Northwest and Montana Disciples regions combine, explore new options
The Northwest Regional Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted in May to create a new region combining with the Montana Region by January 2020.
That is just one of many ways the Disciples on the local, regional and national levels are re-evaluating their structures and ministries to create "new possibilities" for the churches.
Sandy Messick, the regional minister and president, said the regional change will involve legal decisions, but more important, finding how 48 congregations in Alaska, Washington and North Idaho will partner with 11 congregations in Montana.
"As we merge regions, we will evaluate what a region is, eliminate duplicate structures and find how congregations can resource each other and build relationships," said Sandy, who has been Northwest Regional minister for nine years.
After 16 years as the Montana Region executive minister, Ruth Fletcher retired in August.
"We are writing plans in pencil, so we can be ready to change," said Sandy, noting natural ties among congregations sheltering families through Family Promise.
Sandy, who spends up to half a month away from home, sees her role as facilitating connections rather than being the one to bring wisdom to congregations.
"The challenge is not to increase time away as we cover additional territory," she said. "I am learning to do ministry through technology and video conferencing, after establishing relationships face-to-face."
In 1985, she earned a bachelor's in communication at San Diego State University—where she grew up—and went to Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, graduating in 1990.
She met her husband, Tom, there. After they served four United Methodist Churches one year in Central Illinois, Tom entered business. Sandy served churches in Southern Indiana, North Carolina where Tom grew up, and Pennsylvania. He began working with Premera/Blue Cross, which brought him to Spokane in 2000.
Sandy did pulpit-supply preaching and was pastor at North Hill Christian Church until 2004, when Premera moved Tom to Mountlake Terrace. She was interim pastor three years at University Christian, and in 2009 became the regional minister.
In 2010, the region closed its regional office and staff worked out of their homes.
"With no office, some wondered if we were still a region, but the office is not the region," Sandy said. "The full-time office manager, three part-time staff and I meet monthly and one-to-one."
In 2017, after Bellevue Christian Church decided to close and sold its building, it designated gifts to support the part-time regional staff—a technology coordinator, a new church coordinator, and a youth and family coordinator.
As regional minister, Sandy supports pastors and congregations, provides oversight to clergy, is the region's corporate officer and represents the region in the wider church.
"Many congregations are struggling to decide what to let go of to live for the future," she said. "Congregations and clergy need support, resources and partners."
She encourages clergy to meet with peer groups and finds grants for some to have sabbaticals.
About 75 percent of clergy work full time, but may not be paid an adequate salary, she said.
"We help congregations evaluate their resources and consider if their buildings are too big for their needs," Sandy said. "What some are finding is generating exciting life for them.
"We have evolved from talking about church growth, revitalization, transformation and being missional. All were offered as magic pills to make a church grow," said Sandy. "We are in a different time culturally. Church life is not about a formula that works everywhere. It's about learning the church's context and neighborhood, and what God is doing there.
"Many feel called to connect with their neighborhoods, not to bring people in, but to reach out, network and participate in what God is doing," Sandy said. "Some are finding new ministries."
After a brief worship on fifth Sundays at First Christian in Bellingham, members work in community gardens, visit people or sort clothing at a clothing bank.
"As a byproduct, some new people come to church because they encountered the church in the world and want to be part of a church engaged in the world," Sandy said.
Several churches are sheltering and feeding homeless people through Family Promise—United Church of Moscow, First Christian in Clarkston, and North Hill and Country Homes in Spokane.
The National Disciples of Christ Benevolent Association, in partnership with the Northwest Region, North Hills Christian Church and Country Homes Christian Church, is bringing XPLOR, a program for young adults to live in community from September through June, connect 10 hours a week with a congregation, and do advocacy and justice work as interns with Transitions, the YWCA, Family Promise and Northwest Fair Housing.
Those are just a few ways churches are different than in the 1950s and 1960s.
"What happens in different places will be different. We need to let die the idea that church needs to be the way it has been," she said. "We need to try new things without a clear path, knowing that God will go before us."
Sandy said these times are not the only times the church has changed. Previously, Disciples did not have paid clergy, and many churches had parsonages.
With parsonages, Creston and Chelan can draw full-time ministers. Creston Christian embraces its role as the only church in that town. It is one of the top ten in the region giving to the Disciples Mission Fund.
"If urban churches had parsonages, might they be able to afford full-time ministers?" Sandy asked.
"What is essential to who we are as a faith community and what do we need to let go of so those things can live?" Sandy asked.
A new church in Everett, Our Common Table, has an UnSunday School at Saturday brunches in homes, a First Sunday community worship, Our Common Ground hospitality Tuesdays and Thursdays to neighbors experiencing poverty, addiction and mental "unhealth," and a second Wednesday Theology Pub for discussions.
A Samoan Disciples congregation meets at Country Homes in Spokane. They gather to maintain their cultural life, teaching traditional dances and Samoan language. About 40 people come.
Some traditional churches are trying different forms of worship and outreach. Some give up buildings. Some use their buildings in different ways. Some are merging. Some share their buildings with other congregations.
As churches share space, they often partner to do things together.
North Hill Christian has shared its space with a Ukrainian Church for a year. On Bloomsday, they held a joint afternoon worship.
A Presbyterian pastor, Scott Kinder Pyle, serves the Origin church. A Disciples pastor, Jim Burford, has served Emmanuel Presbyterian Church many years.
Some have praise bands, while others find traditional worship and organ music still draw.
Sandy said sometimes at regional and denomination meetings turf wars about how to use funds may divide people.
William Barber, a Disciples pastor and co-organizer of the Poor People's Campaign, recently entered a discussion on structure and funding.
"It's not important," he said. "Out there, children are starving."
That turned the conversation.
"We need prophetic voices to turn conversations on organizational bureaucracy to conversations on what the church is to be about," Sandy said.
"It's a time in the wilderness. It can be scary. We need to walk in faith, not sight. We need to keep moving and trust good will emerge," she said.
For information, call 206-817-7163 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two regions hold retreat
"Becoming One" is the theme of the 2018 Common Table Retreat for the Northwest and Montana Regions of the Disciples of Christ on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7 to 8, at Twinlow Retreat Center in Rathdrum.
Members from both regions will gather as they form the new regional body, meeting each other and thinking about the structure, staffing and naming the new body.
For information, visit https://disciplesnw.org/2018commontable.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September 2018