“A vital web of interactive ministry” is how the Book of Discipline describes the United Methodist Church. Cathy Rafferty shares how that connectional approach works on the Northern Skies District.
Pastor, Gladstone Memorial UMC
You may have heard that the United Methodist Church is a “connectional” church. That’s an important word for us. Our Book of Discipline (¶ 132, 2016) says, “Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference [church] to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.”
This vital web of interactive relationships connects us, here, to all United Methodists—nearby, like the two United Methodist churches in Escanaba, and far away, like the United Methodist churches in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe. Worldwide we’re organized into conferences. Memorial United Methodist Church belongs to the Michigan Conference. Within the Michigan Conference, we’re organized into districts. Memorial UMC belongs to the Northern Skies District, which includes the entire Upper Peninsula and the very tip of the mitten.
Through our connections—this vital web of interactive relationships—we provide mutual support and accountability for faithful discipleship and mission in a tradition that goes back to the organizing practices of John Wesley, who started the Methodist Movement in 18th-century England. In fact, this mutual care and concern—this vital web of relationships—has roots in the earliest days of the Christian community, way back when the Apostle Paul was writing his letters, as he mentions in 2 Corinthians 8:1-15.
Paul wrote his letters to keep the newly forming churches, from Jerusalem to Rome, connected, sharing an understanding of what it meant to follow the way of Jesus, praying for one another, and supporting each other financially as the need arose. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is writing about an offering the churches are gathering to help the community in Jerusalem. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians, who started strong and then slacked off, to finish what they’d started with as much enthusiasm as they’d started with.
Paul knows it will take all of the believers, everyone who is committed to following the way of Jesus Christ, working together with God’s grace, to answer the calling of Christ, to create the kind of world that God intends for us all, to answer the prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” So, Paul writes his letters, helping to create and grow that vital web of interactive relationships, that larger community that cares for one another, the way Jesus taught his disciples to, the way Jesus cares for us all. And we still read Paul’s letters today, learning to be the church, the connected Body of Christ at work in the world, in ministry through our connections.
I want to share three great ways we are connected in mission through the Northern Skies District of the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church. First, there’s God’s Country Cooperative Parish. In June, eight persons from Memorial UMC traveled over to Newberry to learn more about God’s Country Cooperative Parish (GCCP).
GCCP draws together seven small churches spread across 250 square miles of the eastern U.P., including Newberry, Engadine, Hulbert, Paradise, Germfask, Grand Marias, and McMillian. For 50 years, these churches have been combining their resources, sharing their faith, and actively working to bring self-esteem, hope, and the love of God throughout their Cooperative Parish. Together, they host mission teams in the summer to do home repairs and improvements across their far-flung ministry area. And they encourage one another and their surrounding communities with God’s love and grace throughout the long winters, with a variety of hope-filled ministries.
All of this ministry was housed in the various churches in the past, in whatever spare corners they could find to store supplies and shelter the volunteer teams. In 2019, GCCP and the Northern Skies District celebrated the dedication of the Audrey Dunlap Ministry Center in Newberry, providing a central location and facilities to serve as a base of operations. GCCP purchased and renovated the former Pentland Elementary School.
The Dunlap Ministry Center has dorms for volunteer teams, recently added showers, laundry facilities, and a workshop. There are few stores in many of the communities served by GCCP, so their Church Mouse free store offers clothing, appliances, and furniture. They work cooperatively with food pantries and local restaurants to feed the hungry. “Burn-Out” packs for those who experience home fires and “Move-Out” packs for those escaping domestic violence provide for immediate basic needs. They also give away over 250 Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes. A gas card ministry and vouchers for meals and overnight lodging help those traveling for medical care with the nearest hospitals in Marquette or Petoskey.
One thing that impressed me is how GCCP partners with other groups—working with UMCOR and NOMADS and serving as an American Red Cross Disaster Center. They also work with Head Start, Foster Care agencies, DHS, and area schools.
And Randy Hildebrant, the Church and Community Worker who runs the operation, has a remarkable knack for using whatever gifts God provides through the volunteers, interns, materials, and other resources that come his way.
Second, there’s Camp Michigamme. Their mission statement is “to utilize our beautiful natural setting and the spiritual resources available to us to help persons of all ages come into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ to the glory of God. Next year, the Camp will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Let’s ponder for a moment how many lives have been touched by a century of Christian ministry, creating life-changing experiences, lasting memories, and life-long relationships.
I had my first proper visit on Camp Michigamme Day in June when they dedicated the newly constructed Agape Wigwam, a multi-use two-story building. I took a tour, including a look at the Gladstone Cabin, the building Memorial UMC takes responsibility for maintaining. Memorial UMC is currently socking away money from the annual pasty sale to put a new roof on the Gladstone Cabin. If all goes well, we hope to get that project completed this fall. Memorial UMC also funds partial scholarships for children and youth who attend a week of camp at Michigamme. And we’ve had adults participating in some of the other camps and programs offered there.
A third example of the power of connection is the Northern Skies District Mission of the Year program, which allows all of the churches on the district to be the heart and hands of Christ to our neighboring churches. Each year at the annual District Conference, typically in November, those gathered select from among the applicants and commit to supporting one project across the entire district. It’s expected that a Mission of Year will meet one or more of these guidelines:
- Improve the self-worth and vision of a congregation and help people understand that they are worth helping.
- Help district United Methodists identify with a congregation’s needs or struggles.
- Enhance the ministry of the total district.
- Provide a ministry beyond the local church.
- Assist a congregation in doing ministry it cannot do alone.
This year’s Mission of the Year is the Mohawk-Ahmeek UMC, the northern-most church in the Michigan Conference, way up in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Mohawk Methodist Church began in 1889 after some English families moved into the area from the Central Mine location in preparation for the opening of the Mohawk Copper Mines. Through the years, the church has remained a viable place of worship. But in the summer of 2020, they had major roof issues that needed immediate repair and caused a serious financial setback to the congregation.
The project for 2021 will make possible additional repairs—fixing and painting the frames around the stained glass windows, replacing rotting siding, tuckpointing the old sandstone lower-level window frames, and hopefully painting the church exterior. The total cost is proposed at $16,500.
I haven’t yet visited the Mohawk-Ahmeek church, but I have met the pastor, and he is leading a vital ministry in that community. By drawing together as a district, we have the opportunity to put the words of the Apostle Paul into practice: “At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit.”
Through the Northern Skies District Mission of the Year program, each year, we have an opportunity to come together to fill the deficit of our siblings in ministry, to help them through a rough patch even as we deepen our connections to each other and to God. The District Mission of the Year program is a third great way we are connected in ministry in our Northern Skies District.
We are a connectional church, connected across our Northern Skies district, connected throughout the Michigan Conference, connected to United Methodists around the world, and, most importantly, connected by God’s grace to the love of Jesus Christ, lived out under the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And that is the greatest thing of all. Thanks be to God.