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Alice Townley joins conference staff

Tribute to Alice Townley

On June 1, 2021, the Rev. Alice Townley began a short-term appointment on the staff of The Michigan Conference. We welcome her as a builder of the Beloved Community.

Alice and her family
A recent family trip to Chapel Hill UMC in Sodus, where George Fleming served for 12 years. Left to right are Alice’s sister Christina Fleming, son Jonathan Townley, mother Edna Fleming, husband Michael Townley, and daughter Grace Townley. ~ photo courtesy Alice Townley

August 25, 2021 | LANSING, Michigan —  Many Michigan United Methodists know the Rev. Alice Fleming Townley. Alice was a very active youth and young adult in the West Michigan Conference. She was ordained in 2000 and pastored the Center Park and Williamston United Methodist churches before going to the Okemos Presbyterian Church, where she served for the past 11 years as Associate for Parish Life.

On June 1,  Connectional Ministry Director Paul Perez announced that Townley joined the Connectional Ministries staff of The Michigan Conference. Her role is Ministry Consultant — Courage, Compassion, and Resiliency. 

For the past three months, Townley has been at work with the Conference Board of Global Ministries, the Coaching initiative, conflict transformation, and Intercultural Development. 

MIconnect reached out to Alice to learn more of her faith story and to reacquaint leaders and churches with her ministry and vision.  

Please share a little about your personal background and faith formation.

I grew up immersed in the life of the church. My father, George Fleming, was ordained as an EUB pastor, and my mother served as a Methodist missionary to Brazil. At my introductory meeting to my first appointment, someone asked if I was, “EUB or Methodist?” And I smiled, “I’m a merger baby.” I married Michael Townley, from Midland, who I met at the MSU Wesley Foundation. I grew up in West Michigan and he in Detroit Conference, so our kids are merger babies, too.

Alice with sign
Celebrating the diversity of all God’s people. ~ photo courtesy Alice Townley

My sister, Christina, and I were deeply blessed by the congregations in which our parents served: Turk Lake and Greenville UMC; Chapel Hill UMC in Sodus, and Lawrence Avenue UMC in Charlotte. Twelve of my growing up years, were in Sodus. We walked freely between the church and the parsonage, playing, conversing, and helping as we could. My father’s grandfather, Floyd Barden, had served that same church for 19 years, so the relationships were generational. Sodus was a rural fruit-growing area, and we attended public schools in Benton Harbor, during the years of intentional desegregation and magnet schools. We grew up eating blueberries from 40 lb. lugs that our dad would bring home from his farm in Casco Township near South Haven.

Our annual family vacation doubled as a week of continuing education for my parents at Chautauqua in New York state. Church camp was a highlight of every summer for Christina and me; including time at Crystal Springs, Wesley Woods, and Lake Louise. We became leaders in district and conference youth councils and in the wider connectional church. We welcomed Naomi Garcia into her position as youth ministry consultant for the conference, a position formed by a petition from the youth on the floor of annual conference. Her questions and insights have empowered me for years.

I attended James Madison College at Michigan State University, majoring in Social Relations, and studied for a semester in Guadalajara, Mexico. Seeking another cross-cultural experience, I attended Duke University Divinity School, in Durham, NC. 

I have served in rural, small-town, and college communities in a variety of ways. For the last 11 years, I was appointed to The Presbyterian Church of Okemos which gave me a unique opportunity to build ecumenical and interfaith bridges and facilitate community organizing to support refugees. During these years I also served as a facilitator for district and conference projects such as the Vital Church Initiative. Wherever I have served, I have drawn from the faith, skills, and leadership that came from our family, churches, and the conference.

With people from all these areas of our lives, we recently gathered to celebrate the life of my father. Helping to care for my parents and my children has also been part of my call. Mike and I live in East Lansing. Our son Jonathan is a senior at Kalamazoo College and daughter Grace is a first-year at The University of Michigan. We enjoy family meals, storytelling, and outdoor adventures. 

Alice celebrating a baptism
The Rev. Lisa Batten (left) expresses joy during a baptism officiated by friend and mentor, the Rev. Alice Townley. Alice calls Lisa, “a wise member in my first appointment” at Center Park United Methodist Church. ~ photo courtesy Alice Townley

Please share your ministry journey and what you have learned about leadership along the way.

When I was pregnant with our first child and seeking every class and book I could find with directions, Lisa Batten, a wise member in my first appointment, Center Park UMC, advised. “If they cry, they are usually tired or hungry.” Her insight became a guide to me for both church and family life. People need ongoing nourishment and renewal. In ministry settings, I invite people to draw their strength from the Holy One who fills us. I have incorporated contemplative practices such as guided prayer, lectio divina, the Examen into classes, committee work, and sermons. During my time leading Vital Church Initiative activities, I would begin by leading spiritual formation exercises and the feedback helped me realize how integral this was.

I’m also careful to facilitate opportunities for people to hear one another, holy listening. Listening is key for deepening trust, processing conflict, and reaching out to neighbors. During my time at Center Park UMC, two carloads of folks attended a conference leadership training event. In debriefing, each had a spark that together grew into flames of energy for small groups that deepened faith, expanded relationships, and empowered leaders. 

Alice at the synagogue
In November 2018, the Rev. Townley spoke during a service held in East Lansing’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek to support the Jewish community in the wake of the massacre of 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Seated, second from left, Townley, representing the Interfaith Clergy Association, named antisemitism as “evil” and stressed the importance of people “holding hands” in the face of hateful acts. ~ photo courtesy Alice Townley

During my appointment to The Presbyterian Church of Okemos, we responded to rising Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism by showing up in person. We sat down and asking how we could be most supportive. Together we wept, listened, and organized activities which included experiences to gather, learn, and advocate.  

I have learned to nurture, to listen, and to bring people together in collaboration.

Please describe your role as Ministry Consultant for Courage, Compassion, and Resiliency and your vision for moving forward in that work.

I have joined the conference staff to give extra support in three areas, on a part-time and temporary basis, through December 31, 2021. One colleague smiled and called me, “the director of loose ends”, and another “the one helping to expand bandwidth.”

  1. Coaching and Congregational Resiliency Catalysts with Naomi Garcia. Coaching helps coachees gain clarity and insights with the presence of a supportive trained coach. Congregational Resiliency Catalysts are available for congregations seeking to function in healthier ways and transform conflict. I serve as both a coach and a catalyst, promote these programs, and while Naomi is on renewal leave, respond to requests for consultations. 
  2. EngageMI with Paul Perez and the Conference Board of Global Ministries. EngageMI is the engagement program encouraging ‘ministry with’ mission and ministry projects here in Michigan and around the world. I am working with leaders to develop assessment and promotion plans of these projects and to respond as needs arise. In the last month, I have worked with staff and leaders in responding to the fire at HAPI in Mizak and hosted a live Facebook interview with the HAPI staff; and worked with conference leaders and staff at UMCOR regarding the earthquake in Haiti.
  3. Intercultural Development Inventories (IDI) with Brittney Stephan. I encourage intercultural work, interpret inventory assessments, and facilitate conversations with individuals and ministry settings as they grow, stretch, and expand their capacities.  

What is it that nurtures and excites you in your ministry?

I’m excited when the stranger is welcomed, the hurting cared for, and the message of God’s inclusive love is proclaimed. When people share how they are listening and integrating and moving in response to the Holy Spirit, my heart is warmed. As diversity is celebrated, differences bridged, and conflict cared for; as people claim and use their gifts to build the beloved community, I rejoice.           

Alice at HAPI
In another multi-cultural experience, Alice went to Mizak, Haiti in July of 2015 as part of a volunteer mission trip with University UMC. She and UUMC member Kris Mellon accompanied HAPI nurses on home visits and learned about their outreach to the community. Alice also was part of an instructional team offering a two-week Local Preacher’s Academy with the Eglise Methodiste de Haiti (EMH). ~ photo courtesy Alice Townley

Where do you see God working in the Michigan Conference today?

Every day, as I hear stories about struggle and renewal and the ways people strive to be faithful.

What is your hope for the future of the Church?

In this time of increasing polarization and ongoing pandemic, I hope the church can be a place of creativity, healing, and transformation.