The Revitalization of Hilton United Methodist Church
In May of 2013, Hilton UMC, under the leadership of the Rev. Jennifer Green, began their revitalization journey through, Hand to Plow, a process employed by the UNY Conference to come alongside local congregations to help them make disciples of Jesus Christ. If you desire to revitalize your church, Hilton UMC’s story of how Hand to Plow helped them is one you will want to read.
In the first session Hilton UMC had with Hand to Plow, there were only four lay persons in attendance along with Rev. Green. “I guess I was a little disappointed that we only had four people, but you have to start somewhere,” said Rev. Green. That group soon grew to 10 and by the weekend when Hand to Plow brought consultants to the church to speak to key leaders and evaluate what steps would need to be taken for Hilton UMC to revitalize, there were 60 people in attendance, which was over half of Hilton UMC’s worshipping population at the time.
How did this involvement and dedication to Hilton UMC’s revitalization grow? Rev. Green said, “When we first started the process, we really focused on the spirituality aspect. We decided to read the bible in a year as a congregation, so we embarked on that journey with one another. I think it was our focus on spirituality that led to this increased involvement.”
Rev. Green also became dedicated to offering more experiential worship services, which she also felt increased the spirituality of the congregation.
Sue Emerson, who has been a member of Hilton UMC for six years and serves as a member of the Discipleship Pathway committee, describes an experiential worship service that had a powerful message. Its tangibility effectively kept the message in her mind long after the service. Sue said, “At one of our services, we had some pottery donated and we actually took the pottery and threw it in a big barrel to smash and throw away our sins. The younger kids really got into it. The beautiful thing that shows how God can take our brokenness and make us into something new is that our certified lay minister took all those pieces and made a beautiful mosaic cross that sits on our alter. That was extremely meaningful.”
Through the weekend-long consultation with key leaders at Hilton UMC, Hand to Plow consultants gave Hilton UMC these five recommendations that would help them to revitalize their church. Two of the key recommendations were 1.) to create a mission and vision and 2.) to make a Discipleship Pathway.
Rev. Green said, “We used the same mission as the United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The vision that we came up with through doing prayer walks through our community and spending time in prayer and discernment…what we envisioned Hilton United Methodist Church becoming was “Following Christ, Connecting Generations, and Transforming Communities.”
Creating the Discipleship Pathway
The Discipleship Pathway committee had one year before they had to present their pathway to Hand to Plow. According to Sue, “We also had a very balanced committee. We had a brand new person, also a young woman with a family who had been here for a year and a half, myself who had been here for five years at the time, our new youth director, and the chair of the committee was a gentlemen who has been with the church for 30 years I think.”
The committee used many readings by United Methodists to develop a keen understanding of what their pathway needed to include for revitalization to occur in line with Hilton UMC’s vision and the remaining recommendations given by Hand to Plow consultants.
These readings included:
- Cultivating Fruitfulness: Five Weeks of Prayer and Practice for Congregation By Robert Schnase
- Deepening Your Effectiveness: Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation By Dan Glover and Claudia Lavy
- A Disciple's Path Daily Workbook: Deepening Your Relationship with Christ By Justin LaRosa and James A. Harnish
- Simple Church: Returning God’s Process for Making Disciples By Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger
Through reading, prayer, and meaningful conversation, the Discipleship Pathway committee developed a pathway that’s purpose was to connect people to God by moving people toward spiritual maturity. Their pathway had three sections, of which individuals could enter at any point depending on where they were in their own personal spiritual journey.
The first section of the pathway is Hospitality. This is the frontline ministries that welcome people to the church.
On the surface, what becoming more hospitable involved for Hilton UMC, was creating greeter positions at both entrances to the church and also creating a guide position. The guide shows visitors where the restrooms are and where the nursery is if they have young children with them. Hilton UMC also developed a welcome packet for visitors that contained a magnet of the discipleship pathway illustration, an informational brochure with the mission, vision, address, Rev. Green’s contact information as well as all of the regular meetings and events that the church hosts. A document outlining what United Methodists believe, an explanation of the discipleship pathway, a small groups brochure, a map of the church, and a “Books of the Bible” bookmark.
On a deeper level, hospitality involved brainstorming a way to fill a population gap in the congregation, which was, teenagers between the ages of 14-18. When Rev. Green arrived, the gap was in the second-grade through fifth grade range and eight years later those children were now 14-18.
Rev. Green developed a clever way to try filling this gap. She described the process:
“With very little high school students, we know that it is hard to grow a youth group with such few teenagers, one of the things we decided to do as a congregation was to grow and provide an opportunity for our younger kids, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders to know what youth group was all about so we developed a once-a-month program called SLAM, serving Christ, Loving others, and Making an impact for Jesus.
We gather those kids with their families once a month to do youth-group type activities; we would have fun, scripture, a little bible studies. That has now come into worship through that program and singing some songs and our current youth director shares a message, some games, and we have some outings.
We also found that that group had siblings that were younger that very much wanted to attend so we expanded that program to be SLAM and SLAM Jr. for K through third graders.
We hired a new youth leader in March (of 2016) who literally found some kids. We invited some kids to come, who came with friends that were members of the congregation. So he has grown our high school youth group since March to 12 kids, so now we have a full gamut of youth programs available here, which is pretty exciting for us.
This was possible because the youth leader developed a relationship with teenagers in the congregation and had them help start the youth group…and those kids thought it was pretty neat and invited friends and neighbors to join them. So it’s all about the relationship.”
The second section of the discipleship pathway is Faith Development. This part of the Discipleship Pathway is where members have the ability to grow deeper in their faith in a variety of ways from small groups to mentoring.
Hilton UMC is progressing through this section with more bible studies and small groups. The number of small groups has grown at Hilton UMC; there are currently eight groups, and these groups continue to multiply—Christ-Centered Women, Sunday Evening Senior, and GriefShare are the newest groups. Most groups meet weekly, while some meet bi-weekly or monthly.
Sue described how the mentoring program works. She said, “The mentoring program is for someone looking to join the church, where someone from the congregation will be a mentor to the new person. The new person can ask their mentor any questions they may have about the church of about their faith. It looks like there are a number of people interested in membership so they will be matched with a similar mentor…for example, if it is someone older, they will be paired with someone from my age group; if it’s someone with a family, they’ll be matched with someone with a family. If it’s a couple, they’ll be matched up with a couple.”
The third section of the Discipleship Pathway is Community Outreach and at Hilton UMC, this section is impressive. In describing the outreach ministries, Sue said, “We felt this was the most important where we would get out into the community and out into the world. We want to have a balance between overseas and community outreach.”
This balance Sue speaks of is evident in the large number of community outreach programs that Hilton UMC is involved with. Here are just some highlights of their involvement:
- A young adult member of their church is a full-time missionary in Nicaragua.
- Two additional young women, who are 19 and 20, have been going to mission trips either in Africa or Nicaragua for several years.
- Hilton UMC has a preschool open to the community, where Rev. Green shares a weekly message.
- Cameron Street Ministry serves hot meals to a community in need in the Rochester area, and Hilton UMC has a team that works there once a month. Reflecting on Cameron Street Ministry, Sue said, “It is an awakening experience to see the needs of people right here in our community.”
- Members of Hilton UMC are involved with Flower City Work Camp, where people go during the week and help renovate homes.
- Sue described one of her favorite outreach ministries; “This is a fabulous one…the Summer Cadet Cupboard where counselors in the school system have identified young people of all ages (elementary through high school) that are in need of food; they put food in these children’s backpacks at the end of every school week. This has been carried on throughout the summer as a box of food for the family that members of our congregation deliver. I talked to someone recently in our congregation who says it has been a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
With a carefully crafted Discipleship Pathway, Hilton UMC now has a clear idea of how to continue revitalizing the church. With every step they take, they keep their vision in mind. Most of their events are intergenerational. And their church is growing across all generations. Rev. Green said, “A noticeable difference since we started to Hand to Plow program is the number of children at the front of the sanctuary for the children’s message during our service. Before, there would be one other family’s children and my children. Now, we have 16-20 children, even on a holiday weekend. The other population that we see growing is people who have grandchildren that have moved to Hilton to be with their children and grandchildren. People from an over 55 community are coming to Hilton as well.”
Hilton UMC’s intentional discipleship since embarking on their Hand to Plow journey was recognized by the UNY Conference. At the 2016 UNY Annual Conference, Hilton UMC received the One Matters Discipleship Award, which goes to a church that has in recent years moved from 0 baptisms and 0 professions of faith into positive numbers as they began to focus on intentional discipleship.
Even with the growing population of Hilton UMC, Sue offers an important reminder, “The whole philosophy of our Discipleship Pathway was not to make members, but to bring people to Christ.” The welcome packet is something tangible that visitors will have to peruse even if they do not come back to Hilton. The outreach programs share Christ-like love and compassion to those in need.
Is your church ready to take a leap forward in creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Click here to learn more about the Hand to Plow program.