Home Equipping Leaders Adults Lighthouse Congregations for People from Disaffiliated Churches

Lighthouse Congregations for People from Disaffiliated Churches

By Liz Lennox

Lighthouse Congregations
Lighthouse congregation outside of Fallowfield United Methodist Church (image used with permission).

In the past five years, two shifts occurred that greatly affected Western Pennsylvania. As a conference staff member, I had a unique opportunity to not only help resource but also witness the ways our local churches rose to the challenges and focused their energies on discipleship.

The first was the COVID-19 pandemic. The Western Pennsylvania Conference program staff sprang into action and educated themselves as quickly as they could to respond to the needs of the pastors. I learned more about radio transmission and FCC (Federal Communications Commission) laws than I thought possible. We held weekly, and then monthly, Zoom training on a range of topics to help get us through the scary and tumultuous times. Our churches found ways to be creative in ministry and reach new people.

We eventually emerged from our homes and returned to the pews; then the next wave of change hit. The Western Pennsylvania Conference was particularly affected by this season of disaffiliation. We lost thirty-eight percent of our churches. Many of us experienced fear, uncertainty, grief, and exhaustion, much as we had during the pandemic.

In the months leading up to the 2023 annual conference and the ratification of disaffiliation agreements, our superintendents and conference staff began receiving emails and phone calls from local church members who wanted to remain United Methodist but weren’t sure where to go after their churches left the denomination.

Once again, recognizing immediate needs that needed to be met, the Western Pennsylvania Conference Cabinet began brainstorming. During a cabinet meeting, the director of congregational development talked about an interesting concept that he had learned about in a developer meeting: lighthouse congregations.

Rev. Rob Wilson had heard about lighthouse congregations from individuals in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. I partnered with him to see what we could develop in our own conference. In a beautiful demonstration of the power of our United Methodist Connection, the Western North Carolina developers willingly and graciously shared their resources and plans. This allowed us to quickly launch our own version of lighthouse congregations. Today, the Western Pennsylvania Conference is proud to have twenty-five churches serving as lighthouse congregations.

Today, the Western Pennsylvania Conference is proud to have twenty-five churches serving as lighthouse congregations.

One lighthouse congregation is Edinboro United Methodist Church, located in the northern part of the Western Pennsylvania Conference. The pastor, Rev. Ed Schoeneck, said that he has noticed a major shift in how the people in his congregation approach hospitality. While they have always been welcoming, they have become more intentional about the ways they care for new people walking through their doors.

When new people began attending, they were often reluctant to talk about leaving their former churches. They longed for a safe place that would understand their need to wade in slowly. The longtime members recognized that some of the new members may just be short-term, but they wholeheartedly enveloped them into the life of the congregation. Shifting the mindset from making members to making disciples without expecting increased membership rolls allowed congregational members to welcome others in a different way.

Other lighthouse congregations have reported that while they have not seen many people from disaffiliated churches, their commitment to being a safe place for all to grow in their faith has attracted people from the community.

Whether our congregations have seen an increase in visitors from disaffiliated churches or not, all have grown in their understanding of discipleship and have taken measures to share the good news of Jesus Christ in new ways and with new people.

Liz Lennox is the director of communications for the Western Pennsylvania and Susquehanna Conferences of the United Methodist Church and is part of the leadership team for the United Methodist Association of Communicators. She is particularly passionate about telling the stories of those in the local church through meaningful and impactful narratives.

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