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Church leader matches pastors to congregations for expanding mission

As pastor to the pastors and congregations in the Inland District of the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Dale Cockrum seeks to understand the ministry gifts and goals of each so he can help match appropriate leadership with congregation’s “moments of receptivity” for mission.

Leadership and mission are keys to church life and health, he said.

Dale Cockrum
The Rev Dale Cockrum

As district superintendent for 50 churches from Bonners Ferry to White Bird, Idaho, and from Ritzville to Wallace, he seeks to help churches be “missional churches.”

“Missional” means changing churches from an inward focus of marketing themselves as a place where people come for programs that serve members so they achieve success in terms of numbers, money and buildings. 

Missional churches see themselves as places from which people are sent, a “sent community,” reaching out to the community and world with Christian messages and values that stir action.

“In the 1950s, we built buildings to draw people to come.  Now we help members follow Christ into the world,” he said. “The church does not exist just for its own sake, but to go into the community, to enter into life with people.  The church gathers for worship to meet and be changed by God in meaningful ways and then goes back out, not just for the mission of giving stuff to others but to give ourselves to others.”

He listed five practices of fruitful congregations offered by Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and extravagant generosity.

Dale believes that, when leadership and churches are appropriately matched, each church can thrive and find its mission.

Dale comes into a six-year term in this “peer supervisory” role, stepping out of 30 years as pastor of four different churches. To create a life-giving mix of leadership and missional life, he needs to know pastors and churches as he works with Pacific Northwest Conference Bishop Grant Hagiya and six other district superintendents to match churches with pastors appropriate to their ministry needs and readiness.

Growing up in First United Methodist Church in Wenatchee, he felt called to ministry in high school.  Despite resisting, he grew into the call.  While studying history at Stanford, where he graduated in 1975, he was active in campus Bible studies and youth ministry in Palo Alto.   Dale earned a master of divinity degree in 1978 at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

His ministry unfolded in three six-year pastorates and a 12-year pastorate.  His first church in Reardan was his introduction to the Inland Northwest.

Dale found Reardan at a “moment of receptivity” for growth.  He was appointed as their first full-time pastor after years of being yoked with Harrington and then Edwall.  There he worked with “a vital group of young adults who 24 years later are parents and grandparents.”

Next he served as associate pastor at Pioneer United Methodist Church in Walla Walla for six years, pastor at Salmon Creek United Methodist Church in Vancouver for six years and senior pastor of First United Methodist in Olympia for 12 years.

“Each prepared me for this moment of service, because each is like some of the churches in this district,” Dale said, ranging from managing a large staff to understanding orchardists, wheat farm communities and the farm economy in Wenatchee, Reardan and Walla Walla.

He knows of challenges facing small rural communities, such as one that recently lost its grocery store, restaurant and business core.  He also knows of ingenuity in rural communities.  For example, when Edwall lost its public school, people there started a private K-12 school.
“Sometimes towns can reinvent themselves,” he said.  “The challenge is to find pastors to help small communities face their challenges in creative ways.

“As communities shrink
, it’s hard for churches to afford a traditional full-time pastor,” Dale said.  “Some yoke with other churches, combine local pastors or hire certified lay ministers if they cannot afford a full-time ordained pastor.”

Alternate approaches help.
As an intern before seminary at Central United Protestant Church in Richland, he knows the model of a united church in a government-business-established town.

From attending American Baptist and Plymouth Brethren churches, studying at a Presbyterian seminary, and doing an internship at a United Church of Christ in Kensington, Calif., he brings ecumenical insights.

Dale said when churches have moments of receptivity as Reardan did, they need pastoral and lay leadership to work in partnership that empowers lay leaders.
In additional to national United Methodist schools for congregational development forpastors and lay leaders, the region has the Rural Ministries Network, developed by the Rev. King Rockhill and now led by the Rev. Kathy Kramer at Elmore United Methodist.

“The Rural Ministries Network helped me in Reardan.  Coming from a childhood church with 1,500 members and a church of 2,500 in Palo Alto, it helped me understand the dynamics of a familial church.”

When he went to Reardan, there were no youth in the church, but there were young families, “so we emphasized worship and children’s ministries.”

In Vancouver, because a men’s prayer and study group included building contractors and trades people, they helped remodel their church and other small churches.

In Walla Walla, a group with a passion for mission worked with an orphanage in Tijuana and sent youth there to work and to play with the children.  The church also related with a church in Jamaica, where it helped build a church building in a poor community.

In Olympia, youth went to Mexico and built houses for poor families.  Some helped victims of Chehalis River floods and hosted a local Tent City.

“Mission touches lives,” Dale said.  “When youth or adults go out and visit people, they gain a sense of doing something meaningful and gain a sense of people around the world.  
“Mission visits are life transforming,” he added.  “Youth in Walla Walla, for example, have gone into teaching, health care, mission and ministry.  They realize the world is not just ‘about me and my problems’ as they saw problems others face,” he said.  

As he visits the pastors and congregations, he finds that some pastors face isolation, starting in ministry far from their families.

“Some face financial challenges, particularly this year,” he said, adding that, for the Annual Conference, 2008 was a strong financial year in terms of the amount churches raised for mission and ministries.

“Churches are not recession-proof, but we can offer strength to help people carry through hard economic times,” he said.  “People rise to the occasion when there is a need.”

Dale listens to pastors’ call stories and listens “to the heart” of congregations to understand how they see themselves, so he can find a leader to take them to the next level.

He encourages people to see themselves as “God gifted” people on a grace-filled faith journey.

 “Part of achievement is earned, but the church’s message is that love and grace are gifts to receive, not prizes to win.  Sharing with people that God loves them is central in ministry,” Dale said.

Dale believes that when people realize they go to church to feed, not just to be fed, they are less likely to jump from church to church.  By church jumping, they miss the opportunity to grow in faith that comes from being part of a community.

“God put us in churches so people will rub off each other’s rough edges,” he said.

For information, call 838-3085.

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