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Regional leader plants seeds for health in congregations

Contrary to quick-fix expectations of today’s society, Inland United Methodist District Superintendent Jo Ann (Joey) Olson finds that building healthy congregations takes time.

Joey Olson

Joey Olson

As regional supervisor of pastors in 52 congregations, as in youth work she did in Texas, Joey finds that ministry is about planting seeds.

“If we look for quick results, we are in trouble,” she commented, aware that it often takes many meetings over many years for churches to act, so pastors may not know their influence until after they leave.

At the recent wedding of people who were in her youth group 15 years ago, she was reminded of that reality, learning how that ministry mattered in their lives.

Planting seeds

Joey shares the seed-planting expectation as she visits pastors and congregations in the district.

 “Our culture says there is a quick fix and change comes fast.  The spiritual reality is different.  The Exodus from Egypt did not come until 400 years after the Israelites had been in slavery.  They spent another 40 years wandering in the desert and the wilderness.

“We want to avoid wildernesses and deserts, but the Scriptures are clear that we cannot avoid wildernesses and deserts in our spiritual journeys,” she said.

Discovering her call

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history at Austin College, Joey taught history and English, married and reared two children.

“As a young woman, I had a calling to be a pastor, but I had no vision that women could do it,” said Joey, who began informal studies at Southern Methodist University in the 1970s and then earned a master’s degree in theology at Perkins in 1984.  She also served as an associate pastor and youth minister of several large churches in Dallas.

In 1996, after she married Ole, an artist, she moved to the Northwest and served a Methodist church in Ocean Shores, Wash., for four years and a church at Mill Creek for another four years.

Creating healthy relationships

When the bishop asked her to be superintendent for the Inland District, she accepted, realizing that her background in family systems counseling to create healthy family relationships could help make church family life healthy, too.

“It’s hard to deal with conflict and help church people live an abundant life and thrive when their churches face declining memberships,” she said, but she believes both are possible.

While many church people feel health relates to size, Joey said different-sized churches are different types of churches with unique structures and leadership needs—familial churches lean on a pastor, programmatic churches have staff leading programs, and corporate churches’ pastors are like CEOs.

“There are healthy infrastructures for each size.  Small group ministries that are lay-led build maturity,” Joey said.  “You cannot change church size without changing church form.  There is no growth without change, and there is no change without conflict, which many people fear.

Assuming leadership

“Leadership is key to healthy congregations, just as it is to families,” said Joey.

“We need to connect with our families of origin to help churches understand emotional triangles.  Someone mad at the pastor may call the district superintendent to help.  Rather than becoming caught as one part of a triangle, I know my role is to help the church and the pastor work out the conflict,” she said.

She invites people to come together as mature people, setting aside blame and defensiveness, and looking at their realities so they can overcome their anxieties and see their choices.

“The way to build leaders is to shore them up and offer choices,” Joey said, aware that people in churches, like children not hearing their parents, may not hear what she offers, but may “overhear” the same message later in another context and respond.

Offering choices

“My job is not to solve their problems, but to be proactive and offer choices they as mature people can make.  My role is to stay calm.  There is no quick fix for church problems.  Change is slow,” she repeated.

To build healthy relationships in the district, Joey works with some churches more than others, particularly consulting with them when they need a new pastor.

Sundays she preaches or worships in different churches. 

“I didn’t realize there was a South until I left the Bible Belt.  Here, I realize in visits to churches that the Pacific Northwest is the ‘None Zone,’ as one author has said.  In this region, many survey respondents check ‘none of the above’ when asked their religious preference.  In Dallas, people expect to go to church Sundays, not to kayak, hike or stay in bed.

Mission begins at our door

“So this is a mission zone,” she said, adding that, in fact, “every area is a mission zone.  The Bible Belt may be less aware of that than here.  Our mission field begins at our front door.”

Joey encourages churches to help members become the body of Christ, sharing the love of Christ and a love of neighbors that is global.  As part of that vision, she appreciates connection with an ecumenical group of regional church leaders who have a similar vision of the church.

“Churches do amazing work when they extend their vision to the global,” she continued.

Being ‘missional’

“It’s not about doing mission but about being missional.  My identity comes out of being sent for Christ,” she said.  “Yes, people may sit in the pews and become comfortable, but worship is about being sent to be Christ’s presence in the world.  If we do not understand our identity, we can become exhausted by doing little projects without understanding God’s project of salvation and in building God’s reign.”

Joey’s passion for ministry comes from biblical texts announcing God’s reign and presence in the world.

For information, call 838-3085 or email

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © November 2005