I kept hearing about the connections between
congregants and neighborhood, congregants and congregants,
as well as congregants and their own souls.
Consider this. It’s 1993. You are an exuberant minister with a young and growing family. You walk into a church in a high crime-high poverty part of a Southern city. The congregation has dwindled to about twenty-five souls, most hovering around 80 years of age. The church cannot afford to pay you a full salary.
Answer me this: What do you do?
Well, if you were the Reverend Billy Hester, you step into the sanctuary and lead the resurrection of a dying and still proud church.
Today, twenty-five years later, Billy (as he is fondly and commonly known in the area) and that same church boast a vibrant congregation of 650 diverse, committed, supportive souls. On Sundays you will find a packed sanctuary.
I wanted to know what made the difference between shuttering Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church and growing it. What fueled the resilience? On a recent beautiful spring afternoon Billy and his Lay Leader, Preston Hodges, Jr. sat with me in a church conference room in Savannah, Georgia. They helped me understand how Asbury came to be such a caring and vibrant community. While the importance of a focused and transformational leader cannot be overstated, I kept hearing about the connections between congregants and neighborhood, congregants and congregants, as well as congregants and their own souls.
This spiritual community thrives because of its foundational values. I heard about:
- Acceptance and Authenticity.
- When you walk in the door, you do not have to pretend to be what you are not. You do not have to hide who you are. Billy explained the concept of koininia: fellowship, participation, sharing, and contribution. One parishioner, according to Preston, said she found “A loving, open and accepting Church that includes all of us — as Jesus would — with love, without judgment.…You’re always welcome!” Or, simply, community.
- Listening and Reflection.
- The words “I don’t know” play an important part at Asbury. The congregants remain free to explore (are encouraged to explore) their own paths. Rather than a church that remains stagnant, dogmatic, and unquestioning, the members find encouragement to question and admit when they do not know something. And then search for the answers. To communicate we must first listen—truly listen—to one another. Then we connect and appreciate. Community.
- Vulnerability and Growth.
- When we let go of the need to be “right” at all costs and the obsession to cling to unaccepting dogma, we open up to vulnerability—and growth opportunities. There will be times when people disappoint us. And when that happens, the congregation has made the commitment to hang in there “until grace happens.” But, someone may draw within and withdraw from the church. If someone “goes missing,” church members notice and reach out to make sure all is OK. They refer to “Calling the Missing.” Caring, open, accepting and authentic (see above). Not intrusive. Community.
Video recommendation for the week.
Listen to Reverend Billy Hester’s sermon from May 6, 2018. Using humor, stories, and conviction, he connects the power of vulnerability to our ability to grow.
- Relevance and Resilience.
- Billy’s sermons have to pass a two-part litmus test. (1) Does the message connect with people by helping them identify with the message? (2) What is the positive impact on the listeners’ lives? Again, it’s not about showing how much the preacher knows about content. Rather, how does the content help people accept, live, and grow together? Community.
Our conversation had many takeaways*. On one level, don’t leave with the idea this is a loosey-goosey operation. These good people are intensely intentional about community. Very. They appreciate that from our diversity we grow. One author states, “Community is an engine for peace, it is fuel for justice.” That is what I feel at Asbury.
I will leave you with a powerful observation a congregant shared with Preston and Billy. The Asbury community, she said, has become a “safe place to land” for her and so many others. Acceptance. Authenticity. Listening. Reflection. Vulnerability. Growth. Relevance. Resilience.
(*And I will share more about the Asbury story in my forthcoming book about developing and sustaining community.)
Make it an inspiring week and H.T.R.B. as needed.
For information about and to order my book, Stories about Teaching, Learning, and Resilience: No Need to be an Island, click here. A number of colleges and one state-wide agency have adopted it for training and coaching purposes. Contact me if you and your team are interested in doing the same.
The paperback price on Amazon is now $14.99 and the Kindle version stands at $5.99.
Pearson Education publishes my student textbooks for life success—Choices for College Success (3rd edition) and Study Skills: Do I Really Need This Stuff? (3rd edition).
(c) 2018. Steve Piscitelli. All rights reserved.