Along the Way
By Michael Precht
Dauphin Way UMC, Mobile, Alabama
In a recent article on how the internet has transformed institutions into “authoritative content creators,” cultural analyst Ben Thompson declared that institutions must now “show their worth not by their archives or rigidity but by their ability to create continuously.”
At Dauphin Way United Methodist Church, we are still learning how to “continuously create” an invitation into discipleship. Our systems are imperfect and continually being reformed, which can make it difficult to distill our “pathway.” However, all our learning has yielded one particularly successful lesson, and we are also on the verge of an exciting experiment.
The Lesson: Dauphin Way 101
Like many congregations, Dauphin Way has a long tradition of offering membership classes for those who are ready to grow from “seeking” to “belonging.” At Dauphin Way, this orientation experience has kept the same name over multiple decades, even as the format and content of that experience has changed many times.
“Dauphin Way 101” has variously referred to (a) a single-session class offered once a month, (b) a six-week experience offered two or three times a year, and (c) an intentional conversation over coffee with any of our pastors. Each approach has had its strengths and weaknesses, usually tied to the continual tradeoff between making the experience convenient versus comprehensive.
Three years ago, we decided to offer Dauphin Way 101 every single Sunday. We asked one of our longtime Sunday school classrooms to give up prime real estate in the classroom nearest to our front door. They graciously agreed, and on every Sunday since then, newcomers to the church can find a pastor and/or a lay member of the church waiting to greet them and walk them through that day’s session of Dauphin Way 101. The class meets at 9:15, an hour before our two largest worship services (which take place concurrently at 10:30 a.m.).
We ask every new member to complete three sessions (one on Methodist theology and practice, a second on the vows of membership, and a third on small-group fellowship) before joining the congregation. During Dauphin Way 101, the newcomers receive a copy of The Dauphin Way Guidebook, which is organized around the familiar United Methodist disciplines of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. The last page of the guidebook is a commitment card, just like the ones that the entire congregation receives during our yearly “discipleship campaign.” The newcomers use that card to commit to their next step in each of those five disciplines, and they bring it forward with them at the end of worship when they are ready to join.
In offering Dauphin Way 101 every week, we create continuous (or at least “continual”) invitations. No one needs to wait for the “first” session – any session can be the first. No one in worship needs to remember which weeks they should announce “Dauphin Way 101” because that invitation comes at the end of every worship service: “If you would like to commit yourself to this church and follow Christ with us, we would love to see you at Dauphin Way 101 next week.”
In the same breath as we offer that invitation, we also have an invitation for anyone who cannot wait for even a week: “And if you are feeling called right now to take a new step in your relationship with Christ, one of our pastors is waiting to pray with you in Dill Parlor” (every hallway in the church has a sign with directions to Dill Parlor).
Since we began offering Dauphin Way 101, our last three years have seen roughly fifty percent more new members joining the church than we saw in 2017, 2018, and 2019 (let’s leave 2020 out of all our statistical records, shall we?!). Making sure no one has to wait to belong to the church has made all the difference.
The Experiment: Charge Teams
Of course, belonging isn’t as simple as membership status or a few commitments written on a card. Belonging requires relationship, and relationships take time. Newcomers at Dauphin Way form a relationship with the pastor and volunteer who lead Dauphin Way 101 (who then try mightily to help these newcomers find a connection to a small group or service team), but finding the right “fit” can take some time. Everyone dreams of finding a tight-knit, trusted circle of disciples with whom they can share their victories and disappointments along “The Way of Jesus.” However, that kind of trust depends on all kinds of variables that are difficult to systematize or engineer — personality, life stage, and so on.
At Dauphin Way, we are eager to help people find an immediate connection that can support them while they look for a deep connection to fellow disciples. And so, we are now one month into an experiment we call our “charge teams.”
In 2024, our nominations committee expanded our church council so that we have one at-large member for every twelve to fifteen households in the congregation. These groups of twelve to fifteen households are our “charge teams,” and our church council members are the leaders of their respective teams.
At Dauphin Way, we are eager to help people find an immediate connection that can support them while they look for a deep connection to fellow disciples.
Once every two months, team leaders make a light contact with each family under their charge. This might be a text message, a short conversation before worship, or a quick note to say, “How are you doing; how can I pray for you or your family?” The teams are intentionally intergenerational, made up of families from all manner of backgrounds. Right now, the various members of these teams do not even know who else is “on their team”; all the families know is the team leader. Every family knows they can count on that leader to check on them and speak for them (if needed) when the church makes decisions. We use our church management system to send reminders to the leaders every eight weeks, and the leaders can check that they have contacted each family under their charge. All new members of the congregation are placed in a charge team so that they immediately have somebody who can connect them to others. These teams do not require tremendous vulnerability or trust; they do not try to manufacture deep affinity and belonging; instead, they offer invitation and accessibility. They are the starting points of a much deeper journey.
That is just the beginning of our vision for these teams. Once our leaders have built trust through consistent care for their charges, we hope to bring the charge teams together twice a year to perform an act of service together, either in our church’s hospitality or in mission to one of the many local agencies that always need volunteers.
Clergy with years in the Methodist system know that some of the richest and most surprising relationships in our lives come from colleagues we have met through the shared work of a committee or ministry team. One day, we dream of charge families who operate like found families, bringing together the varied generations, interests, and personalities in our congregation. These may not become the closest or deepest relationships for anyone in the church, but they will be available, and they will “display God’s wisdom in its rich variety” (Eph. 3:10) to all who have eyes to see.
At Dauphin Way, we are still going on to perfection, both as disciples and as a disciple-making church. But that’s what makes discipleship an adventure. We cannot wait to see what lessons we learn and what experiments we’ll try next.
Rev. Michael Precht is the senior pastor at Dauphin Way United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL. He is an ordained United Methodist elder who has also served congregations in Cary, NC, Brantley, AL, and Crestview, FL. He and his wife, Rev. Jennifer Precht, have a high schooler, a middle schooler, and a third grader; their life is never, ever boring.