The Reverend Mary Bendall has been leading a remarkable ministry at Tuscaloosa First. She and Ken Dunivant are working a remarkable transfromation of this historic, beloved congregation, leading it into the future. Having visited “The Bridge” on a number of ocassions, having met with the worship leaders of this dynamic, contemporary service, I asked Mary to relate what she has been doing, how she has been leading, and the things that worked. Here is Mary’s response.
Approach to Pastoral Ministry: My job is not to personally do every task of ministry. But rather to develop people who in turn create a really great community of faith. I believe there is a significant difference in those two approaches. It was tough at first to realize and accept that I am not the one anymore who gets to teach every class, or set the table or arrange the bread and juice, or make the bulletin board, or offer every prayer, or light every candle. I try as much as possible to be clear on what my responsibility is as the pastor, and what is the responsibility of the people of the church. I think that as pastors we can inadvertently hold the church back when we operate with the mindset that we have to have our hands in everything. I’ve learned that a church becomes a place where people want to be only when pastors spend time developing people, and then releasing the ministry to them. I think people don’t join churches, or attend them, because of the band/choir or the preacher. When we clergy are having down-feeling days we are tempted to believe that we are doing something so great that people are coming to see us. Dangerous, misguided thought. Actually, I feel like people join churches, or get up early on the weekends to attend a church, because of two things: the people of the church were warm and seemed real (or at least not as horrible and hypocritical as the last time they tried church) and, secondly, they walk out of worship having encountered the Holy even if just for a fleeting moment. A moment in worship with the God who changes lives. That’s worth coming back for.
Strengths-Based Ministry Emphasis: I believe that serving and leading from our God-given strengths is a pretty good way to do things. Five years ago we began lifting up and naming strengths and why knowing your strengths matters. I began to actively help church members identify and develop their talents and strengths. Just having the conversation helps people to connect the dots that a life of faith is about doing also, not just being. In other words, as great as it is to come to worship on Sunday mornings, what matters most is what you do with yourself and who you are becoming because of your faith. When my language shifted to that I began to see a difference in our church. This September we begin our 15th round of Ministry by Strengths classes. At the end of the six-week class I have individual strengths conversations with each person in the class about what they sense from God about their next steps in life and ministry and serving. Beyond taking the Ministry by Strengths class we expect people to find a place to serve and to continue to grow. I intentionally have conversations with church members about their strengths and how they are using them. And because of that, they in turn have those same conversations with one another, and that is really where you see some good fruit. Church members having conversations with other church members about calling and fruit and life and strengths and God. That is good stuff. Having had close to 300 people in our church take the class, we have been able to start to shape the culture around the idea that God call us to serve in the area of our greatest natural strength. We used to have one designated day where people could sign up for a ministry. That worked well for several years. We discovered that we really had a need for a mechanism that would help someone new get involved right away. We created ServeLINK – our catalog of serving opportunities. It contains descriptions of almost all of our ministry/outreach/mission/serving opportunities. It is on our website (www.fumct.org) and people can simply register whenever they would like to. Printed copies of ServeLINK are also available throughout the church, along with brochures about the major areas of the church. All new members are given a “new member packet” which contains the brochures and a copy of ServeLINK. This helped us expand our recruiting by giving the congregation the opportunity to sign up 24/7. We also created GroupLINK which is where they can sign up for classes and small groups.
Worship Design: The area of worship design is one of the most important things that we do. Sunday morning is our greatest opportunity to connect with people. (For all intents and purposes, it is my “game day” – yes, I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa too long ;)) But we really only have one shot to get it right, to create an environment where people can connect with God and each other. Sunday morning is very important. As Robert Schnase observes in his Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, one hour of passionate worship affects all other hours of the week. I have found that the best way to make Sunday morning rich and meaningful is to empower teams of church members to design and implement it. Pastoral duties are mine, but everything else is done by the people of the church. I lead the Bridge design team which is comprised of the leaders of each of the Bridge ministry teams. We have met just about every Tuesday night for the past six and a half years. It is the reason the Bridge works. It is labor intensive and demanding. It requires advance planning and teaching church members how to design worship. It is not always the quickest way to plan worship, but we have seen time and time again it is a really, really good way to do it. At our weekly sessions, we work together to design, imagine, dream, create, implement and then evaluate each and every Sunday. Watching people move from attending a worship service to becoming the leader of a team that implements the service, and watching them discover their strengths, build upon those strengths, and then put their own blood, sweat and tears into making the Bridge work is a beautiful thing.
Measuring Results: I count and measure and name everything. I have learned in my D. Min. program the value of measuring. It was once said at a class that “you measure the things you can so that you can experience the things that cannot be measured.” Counting is huge. You can ask our team, sometimes they wonder about my constant reminders to get accurate numbers on things. I count vertically and horizontally. I track our worship attendance of course and look for trends. But, I also count horizontally – I track what is happening to people the longer they are part of this place. In my mind, high vertical numbers with low horizontal numbers is a problem, so I work to set up opportunities and processes for people to come in to the church and then move horizontally, so to speak, into deeper involvement and serving and ministry. And then into leadership roles. Every number is a person, a story, a life. To me, that is worth keeping up with. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a privilege, truly.
Rev. Mary Bendall
Tuscaloosa First UMC