a fan of it, but I use it as a segue into building relationships with people, and it is very effective in my ministry."
 
At Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Cleveland, the Rev. Howard Pippin said the church is beginning to explore different avenues of technology.
 
"I have a 10-year-old daughter, and I know technology is very important to her," he said. "My chief concern is what is the church going to be like for her when she grows up? How is she going to relate to the church?
 
"I believe we have a great story in the church, and we are called to communicate that story in any way possible."