St. Stephen's cites benefits of church partnership


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor 

Success breeds success. 

Members of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Yazoo City can confirm that old saying. A group from the church visited St. Mark’s UMC in Chicago, and the lessons learned there have led to an increase in membership and baptisms and a different spirit among the congregation. 

“What I heard mostly when we got back was that they seemed to appreciate the commitment and spirituality of the laity,” said the Rev. Rachel Pitts, pastor of St. Stephen’s. “(St. Mark’s) had a different atmosphere. I believe ministry is laity-driven. The whole church has to be in ministry; it can’t be just the pastor.” 

The trip to Chicago was part of The United Methodist Church’s Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century initiative. Some 20 churches around the nation serve as resource congregations that help other churches improve their ministries. Churches in the Mississippi Conference can learn more about the program on Oct. 20 at the annual Convocation on the Black Church at Rust College in Holly Springs. 

“Each of the congregation resource centers has various gifts they can share with conference churches,” said Cheryl Stevenson, who will present the “Leading the Way” training session about the program at the convocation. Stevenson is SBC-21’s national coordinator. 

Pitts said St. Stephen’s members are taking a more active role in worship services, and the increase in participation has spread to its outreach ministries. 

“Since we’ve come back, we’ve initiated a food pantry,” said Pitts. “We’ve had at least 12 baptisms and people join the church. We’ve had an adult baptism on profession of faith and transfers from another church.

“There’s something about laity relationships and working together that makes a difference in the whole spirit of the church.” 

The Rev. Fitzgerald Lovett, who is coordinating the convocation, also praised the effectiveness of the partnerships. “You get to see a church that is successful at a particular ministry; that was chosen because of its success,” he said. “During the weekend, you have the chance to meet the clergy and laity and get hands-on experience working in that ministry.” 

Lovett said each church that attends the convocation will have the opportunity to partner with one of the national resource churches. SBC-21 will pay for up to five church members to attend an initial weekend at the resource church. Pitts said groups from across the nation were in Chicago the same weekend as the St. Stephen’s group. 

St. Stephen’s visiting St. Mark’s was no coincidence. The Rev. Jon McCoy, who serves St. Mark’s, answered the call to ministry while a member at St. Stephen’s and members of his family still attend there. McCoy served in the Mississippi Conference before moving to Chicago. 

Joining Stevenson as resource leader at the convocation will be Christian Washington of Houston, Texas. The Rev. Fred Brown will preach. 

Washington is the founder of REAL Coaching. He has helped the leaders of many companies, churches and non-profits become more successful, and he helped Rev. Rudy Rasmus write the book, Touch: The Power of Touch in Transforming Lives. 

His session on “Growing a Touched Church” will focus on God’s tender compassion and the need for churches to be advocates for people in need. 

Brown, a retired United Methodist pastor currently serving St. James UMC in Columbus, will be the preacher for the worship service. Brown has served in many roles in the conference, including pastor, chaplain, district superintendent and administrative assistant to the bishop. 

A separate workshop will be provided for youth that will include praise dancing, mime ministry and drama. A group from the Unique Learning Center in Greenwood and a mime team from Greer Chapel UMC will perform and teach others how to establish these ministries in the local church. 

The convocation begins at 8 a.m. in the Doxey Auditorium and will conclude by 2 p.m. The registration fee is $15 per person. Lunch is included. Registration is available online at To complete registration, send payment to Black Church Convocation, P.O. Box 1147, Jackson, MS 39215. Make checks payable to Mississippi Conference.