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Flexing Muscles of Vitality and Wholeness

May 11, 2022

Ice crystals were rapidly expanding inside the church pipes, while the crackling, pelting sound of freezing rain hitting windows and concrete engulfed the exterior. Winter Storm Uri had arrived. Even though Texans tend to worry more about summer temperatures than ice storms, this storm covered Texas with unexpectedly harsh conditions for a week. As temperatures fell, the mixture of snow and ice accumulated, power outages were pervasive, and burst pipes were one of many woes people would face in the aftermath of the storm.

Church of the Disciple in DeSoto, TX experienced extreme flooding. Their entire building had to be gutted. In the middle of the pandemic, while they were trying to expand their outreach to their community, they suddenly could not use their building at all. Nevertheless, the congregation persevered. They used the moment as an opportunity to take their service outside the building. It required creative energy and intentionality, but they rose to the occasion to meet the challenges of the day.

Their approach to ministry during this time became an example for FUMC Georgetown, a congregation serving a very different demographic, with no major problems caused by the storm, that was over 150 miles away. How did this occur when churches were barely meeting in-person, much less interacting together? During this time, leaders from both churches happened to be participating in TMF’s Courageous Congregations Initiative (C3).

In October 2020, TMF received a grant of $1 million from the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative to help launch C3. The aim of the national initiative was to strengthen Christian congregations so they could help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

The grant enabled TMF to deepen and expand its work with congregations. During the first months of the pandemic, TMF’s Leadership and Innovation staff had vital conversations with church leaders that helped them refine the ‘five adaptive muscles’ congregations needed to develop in order to thrive. Using a cohort-based model, TMF gathered congregations by affinity to learn and experience these five adaptive muscles: grieving well, discerning purpose, neighboring, decentralizing power, and expanding imagination.

“Meeting with our friends from DeSoto was an amazing experience. With COVID, we could become so insular, and it was easy to forget that everyone else was dealing with the same issues. Hearing from DeSoto was a wonderful reminder that we were all in this together,” Georgianne Hewitt, member of FUMC Georgetown, shared. “But they also had additional challenges. With the flood, they had a crisis on top of a crisis. I was so inspired by their response to these challenges. They had such positivity and resilience. I think being paired with another church in this process is very valuable, because it allows you to see your own situation from a different perspective, but it also allows you to learn from others about how they tackle the challenges they are called to face.”

Georgetown FUMC

Within three months, church leaders gained clarity about the next faithful steps God was calling them to take in and with their congregations to exercise the five muscles now and in the future.

It encouraged church leaders to dialogue with one another, learn from each other’s contexts, and consider new ministry approaches. It also gave both churches space to do something they had not realized they needed to do - grieve. Neither church had grieved the incredible losses they experienced during the pandemic, nor had Church of the Disciple taken time to really think about how stressful the winter damage to their building had been.

“We didn’t think we had too much to grieve. But we did not have the building when our community needed it the most, during the pandemic and the exacerbation of racial injustice. We were not able to celebrate the lives of those we lost in our own building and C3 caused us to think about how we might be suppressing that grief.” Senior Pastor of Church of the Disciple Bryant Phelps said. “To have C3 walk with us and help us in articulating how we were grieving was important. C3 really opened our eyes to articulating some things we did not previously have the language to express. We are grateful for our partnership with TMF. They have really helped equip our church toward a path of wholeness, especially through C3.”