|Summit brings thunder to African-American
The Rev. Lillian Smith leads a small
group discussion at the "Thunder in the Desert"
symposium in Nashville, Tenn., attended by about 200
African-American United Methodist pastors and laity.
UMNS photos by Linda
By Linda Green*
Jan. 11, 2008
| NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
Some United Methodist African-American pastors minister in
the desert and, in spite of the dryness, must prepare a way
for God to reach people.
That notion reflected the
theme of "Thunder in the Desert," a Jan. 3-5 symposium
focusing on what can hinder clergy and laity in their efforts
to do ministry.
Sponsored by the United Methodist Board
of Discipleship, the event drew about 200 participants who
used the theme, a composite of Isaiah 40:3-5, to explore why
some African-American congregations are in the middle of dry
spells. The congregational teams came to receive the tools
that bring thunder, rain, water and nourishment to their
ministries to enable the church to revive, grow and become
According to Cheryl
Walker, a Discipleship staff member, some churches have lost
their zeal in bringing people to Christ and feel isolated from
what others are doing. She described the symposium as
providing the thunder to allow rain to fall.
Altheria Lenon sings praises to
the consecration elements of the church, some of us may need a
little sprinkle, some of us may need a pouring of the Holy
Spirit to revitalize us, and some of us need to be immersed,"
Symposium organizers, including the
coordinating team of the denomination’s Strengthening the
Black Church for the 21st Century Initiative, designed the
gathering to bring showers of blessings to those in dry areas.
The thunder cracked in worship and plenary sessions that
linked hands-on ministry labs dealing with spiritual
formation, preaching and evangelism to discussion groups,
fellowship and networking.
"The desert is those places
where the church has not grown in years, places where there
has not been an expectation of growth, places where there has
been a war perceived or real between clergy and lay people,"
said the Rev. Vance P. Ross, another Discipleship staff
member. "We are trying to bring them together spiritually and
ecclesiastically in a sense of God-ordained collaboration and
The first-time symposium on partnerships in black churches
was designed to assist local church clergy/lay teams, district
superintendents, bishops and conference leaders in building
relationships and mutual trust, leading to effective ministry
in all areas. There are more than 2,400 African-American
United Methodist congregations in the United
"No church grows that has a division between
the pastor and the laity, and we are trying to affect
partnerships," Ross said, noting that clergy and laity are
both equal and different in that the church gives them
distinct roles. "Those roles have to come together for the
church to grow."
Valerie Bridgeman-Davis told the
gathering that regardless of their ministry setting, a way has
to be made for God, as stated in Isaiah 40: 1-3.
"When we are
in the wilderness, we need somebody to make a way for God.
That’s what preaching and worship are all about," said Davis,
professor of preaching and worship and Hebrew Bible at Memphis
(Tenn.) Theological Seminary and an editor of the Africana
Worship Book: Year B, published by Discipleship
"It really doesn’t matter if you are in
a dry place, a way has to be made for God," says the
Rev. Valerie Bridgeman-Davis, a professor at Memphis
"It really doesn’t matter if you are in a
dry place," she said. "A way has to be made for God. Many
times, we are in the way of God. We are the mountains that
need to be made low. We are the valleys that need to be
Davis, a clergywoman in the Church of God
(Anderson, Ind.), told participants they are trying to do
ministry in a "burning house" or a structure that "causes you
to feel rusty on the inside. Some of you are so in the desert
that when you use your voice, dust comes out."
and laity have to help people who feel excluded and exiled so
that they feel worthy. They must offer hope with the word that
can make a dusty place wet, she said.
The best way to
prepare a way for God in the desert is to hang out with desert
dwellers, she said. Davis encouraged congregational teams to
move around their wildernesses and traverse their dangerous
streets to know what is going on in the community. "There are
people on the street corner who could teach you more than you
learned in seminary if you step out of the way," she said.
Seeking new waters
The Rev. Safiyah Fosua, director of invitational preaching
for the Board of Discipleship, referred to the story of Jesus
and his disciples in Luke 5:1-11, pointing out that "the
disciples could say they had been working hard all night long
doing what fishermen do." However, "working smart came for
them when they said, ‘Nevertheless Lord, we’ll go and try
Fosua challenged participants to "beat the
bushes and the hedges" and engage in hospitality by leaving
their desert places and doing more fishing in places where
people are forgotten, children have been thrown away and the
"crackheads" hang out.
over the same waters," Fosua said. "You’ve been fishing too
shallow—re-fishing in the same water again and again. Go out
there to the deep parts where no one else is
"God wants us to boldly go where no man
or woman has ever gone before," says the Rev. Frederick
The Rev. Frederick G. Outlaw, district
superintendent of the Bay Pines District of the Alabama-West
Florida Annual (regional) Conference, told the congregational
leaders that God calls clergy and laity to be in covenant with
one another and with God and invites people to accompany God
to a place never gone before.
Evoking the mantra of
the television show "Star Trek" and its mission "to boldly go
where no man has gone before," Outlaw noted that every person
on the ship was a specialist in their particular
responsibilities. "If we want to come out of the desert, it
would help us to get some specialists around the table" to
discern how to provide eternal and realistic truth with a
At the event’s conclusion,
congregational teams made a covenant to work on one major area
of concern for their church and complete a ministry action
plan. Discipleship staff will provide the churches with
follow-up consultations addressing the action
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news
writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact:
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