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Church and Community Workers: 125 Years of Mission and Counting

by Elliott Wright

The 2009 Church and Community Worker missionaries to be commissioned on October 13.
The 2009 Church and Community Worker missionaries were commissioned on October 13. From rear, left, clockwise: Soraya Montano, Pat Watkins, Deborah Archie, Anita Tracy, Trina Scott-Zuor, Jennifer Battiest, Becky Parsons, Mariellyn Dunlap, Amy Spaur, and Alexandria Jones.
Image by: Rachael Barnett
Source: GBGM Administration
Brenda Connelly and her husband, Rick.
Brenda Connelly and her husband, Rick.
Image by: Rachael Barnett
Source: GBGM Administration

Gallant, Alabama, October 1, 2009--A year-long celebration will mark the 125th anniversary of a United Methodist missionary movement devoted to the ministry with the poor and marginalized in the United States.

The observance got under way in late September at an assembly of Church and Community Workers, meeting near Gallant, Alabama, at Camp Sumatanga, the retreat center of the denomination's North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference.

Church and Community Workers date their origins to 1885 when two specific ministries, one among Native American children in Oklahoma, and the other with Hungarian immigrants near Pittsburgh, became linked to a women's missionary organization within the then Methodist Episcopal Church.

For many years, most of the workers were white, female, lay, and deaconesses. Today, the 49 Church and Community Workers are lay and clergy, women and men, and reflect the ethnic diversity of The United Methodist Church. They engage in ministries with migrants, the rural and urban poor, the elderly, prisoners, children and youth, the homeless, those lacking health insurance, and others on the social and economic margins.

Each worker is a missionary of The United Methodist Church through the denomination's General Board of Global Ministries. Almost 40 years ago, the workers organized a professional association that provides a sense of community and mutual support among the widely separated missionaries. They meet every two years for worship, spiritual enrichment, and continuing professional education.

Ten new Church and Community Workers are slated to be commissioned along with other United Methodist missionaries on October 13 in Stamford, Connecticut, at the annual meeting of Global Ministries' board of directors. The service will be broadcast live on the internet for the first time at

A Sense of Common Purpose

Perhaps more than any other group of missionaries within the mainline Protestant denominations, Church and Community Workers share a common purpose and responsibility. Each makes a covenant with The United Methodist Church and with one another in commitment to the missionary calling. They agree to a standard income scale that permits no additional remuneration through personal gift receipts; make initial commitments of six- to ten-year minimums, and assent to mobility in placements.

The range of Church and Community ministries can be seen in the placements of the new class of workers. These include work with immigrant communities in Texas, Ohio, and Iowa; farm workers in North Carolina; Native American children and communities in Oklahoma and Mississippi; community centers in Virginia and Ohio, and rural parishes in West Virginia.

"We operate in a four-way partnership," said Brenda Connelly, a Global Ministries executive who provides administrative linkage to the workers and is herself one of them. "It is partnership among the work, their ministries, the annual conference in which they work, and the mission agency. Planning and decision-making is done in collaboration."

About one-half of the cost of each worker is covered by Global Ministries and the other half by the ministry and/or annual conference placement. There are currently more placements available than the mission board has funds to match.

Kaleidoscopic Ministry and History

Church and Community Workers often describe their approach to ministry as "kaleidoscopic," vivid, and changing to meet human needs in a variety of situations. A distinctive pin the workers wear represents the various patterns and colors of a kaleidoscope. The history of the movement is also one of change within a framework of constant commitment.

The two ministries dated from 1885 were in Ponca City, Oklahoma, working with Native American children, and among immigrants, notably from Eastern Europe, in the Pittsburgh area.

Ministries similar to those expanded under the sponsorship of the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the "northern" branch of the denomination divided in pre-Civil War years over the issue of slavery. In 1913, women of the Methodist Episcopal Church South began work near Bluefield, West Virginia, that corresponded to that of their northern sisters. In 1922, the term "rural work" was given to this stream of community-based ministry.

The two geographically defined branches of American Methodism, along with the Methodist Protestant Church, united in 1939 into The Methodist Church, and "rural work," at times called "Town and Country," continued as a component of the women's mission outreach of the denomination. In that era, most of the workers were deaconesses who functioned much like home missionaries.

Major organizational changes took place in the 1960s and early 1970s. The name "Church and Community Worker" was coined, and the program was moved from the Women's Division to the National Division of the General Board of Global Ministries. It also shifted from a sole focus on rural communities to include urban and metropolitan areas and specialized service.

The history of the first 100 years of the movement is told by Alice Lucy Cobb in A Tapestry of Service, initially published in 1989 and reprinted in 1999. This book covers the organizational and cultural history of the workers and relates many accounts of the experience of individual missionaries.

A count was taken, and the Church and Community Workers gathered at Camp Sumatanga represented a total 615 years of missionary service. Service years ranged from 43 to less than one year.

Anniversary Occasions

The 125th anniversary of Church and Community Workers will be observed at many current ministry projects and within the life of the General Board of Global Ministries. Celebrations are also likely within annual conferences where the workers are active.

The archives of this mission movement are maintained in the library of Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, the site of a former college where many early women missionaries, Church and Community Workers, and deaconesses were trained. About 12 volumes of photos and archival materials were on display at the meeting in North Alabama.

The opening of the anniversary celebration coincided with a staff transition. Brenda Connelly was honored by her colleagues as she retired after six-and-a-half years as executive for Church and Community Ministry at the Global Ministries agency. Extremely effective and highly respected by her fellow workers within the whole church, she will live in North Carolina with her husband, Richard, also a retired Church and Community Worker.

Theme Scripture and Challenge

Luke 4:18 provides the theme scripture for Church and Community Workers. It described an occasion where Jesus took upon himself a mandate from God first cited by the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

The passage serves as the basis of a song written by Tom Page in the 1980s for Church and Community Workers. The lyrics add this application to the missionary vision:

If you put an end to oppression,
Put an end to ev'ry evil word,
If you feed the hungry,
And heal the hurts of those in need;
Then your darkness will be like the brightness of noon
And I will always guide you,
And keep you strong and well.

Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.


Date posted: Oct 01, 2009