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National church staff member serves Green Bluff church

A national United Methodist staff member lives below the mountains among the orchards and small farms in Green Bluff. 

From there the Rev. John Southwick telecommutes most days, commutes a week a month to New York City and travels throughout the United States to attend meetings and share resources.

The five years he has been there, he has served as the part-time pastor of Green Bluff United Methodist Church, where he has found a congregation ready to implement simple ideas for growth. 

John Southwick
John Southwick

With God’s help, he said, the 100-year-old congregation has renewed itself—building attendance from 20 to more than 50, quadrupling their giving, attending Bible studies and joining in outreach.

His primary part-time work is as director of congregational and demographic research for the national General Board for Global Ministries.  In that work, he packages demographics and church statistics so a congregation can understand its area better, and so districts and annual conferences can have information relevant for starting new churches.

“We include trends in the culture with demographics that relate to churches to help churches know how to minister more effectively in their environment,” he said.

John also edits a monthly newsletter on Background Data for Mission, looking at culture, demographics and church response.

With the national church, he travels to help churches around the United States know how they might grow and have new life and vitality.

“It’s a joy to be part of a church that’s doing that,” he said.  “God has done good things among us at Green Bluff.”

John, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, felt called to ministry after college.  However, he spent several years as an economic researcher for the phone company in Colorado, preparing impact statements required by regulatory boards for increasing prices.

Now he applies his research and demographic skills to the church scene.

After completing studies at Iliff Seminary in 1986, John served several churches in Colorado before coming to Milton, Wash., near Tacoma, where he served seven years.

John then accepted the job with Global Ministries in New York City and lived there for five years before moving to Green Bluff.

The church, which celebrates its centennial in 2009, previously experienced conflict and lost members.  Those remaining were open, receptive and hopeful, which he said are key elements for church renewal. 

John said the church has been at 9908 E Greenbluff Rd. most of its life.  Its white building with 13 pews was built in the 1940s after the old building burned.  The average attendance has been 40.

Changes in worship life have had a major impact on the congregation.

“We shifted from traditional to blended worship,” John said, explaining that blended is part traditional and part contemporary.  “We use lots of music and media—an overhead projector, DVDs and videos.  With services full of energy, no one is concerned about going over an hour.”

An extension of people into mission has accompanied the increases in attendance and giving.  The church’s mission outreaches that include:

• Supporting a new church start through United Methodist Global Ministries in Russia;

• Giving to and volunteering with a food bank in Mead;

• Joining in the CROP Hunger Walk to raise funds for local and global hunger relief;

• Opening the Clothing Closet in the church to provide clothes for people in need, and

• Helping the ecumenical New Hope Resource Center at Colbert Presbyterian Church provide for basic needs in unincorporated areas of North Spokane County, where about 45 percent of the people are low-income.

John said the tie between church renewal and outreach is subtle: “It’s about church members looking beyond themselves, becoming aware that the church is not a country club to serve only those who attend.  It’s there to reach out to serve others.

“That ethos allows an openness that communicates welcome to people,” he said.  “As new people come with different interests, the church incorporates their gifts.”

Prayer is another key element in church renewal, John said.

The motto on the church’s T-shirts is:  “It’s a God thing!”

“We give credit to God for what is happening here.  God has done much beyond our programs, outreach and prayer,” he said.

Green Bluff United Methodist holds a Wednesday evening prayer meeting.  Those who come pray for more than typical concerns about illness and travel.

“We pray for God to bring new people and that we will touch people in the community and world,” he said.  “We believe God answers prayer.”

Spiritual formation for church leadersis yet another element for church renewal.

Green Bluff United Methodist’s leaders join in Bible studies and other spiritual growth opportunities.  Five years ago, the Sunday school “nearly did not exist,” John described.  Now there are four age levels, with adult classes for men and women using the denomination’s Bible study.

“People who participate in the Bible studies are those who start the new ministries in order to live their faith,” he said.

In John’s travels with Global Ministries, he goes to conferences where people share exciting stories about their churches.  That both motivates him and gives him ideas to share locally.

John said his preaching follows the lectionary, seeking to make the Scriptures for the week exciting and relevant through humor, media and connecting with people, sharing how they apply to life.

Most who attend are from Green Bluff or the nearby surrounding area. 

The church is a community center, providing gatherings such as an annual Easter egg hunt and vacation Bible school for 50 children, and participating in Green Bluff’s annual Apple Fest, selling homemade apple dumplings and pies at a booth.

Old timers gather at the Grange Hall across the street.  There is no local government, school or shopping, he said.

Most residents in the area are small growers on five to 10 acres.  Many of them either have other work to earn a living or are retired.

There is some slow growth in the community, but Green Bluff is not zoned for developments, as is land nearer Mead or Colbert.

John has long-term intentions to stay at Green Bluff.  He said that United Methodists are less likely to move pastors if the pastor and church are doing well.  The part-time work there fits well with his national responsibilities.

For information, call 238-9100 or email jsouthw@gbgm-umc.org.