Desert summit urges pastors to end dry spells


By Linda Green
United Methodist News Service

NASHVILLE — 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 vital.

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.

“Using 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,” she said.

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, 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 connection.”

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 States.

“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 Resources.

“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 leveled.”

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.”

Clergy and laity have to help people who feel excluded 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.

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 again.”

Fosua called on 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.

“Stop fishing 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 going.”

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 TV 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 Christian message.