Michigan Conference Lay Leader Anne Soles explores the complexities of how The United Methodist Church can make connections with today’s seekers.
Michigan Conference Lay Leader
Disclaimer: a dog with an upset stomach craves fresh, flat bladed grass. Quack grass is a favorite with dogs I know. Which is why my sister, on her way back to south Florida with two young Basset hounds – we had just celebrated our father’s 100th birthday in the cold and snow of Michigan—found herself behind the Cracker Barrel in Valdosta, Georgia at 11:30 at night. After all the travel and odd food, she was out of the motel and looking for quack grass. Cracker Barrel didn’t even know they had quack grass on the menu! (Spoiler alert: the travelers got home fine next day.)
We are all looking for something. Cracker Barrel had spent a lot of time and money advertising for customers. Travelers, individuals, you, me –we are searching, too. In church literature, we talk about “seekers”, but we are all looking for something – from a little company and a coffee hour cookie to “something for our kids”. There is a space to cross and connections to be made where you are a church pushing open doors to the community or someone at home wondering “what next?” And sometimes it is as homely as quack grass.
As United Methodists, we are a connectional church. We build, use, maintain, and ignore connections. Clergy have committed to, embraced and packed their bags for a connectional system. As laity, “the connection” is often a mystery as well as a surprise. Pastor come and go. Meetings and invitations to travel, explore, participate in can be pushed aside for things local. We talk about circuit riders but do not consider ourselves as travelers.
There was a time in the near distant past when we, the laity, were a place. “Open the doors and see all the people,” said the nursery finger game. And now we find all too often that the people “have left the building”. Our churches were often built on cross roads. This is still important. But we are a place on the journey, not the destination. We are part of the circuit and the connection.
A practical thing. As a lay leader, I serve on several nominations committees. My current list includes someone with Human Resources experience, someone to organize coffee hour, and several “someone’s” to serve as at-large Lay Delegates to Annual Conference. You cannot turn to eBay for resale and Fairfield may deliver new furniture but not a good, solid Board of Pensions volunteer. As a searcher, I have problems.
As a searcher, serving on that nominations committee, I have some tools, starting with “outlets”. Once I have volunteered all my friends, I can plug into EZRA, into District organizations, United Methodist Women, and United Methodist Men. And my, “ask Alexa,” might include District Administrative Assistants, who know everyone. At least in theory.“
Besides outlets, there are cables — and collection of cables is growing. 38,000 people have looked at the new conference website since its re-opening in August, 2018; 9,000 come regularly. Many or most come from MIconnect (where you are now). We share MIconnect with congregational lists from local churches. All this helps. Add Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and you’d think you had touched everyone. If they read the whole article. If they don’t surf on to the next story. The cables of connection increase daily but they are not all connected.
The threads of interest, beside “word of mouth” which is always the best, include Facebook. Our conference closed Facebook page has nearly 1,000 participants and speaks well to each other. Communications is readying a new thread (cable) concentrating on participants’ interests. You know how Amazon’s “if you liked this, here are some new” process works. As I am tracked for cookbooks, I could be receiving information about Haiti projects. Our connections do reach out. Not perfectly but persistently. We are not yet “all that we can be.”
Drinking from the firehose, as a Nominations Committee member, I am anxious to make a connection. As an individual, I am aware that way too many connections are looking for me. At the gas station, the pump is trying to talk to me. My land line (and I still have one) has become a combat zone of messages asking me to come up from the basement to talk about my credit card. My cell phone breaks in with more “news” than I wanted when I had a newspaper.
In the old silent films, the caption read, “Nellie bar the door”. The flood of news, advertisements, opinions and persuasions, overwhelms us. We close ourselves off or else we stand paralyzed by the flood of information.
Recently I waited for a friend in surgery at a large heart center. She had a patient number but the information on the big screen was refreshed so frequently that it was all I could do to check her status. I relied on a careful and thoughtful attendant who talked with me, person-to-person. The hospital was a rational and organized system, and she was the guide.
Out behind Cracker Barrel, or many other places on our journeys, we need more such guides. Finding your way through care options for your mother, finding a job, finding your way through your child’s IEP, the list is endless. Life has a way of pushing us on like so many travelers. We need local knowledge.
Our churches are built on the cross roads. We may not know the whole itinerary, but we can help to make sense of our part of the landscape. Go fill out your EZRA connections, forward MIconnect to your congregation and friends. Open the doors to the community, and give good directions.
And don’t take all the quack grass out of the lawn. There may be a traveling Bassett hound looking for you.