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Grants help learning communities address six ways to transform churches

Terry McGonigal nurtures lives of churches.

Whitworth University semester study experiences with students and other travel since the late 1980s to Central America—mostly Nicaragua——convince Terry McGonigal, director of church engagement at Whitworth, of the need for Christians to be committed to living “the third way.”

That commitment began with Christians in the Roman Empire seeking ways to have impact on the world.  They did it by caring for the poor—widows, orphans and foreigners.

“Christians took seriously being a new community and living ‘the third way’—different from other religions and the empire in ancient times,” Terry said.  “We are applying lessons from the first century to 21st-century followers.”

Recently he invited Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum to speak and helped World Relief on a letter to Congress supporting a clean DACA act, signed by 70 faith leaders in the Spokane region.

Whitworth knows the impact on young people in the U.S. without legal status, because it’s “brutal on students, who are treated like pawns in the political process,” he said.

He also knows firsthand how U.S. policies destabilize Central America and lead to immigration.

Terry shared those experiences as part of discussing a $1.5 million grant for Whitworth’s Office for Church Engagement (OCE) from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s “The Third Way: Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose Initiative” and a nearly $500,000 from Lilly’s “Sustaining the Vision, Expanding the Network” program.

Under the first grant, the OCE supports six learning communities—cohorts of pastors and lay leaders in partner churches—to address common challenges and find opportunities to serve.

They will consider six topics, which are about transformation through 1) worship, 2) intergenerational youth ministry, 3) gospel faithfulness in the city, 4) creation care, 5) hospitality for refugees and immigrants, and 6) churches as reconciling communities.

The grant provides theological education and vocational action through the Whitworth Academy of Discipleship and the Whitworth Institute for Ministry, which is July 23 to 27 this year. 

The second grant allows the OCE to sustain operations and expand two programs:

• The Summer Ministry Fellows program has sent 140 students in the past three summers with about 75 more going this summer to explore vocations by serving churches and parachurch organizations for 10 weeks.

• The Preaching and Teaching Academy, started for Presbyterian pastors and commissioned lay leaders, will expand to other denominations.

The OCE is a resource for 40 Northwest and West Coast churches and parachurch organizations.

Through various fall gatherings, World Relief has recruited 37 churches into the Hospitality Learning Community.  In February, 27 churches attended the first training session at Whitworth.

“We are furthest on the road with hospitality for refugees and immigrants,” said Terry, who was campus pastor for 20 years and helped launch the OCE four years ago.

World Relief is training and identifying churches geographically near Spokane where World Relief has placed refugees.  In Spokane, refugees are spread in different neighborhoods. 

World Relief has resettled 10,000 refugees since starting in Spokane in the 1990s.  Before that, refugees came after World War II, Vietnam and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“There has been hostility to every immigrant group over the centuries as they settled in the U.S., but I go to the airport and welcome new immigrants and see local people greet people as their feet hit American soil for the first time.  It’s amazing and inspiring,” he said. “Then we listen to their stories about why they came and goals for their lives in a nation that gives opportunities.

 “For the six priorities, Lilly wants us to support church efforts from 2018 to 2021.  The OCE will grant $700,000 from Lilly funds to ministries supporting new, innovative, creative endeavors and will offer stipends to people leading in the six areas for meetings, books, materials, hospitality and speakers,” Terry said.

The grant will also support the Whitworth Institute of Ministry, giving it the ability to offer $200 scholarships for the $350 registration. People will come to delve into one of the six topics for five days.

In addition to the Lilly grant support, a Murdock grant provided a $3,000 stipend for 30 students each year to be involved with churches and ministry partners for the Summer Ministry Fellows program, shadowing a pastor or agency leader.

While four went to Scotland the first summer, students mostly go along the West Coast. For example, in San Diego, students worked at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Immigration Center to help immigrants becoming U.S. citizens. 

Students learn what is happening in this institution that has been thinking creatively for 25 years, he said.

“‘Institution’ is not a bad word,” Terry said.  “Institutions do creative ministries.”

The Academy of Christian Discipleship equips lay leaders in biblical study, theology and history.  Over three years, 500 have been trained in cohorts—small groups of five or more. They meet at Whitworth in the fall, winter and spring.

A cohort at First Presbyterian in Missoula grew from 12 to 25 to 40 in three years, involving five churches.

Jerry Sittser, coordinator, films Whitworth faculty teaching and offers a supplemental guide, outline, questions to prompt discussion and exercises to apply to ministry contexts.

The calling and vocation grant embeds the themes in Whitworth programs so students grow in commitment to Christ and explore their calling.

To support ministries, Whitworth helps churches gain biblical literacy through the Academy of Christian Discipleship.  It ties scripture to ministry churches decide to do.  It matches financial resources with people addressing needs a church sees.

While the OCE is identifying leaders, it is not launching all six areas this year, Terry said.

“We are not in a rush, but want to be intentional, so we use resources wisely.  It’s just beginning, so interested churches can still contact us,” he said. 

The OCE serves, supports and partners with churches and ministries as they discern how to be the church.  It is a resource for visioning, planning and developing new forms of ministry to engage the rapidly changing culture.

“It’s equipping people to live faithfully in their churches and communities,” Terry said. “Living for the common good is not easy in these times. There are pushes and pulls in the current climate of divide that has invaded our churches, so we must focus on being reconciling communities.  Churches with divisions need help to reconcile intentionally.

“Since the election, rather than our first identity being following Jesus, it is where we stand on a topic or candidate,” Terry said.  “Spirituality, economics and social justice interplay.  In the divisions, we need to be allies on race, rather than following rhetoric and stereotypes of races.

Recently 35 churches met to discuss “The Church as a Reconciling Community.” 

 “How do we talk as followers of Jesus about people so our language is not the same as the secular world.?  Early Christians had profound disagreements, but they built relationships,” said Terry.

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Copyright © March 2018 - The Fig Tree