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With one retreat held last fall, Courage to Serve is just getting underway, but Virtue is optimistic that the program will create an authentic, mutually-supporting community for at least 23 United Methodist pastors. If the program is successful, the challenge will then be to replicate it on a larger scale.

One thing for certain is that there will be no shortage of small churches needing sustenance, says Carder.

“I’m not convinced that the future belongs solely to large churches,” he says. “There will always be small churches, and they will always be as important to God as the large church. In God’s economy, size is not the deciding factor. It’s how faithful a congregation is in being a visible sign of the presence of the reign of God.”

The Transformative Power of Mission

The North Wilkesboro District of the United Methodist Church is much like any other UMC district in rural North Carolina and many other regions in the South. Its 100 churches are dotted across eight counties in Appalachia. Most are small, with 46 percent served by non-ordained pastors. It’s a region that lags economically behind the state’s urban areas, a place where good-paying jobs are hard to find, and poverty and unemployment rates are often high.

But unlike many similar districts, North Wilkesboro decided to do something about it. Churches within the district decided to look beyond their own congregations and out into the community, to step out in mission and try to change the world around them.

The result? A host of new programs that are improving lives throughout the region, a renewal of life within and among the district’s churches, and an amazing example of the transformative power of mission.

It began about four years ago, when churches throughout the district decided to take a long hard look at their region, what District Superintendent Alan Rice recalls as “a painful assessment of the current reality.”

With assistance from Janice Virtue, associate dean for continuing education and strategic planning at Duke Divinity School, the district conducted an in-depth analysis of community needs within its entire eight-county region. They eventually compiled a long list of needs that included housing for the developmentally delayed and the elderly.

When the group realized that no existing entity had the ability to meet those needs, they created their own non-profit corporation, the Northwest Alliance Community Development Corporation. With funding from The Duke Endowment and other organizations, the non-profit already has built a group home for developmentally delayed adults, and plans are well underway to construct an affordable independent living center for the elderly. They also have conducted financial literacy classes to help people become homeowners and created new avenues for local craftspeople to market their wares.

As those and other programs have progressed, individual churches in the district have started other initiatives, including soup kitchens, community computer labs, food banks, and Habitat for Humanity houses. And in turn, churches are growing: there have been three new church starts, and 12 former charges have achieved station status.

“When we started this effort a few years ago, we printed t-shirts that said ‘The Great North Wilkesboro District,’” says Rice. “The idea was that, despite our many problems, if God was in our district, it had to be great. And now, we’re beginning to live that out. I truly believe God is on the move in the Great North Wilkesboro District.”

— Bob Wells

For information on the North Wilkesboro District and the Northwest Community Development Corporation, visit their Web sites at http://www.nwilkesdistrict.org/ and http://www.northwestalliancecdc.org/

 

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Winter 2004 Volume 3 Number 2 Duke Divinity School