Leadership Academy 2021

Leadership Academy expands its reach but keeps God’s work as its focus

150 registrants. 16 workshop leaders. 15 vendors. Seven denominations. All coming together for three days!

Despite being held online for a second year running, this didn’t stop church planters, regional representatives, and lay leaders from taking part in New Church Ministry’s Leadership Academy. In fact, registration was almost double what it was in 2020, with attendees reflecting age and racial diversity.

Moreover, with the Multiply Track session—a new addition for 2021—program staff, boards, and clergy of established congregations were able to learn alongside their peers, too. This cohort, facilitated by Pastor Terrell L McTyer (Minister of New Church Strategies) and Christie Love (pastor and church planter of The Connecting Grounds in Springfield, MO), was the largest track with 60 registrants who explored vision and problem statements, as well as growth and fixed mindsets.

But what keeps past participants returning year after year? Not only is it other tracks for core teams at the same stage of the church launch process, but it’s also thought-provoking plenaries, interactive practical workshops, and dedicated time for fellowship.

Learning in their own contexts

During the Start Track, core teams who had not yet planted their communities of faith joined from as far away as Maryland and California. Led by New Church Ministry Associate Minister Rev. Dr. Jose Martinez and New Church Ministry coach Pastor Jorge “Joey” Cotto, core teams of emerging faith communities explored how church planting has changed since the pandemic and how tools such as a spiritual gifts inventory can help leaders identify their skills and talents.

Meanwhile, in the Sustain Track, Sandy Harvey (long-time Leadership Academy track facilitator and President and CEO of Exodus Consulting Group), Carla Leon (New Initiatives Manager for the United Church of Canada’s EDGE: A Network for Ministry Development), and Rev. Selena Reyes (chair of the Florida region’s New Church Ministry Commission and the event’s Spanish translator) discussed money and marketing/branding with core teams that had recently launched their places of worship.

“As a founder, you are your brand,” shared Carla, who has previously teamed up with New Church Ministry on an episode of New Church Hacks and the Hopeful Economics UnConference

Sharing wisdom and experiences

Leadership Academy’s plenaries, or DOCTalks, are joint sessions led by a thought leader who addresses missional transformation. This year, the thought leaders were first-timer Rev. Dr. Eun Strawser (co-vocational church planter and physician), who spoke about disciple-making; returning guest Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija (Founding Director of TryTank), who spoke about innovation; and Rev. Dr. Delesslyn Kennebrew (Minister for New and Transforming Churches in the Greater Kansas City region), who led the event’s Commissioning Service.

“Discipleship is meant for everyone and not just some,” Rev. Dr. Eun told those present. “It’s meant to imitate Jesus and to have concrete models around us in order to imitate Jesus.”

Learn.Explore.Actuate.Discover.Laboratories

Leadership Academy’s workshops, or LEADLabs, are designed to help leaders imagine, innovate, and implement sustainable concepts. While the workshop leaders, called Spiritual Scientists and Subject Matter Experts, discussed topics ranging from building management to financial independence, the topic of rest was a common one that resonated with participants.

“Leadership Academy saved me from overworking myself and reminded me to lead with God first,” recalled Queen of New Eyes Village Church in Fort Collins, CO, a Leadership Academy participant.

Building connections

Participants had time to get to know one another during Wednesday morning’s Breakout & Breakfast session, a staple of the last couple years that has proven to be popular with those in attendance.

“The Leadership Academy is empowering me to align myself with God’s call, knowing that I’m not alone,” wrote Rev. Kristin Aardema Faigh, a Leadership Academy participant, in her feedback for the event, “and that what I am called to do is important, and possible.”

Breakout rooms were also used during tracks to enable participants to collaborate in small groups.

The future of Leadership Academy

What enabled this potentially unwieldy undertaking to take place? The hard work and dedication of Project Coordinator Wesley King, who organized speakers, facilitated registration, and helped attendees navigate the event’s digital platforms such as Zoom, Teachable, and Whova, the latter of which was also a 2021 addition.

“This was my first Leadership Academy,” explained Wesley, “and it was amazing to see the way that God is moving and working in the lives and ministries of folks all over the United States and Canada!”

And next year? Well, next year, Leadership Academy will continue to be an exclusively digital gathering, and the Church can only imagine the various opportunities that God will provide us to see the Spirit moving.

Understanding God and the church at the Water the Plants Prayer Summit

In her teaching on the spiritual discipline of prayer at the recent Water the Plants Prayer Summit, Rev. Dr. Martha Brown, a member of the Board of Directors for Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF), recounted the story of Jacob to both returning and first-time attendees of the Water the Plants initiative’s prayer-focused virtual event. As Rev. Dr. Martha told it, after stealing his brother’s birthright, this patriarch of the Israelites fled for the land of his mother’s brother, where he married and had children. For years, Jacob worked for his uncle, accumulating wealth and servants. Eventually, he decided to return home, sending his family, maids, and animals ahead of him. Along the way, Jacob found himself alone on the banks of the Jabbok, a tributary of the river Jordan. There he wrestled with a man until daybreak, when Jacob asked for a blessing, asked God for His name. This, Rev. Dr. Martha reminded those in attendance, was a moment of prayer.

“What we pray for shapes and expresses our understanding of who God is,” she explained. 

And it also reflects how the church sees itself and what it wants to be.

At the June Prayer Summit, a virtual event that convened supporters of emerging and affiliating congregations and their leaders, they prayed for the Office of the General Minister and President, general and regional ministries, church planters, and all the faithful connections across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. At the surface level, these were simple prayers for leadership. But in them, coaches, prayer call leaders, chaplains, and others acknowledged the sin of racism, the calls for reparations, and the hope that building the beloved community brings. More than one participant viewed new places of worship as fresh expressions of this beloved community.

Pastor John Powell

“We pray Lord that you will help us understand that you didn’t come to Earth and walk this planet for those days to rebuild a past temple,” said Pastor John Powell, a member of DCEF’s Board of Directors, “but you came to make something new.” 

Alongside the passion for new church were calls for older congregations to follow the example being set by their younger counterparts, who, in the eyes of more than one regional new church team member at the gathering, are often creative and innovative in their approaches to serving their neighborhoods.

“Christians need fires lit underneath them,” enthused Ramona Crawford, a lay member of University Christian Church in San Diego, CA. “New church is the fire that Jesus is lighting under the established church.”

Rev. Dr. Joi Robinson

The summer Summit was the second such online event for New Church Ministry’s church-wide initiative, bringing together Disciples from Kansas, Washington, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and Minnesota. Like the inaugural event that took place on March 6, this Summit was hosted by Rev. Dr. Joi Robinson, Associate Minister of New Church Strategies, and included prayers for resources and relationships, testimony on the impact that prayer had on the development of a church plant, and a scripture shower. Unlike its predecessor, this event introduced a spoken word piece performed by Rev. Yvonne Gilmore, Interim Associate General Minister & Administrative Secretary of the National Convocation, called “Dangerously Reliable Tide.” In it, she echoed the feelings of those present, lamenting the limits of the church that she knows, but finding comfort and solace in prayer.

Rev. Yvonne Gilmore

“When you find yourself behind enemy lines

When trust is running away

When cumulus clouds look thirsty against the backdrop of a blues people

Water the plants

Access the portal within beyond the edge of yourself

Make dust speak

Post a help wanted sign in the window of your heart

Water outside the building

Saturate the soil

Practice talking to dry bones

Notice the budding before you

Delight in dialogue

Water the depths, pray without ceasing, you are inviting a dangerously reliable tide.”

Wesley King

How fitting then, that the Summit ended with the Lord’s Prayer (sung by Wesley King, New Church Ministry’s Program Coordinator), another reminder of the Christian faith’s humble origins, and of a yearning to connect with something larger than ourselves – and of our church.     

Register for New Church Ministry’s next Water the Plants Prayer Summit, which will take place on October 2 from 1:00 to 3:00 PM EST.

The image is a screenshot of nine participants in a Zoom meeting on providing communal care for deaf people. Five of them are making the American Sign Language sign for the phrase 'I love you.'

“We’ve got some work to do.” Increasing accessibility through ASL

For the past few years, New Church Ministry has worked hard to make its services accessible to Disciples across the United States and Canada.

It has provided Pentecost Offering resources in different languages, including Korean, Spanish, and French.

The ministry has recorded all of its New Church Hacks episodes so that people who can’t be present at the time can view the webinars at a later date.

Despite these developments, New Church Ministry hasn’t provided accommodations for those with hearing impairments or hearing loss.

“This year of social isolation has reminded me that there are people who feel isolated because they can’t hear the conversation that’s happening in the room,” shared Pastor Terrell L McTyer (Minister of New Church Strategies). “And we need to be more inclusive.”

That’s why he organized The New Wave Pentecost Series: Exploring American Sign Language (ASL) in Communal Care with My SupaNatural Life, a non-profit organization dedicated to making (w)holistic spiritual care accessible to those that need it the most, including those living with chronic conditions and their support systems. The virtual event featured art, videos, signing lessons, and interviews with panellists, who were all accompanied by an ASL interpreter on screen.

The image is a screenshot of nine participants in a Zoom meeting on providing communal care for deaf people. Five of them are making the American Sign Language sign for the word 'love.'
Pastor Terrell notes the similarities between the sign for the word ‘love’ and the symbol of “Wakanda forever” from the movie The Black Panther.

“600,000 people in the United States are deaf, and more than half are 65 years of age or older. Six million people in America report having a lot of trouble hearing,” reported Rev. YaNi Davis, My SupaNatural Life’s founder and someone who experiences hearing loss herself. “It felt timely to expand our education.”

There are 357,000 culturally Deaf Canadians and 3.21 million hard of hearing Canadians. ASL is the primary sign language used in Canada.

Participants of the event even learned how to sign the chorus from Kool and the Gang’s song “Celebration” from health educator Dr. Ashia James Ph.D.

Most importantly, the webinar provided an opportunity for people who use ASL or are deaf to share their experiences.

“It was powerful to hear the stories of those who are deaf or hard of hearing,” said Wesley King, Program Coordinator. “These experiences gave you insight into their lives and compels you to find ways that you can be more empathetic and understanding.”

Gaining insight into deaf lives

The first time I saw Ashley, she walked into a party and started screaming,” remembers panelist Alyssa Lucchesi, a recent graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)’s ASL program. “I was ready to go to bed, so I thought, ‘who is this girl with all this sound right now?’ because deaf spaces are very loud. The music’s bumping because deaf people love to feel that bass.” 

Alyssa met her friend and fellow panellist Ashley M, who is deaf, in her first year at RIT. While they both worked as leaders at a camp for deaf youth called EYF (Explore Your Future), Ashley doesn’t consider herself a guide.

“When we’re talking about teamwork, I see myself as a peer,” clarifies Ashley. “It’s very important to be actively listening and actively watching.”

Panellist Sharon Meek was also exposed to ASL in an educational setting when she became a P.E. teacher at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf. Her students’ experiences with hearing loss or deafness were emblematic of the ones shared by more than one panellist.

“There were kids that we taught that were deaf from birth or that had some sort of illness that caused them to lose their hearing,” recalls Sharon. “It went all the way down the continuum to those who were hard of hearing who could not function in a typical classroom.” 

Things we need to do next

Over the hour spent together, attendees from as far away as Arizona, Indiana, Virginia, Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, and Michigan were taught how to expand accessibility and care for deaf and hard-of-hearing folks in their communities.

  • Always include folks who are hard of hearing or deaf. Welcome them into the discussion.
  • Be mindful when making videos. Think about who’s around you and in your environment. When you’re posting it to social media, ask yourself, how can I make it more visual using captions or other tools? You can turn on closed captions for YouTube videos. Zoom also recently introduced a closed captioning feature, but if it cannot generate captions, there are third parties that can do so. Make sure that the letters are large enough for people to read.
  • Don’t be afraid or self-conscious about not knowing how to communicate with deaf people. Even waving, saying hello, or making eye contact are big things.
  • If you’re interested in becoming an ASL interpreter, meet some deaf people, become involved, and learn the language. See if it’s for you before you register for a tech program and make a career out of it. If you want to get certified, you need a four-year degree (RIT, the University of Arizona, and Tarrant County College are good places to start). Still, you don’t need a degree if you want to interpret. Please be aware that this can pose problems for deaf people as they are the ones that suffer from unqualified interpreters. Know the spaces you’re in.
  • If you really want to support the deaf community, learn about some deaf history. Meet some deaf friends and socialize. Pick up the language that way.

If you registered for our ASL event, then you’ve been automatically registered for future installments of The New Wave Pentecost Series, including our neurodiversity webinar on July 24 at 2:00 PM PST and our English as a Second Language webinar on October 23 at 2:00 PM PST. If you haven’t already signed up, you can do so here.

Stay tuned for additional information as it becomes available!

Ekklesia

Finding a path to God with Ekklesia Global

Michelle Beech lives and works in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In her words, that’s not where she’s from, but that’s where God has her now.

Due to her father’s career as a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), she’s lived all over the United States. So it’s fitting that her new community of faith, Ekklesia Global, has people joining their video calls from across the country and across the world. 

Michelle Beech (back row) visits a waterfall with members of her faith community.

Ekklesia launched in 2019, after Michelle had taken a break from church. Over the years she had filled almost every single position one could at a Disciples congregation and needed some time away. 

“I felt the Lord leading me to do something new,” Michelle says in a recent interview with New Church Ministry. “Was that digital church? But how do we use technology to create something beautiful, instead of trying to force what we know works in a building to fit the medium?”

So in March of that year, she hosted a listening retreat to hear what her friends’ spiritual needs were. It turns out that many of them had left church 30 to 40 years ago and others, five to ten years ago. Still others hadn’t found a place of worship that was right for them since moving to the area.

“Some people left church when they were young. They walked away from God and they haven’t been involved since,” Michelle tells us. “To some degree, they’re unchurched because they have that one early experience with their inherited faith, instead of their chosen faith.”

She led them through what she was thinking she wanted to do – to create an outreach ministry serving the new mission field of our own backyards – primarily for those who have left traditional church. After receiving feedback, Michelle came away with some helpful information. She then invited people interested in what she was doing to an Easter sunrise worship service, which was Ekklesia’s first official meeting. After that, they got together periodically and talked about God, read books, and learned about sacred dance. Because they didn’t have a fixed space, it freed them up to locate venues that would fit the particular service.

“We didn’t look at what we could do within the confines of four walls,” Michelle shares. “We are a church without walls.”

This structure made the transition to online gatherings easier for Ekklesia after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Participants meet on Zoom every week, where they bring the best of their own faith journeys. And yet Ekklesia is more than just a series of virtual gatherings. It’s an inclusive faith community, encouraging all to keep moving forward on their own path to God. Michelle believes that real spiritual growth happens in intimate settings, so Ekklesia is being developed as a collective of small groups.

“Some people like going into a new church that’s big, because they can disappear until they’re comfortable,” she says. “So this might be a little intimidating.”

Creating a safe space of radical hospitality has thus become an important aspect of Ekklesia for Michelle. She avoids using vocabulary that would alienate the de-churched and eschews membership. 

“We don’t teach a particular theology,” she adds. “We inspire people to keep exploring and discovering by exposing them to different theologies.”

To that end, Ekklesia features guest speakers such as the Rev. Hannah Fitch, a member of its theology team, who introduced participants to ecofeminist theology, and Rev. Ronnie C. Lister, a founder of The International Center for Labor, Social and Spiritual Activism, who discussed Black liberation theology the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day.

For Michelle, Ekklesia is about getting people to the Table.

“I’m not looking to convert anybody, but if I had a Muslim friend come be part of these conversations around faith, he could hear why Jesus works for me, and I could hear why his faith has led him down this path and kept him close to God,” she emphasizes. “Without the conversation, neither of us ever get there.”

Michelle adds that she’s under care of the North Carolina region and working toward being commissioned. Ordination may come down the road, but that’s not where she feels she’s being led. Michelle refers to herself as a shepherd, one who makes sure Ekklesia’s conversations stick to its tenets of loving unconditionally, celebrating differences, seeking joy, and being a catalyst for positive change.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t take her leadership role seriously. Last year, Michelle and her team attended Leadership Academy, an annual event hosted by New Church Ministry that empowers leaders, regardless of their denominational affiliation.

When we ask her what to expect at an Ekklesia meeting, she holds up a neon green notebook. Michelle explains that every new participant receives one, even if journaling isn’t their thing, because she wants to at least provide them with a resource, a holding place for their thoughts and feelings that they can turn to at another time. As she describes it, journaling can be a way to meditate – after all, the simple act of writing something with a pen and paper requires time and attention. 

“If nothing else, you’ll see it,” Michelle chuckles, “and be reminded of the circle of people who love you.”

Other than a brightly colored notebook, participants in an Ekklesia meeting can also anticipate thought-provoking discussions shaped and formed by other attendees. After her friend and chairman of the board, who left the Catholic Church when he was 13 years old, came to her asking about her thoughts on original sin, she decided to do a series on “big God questions.” Michelle admits that she began to interrogate what she was taught, where her beliefs came from, and if she still held them today. 

“I really started thinking harder about my answers,” she recalls. “And in doing that, I was then excited to share the Bible with the group because it’s been a wonderful source of inspiration, hope, and wisdom that I put on a pedestal.”

Michelle is careful to point out that she doesn’t bring in the Bible to teach others her way of practicing her faith, but to inform their own personal faith journeys. She knows that others have different interpretations of Scripture and all she can do is share what works for her and why.

“So they get a ton of my Jesus stories,” Michelle laughs, “and a ton of my Holy Spirit stories!”

Over the past couple years, she says that she’s learned to step back and be more sensitive and unassuming as she’s gotten Ekklesia off of the ground. Michelle advises other church planters to trust the spirit and allow themselves to be open so that God can work through them.

“Let me tell you, if I had done what I thought needed to be done,” she jokes, “I probably would have pushed some of these people away!”

While 80% to 90% of Ekklesia’s participants identify as Christian, others see themselves as spiritual instead. It’s not that they’ve abandoned Jesus Christ’s teachings, Michelle clarifies, they just got frustrated with the people and the politics and decided to walk away from organized religion.

“They still love God and believe in Jesus,” she says. “They think we could easily build the kingdom on earth, if we would all just do our part.”

When we ask Michelle how Disciples can do their part to support new faith communities like Ekklesia, she encourages them to contribute to the Pentecost Offering, which divides gifts between the Regions and New Church Ministry. New Church Ministry uses gifts from this Special Day Offering to develop and maintain programs such as coaching and New Church Hacks

“New Church Ministry’s resources and training help Disciples develop new ideas on how to do church,” she summarizes. “The biggest leap I made was the day I realized that just because I wasn’t specifically teaching a certain way, didn’t mean that I wasn’t doing important work to fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples.”

The Pentecost Offering is collected in most congregations on May 16 and May 23.