From the District Superintendent

What Story Shapes Your Congregation?

Posted 14 November, 2019 by Rev. Kathleen Overby Webster

My spirit was reluctant as I entered into a new ministry setting. I kept running through my mental checklist of what that church lacked (practices [namely regular Bible study such as DISCIPLE], organization and process for mission and community outreach/engagement [such as active UM Women and UM Men], heck, even an adequate parsonage]. It seemed to me that after almost a decade addressing such issues in my current appointment that I was going to have to start the exact same process again, rather than step into a ministry where we could grow together into a next level.

But this story of scarcity and lack and missing was not the only story of that congregation. In fact, as I came to realize, another true story of the congregation was told as I met the folks at the Meet Your Pastor soon after the appointment was projected and weeks before I moved there. We were greeted that night with delicious refreshments, a sign of their hospitable spirit. Everyone wore nametags, a sign of welcome, so the burden of "knowing who you are" did not fall so heavily on the newcomers. As folks introduced themselves around the circle it was clear that on the Staff/Pastor Parish Relations Committee were seasoned leaders and new leaders, people who had been "born into the congregation" and members who had become a part of it with the last three to five years, there was a young adult new mother and someone who was well into retirement. 

As I later reflected this was a congregation that:

  • welcomed new people (not only into worship but into vital positions of leadership), 
  • honored long-time members (not only with words of appreciation but with seats at tables of influence), 
  • did not consider age (too young or too old), life experience (too much or too little), or previous leadership (whether seasoned or taking a next first step in discipleship) as barriers to core leadership roles in the congregation, 
  • and was a congregation that though it had several families that included three and four generations was not one in which everyone was already connected through family, school, or community ties. 

Susan Beaumont, in her most recent book How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, addresses the need to know and tell the whole story in the chapter "Shaping Institutional Memory: Tell Me Our Story". She writes:

Finding the story and living the story is critical work for a liminal season... [stories] nurture the soul of the institution. We can mine the stories that an organization tells to learn more about the strengths and limitations of its past. We can reshape some of those memories to tell better stories, stories that leave the hearers, and the institution better equipped to face into its future. We can listen for the stories that are emerging now, and we can shape more intentional narratives that create a positive hope-filled future.

It turned out I was blessed beyond measure by the congregation which I entered into with a reluctant spirit. I grew as a clergy leader. The congregation grew (steadily if not explosively). The mission connection with the community and outreach to address tangible needs expanded in bold ways. New spiritual leaders emerged from among the congregants. What story shapes your congregation? Is it the fullest story possible? Are stories of individuals connected to your church's story and is the church's story connected to the biblical story? The fullest story will be most helpful in finding meaning and a pathway forward in the midst of a confusing and liminal season.

In the peace and hope of Christ,


In October, I: 

  • Worshipped with Newport-Mt Olivet UMC, Asbury UMC and Fieldstone UMC in a combined service, with Trinity (Roanoke UMC) for Kids Soar 30th Anniversary celebration, and preached for Mt Tabor UMC
  • Attended Ferrum College Board of Trustees meeting
  • Enjoyed District Clergy Dinner
  • Conducted 12 Cluster Charge Conferences with 41 churches 
  • Attended Cabinet meeting, Annual Conference Planning Sub-Team meeting, Strategic Visioning Steering Team meeting, Bishop's VITAL Team meeting, and Bishop's Way Forward Work Group meeting
  • Participated in ReCalibrate: A Clergy Day Apart with Bishop Lewis
  • Consulted with laity and clergy in person, by phone, and through email