December 13, 2010

Engaging with the poor

The class roster fills quickly for MTSO's new certification program

In 2008, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted Four Areas of Focus for the Church. Among them: Engaging in Ministry with the Poor. Now a significant new MTSO certification program, approved by the church's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, will equip leaders to serve those in poverty.

This pilot program provides both a classroom component and hands-on community engagement, thanks to a unique partnership between MTSO and Community Development for All People (CD4AP), a United Methodist organization working to improve the economic, social and spiritual quality of life for residents of the south side of Columbus. Its ministry includes the United Methodist Church for All People, the United Methodist Free Store and numerous other services.

"We believe Engaging in Ministry with the Poor provides a valuable educational opportunity to a broad range of church leaders, from graduate seminary students to church elders and deacons to laity seeking certification," said MTSO Academic Dean Randy Litchfield. "We're fortunate to have the opportunity to partner with Community Development for All People, which is recognized nationally for effective ministry with the poor."

Rev. John Edgar, CD4AP's executive director and pastor of the Church for All People, said the certification program fits well with the evolving mission of the organization.

"At Community Development for All People, we have been on an intentional journey to try to do more as a training center for folks who want to expand their capacity to engage in ministry with people who are poor and marginalized," Edgar said. "Over the last three to four years, there were an increasing number of people seeking us out to watch and observe and decide what might be transferrable to their settings."

"We were incredibly fortunate to be able to enter into a conversation with President (Jay) Rundell and Dean Litchfield and staff from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to design this certification."

Edgar will team teach classes with two of his CD4AP colleagues: Director of Training and Development George Howard, and Director of Operations Donita Harris. He also expects to invite some low-income individuals associated with the organization to join in what he calls "the learning-teaching experience."

There's already evidence of the strong desire church leaders have to develop effective ministries in this area. A training conference hosted by CD4AP in early November drew 90 participants from 15 states. "We cut off registration just due to the amount of space in our facility," Edgar said.

The MTSO certification program is proving equally popular. Being with the Poor, the first class at CD4AP, begins Jan. 24, and its 35 slots are already filled. A second on-site class, Congregations and Communities as Partners in Ministry with the Poor, will be taught beginning in the summer.

In addition to their time at CD4AP, certificate students will take three courses on the MTSO campus: Theology and Practices of Ministry, Engaging the Bible in Congregation and Community, and one of three United Methodist studies courses.

In discussing Engaging in Ministry with the Poor, Edgar stressed an easily overlooked word.

"We believe that the single most important word in the denominational focus is the preposition 'with,'" he said. "There are lots of folks who have been attempting to do ministry for, to and sometimes against people who are poor. We think the beginning of doing ministry with people who are poor and marginalized is just developing the skills and the authenticity of learning to be present with them."

The path to that authenticity often begins with recognizing differences between many white, middle-class United Methodists and the poor and marginalized, Edgar said: "We need to accept and acknowledge that there are all these things that separate us. And then we need to be committed to building bridges of mutuality."

And he believes there are benefits for everyone in building those bridges.

"Not only does God care about poor folks, but people who are poor have a connection with God and a spirituality that has a deep intrinsic value and that all of us can learn from."

Danny Russell, director of communication, 740-362-3322