Meet the Innovator
Ann Marie Carley is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church in Chillicothe, Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills. She describes her ministry as a Ministry of Sacred Change, helping congregations to embody incarnational ministry in their community.
Ann Marie is in the midst of creating a network of Fresh Expressions within her congregation. The congregation itself is about 200 years old, and their average age is around 70. In 18 months they were able to embrace a church culture that empowers lay members for ministry. They birthed 22 different micro-communities or “fresh expressions”. One fresh expression developed from a mom who realized she was always around other moms. They had a running group on Sunday mornings, but none of the moms were connected to a local congregation. So when someone asked to do something churchy together, they began listening to worship music during their runs and doing devotions. Another expression came from mountain bikers at a local park who started “Dirt Church.” Before COVID, another group had been leading art experiences in local nursing homes. They began adding scriptural elements to their art and sharing prayer concerns with one another. There was also a fresh expression developed by a few medical residents. They created a dinner church because their need was a home-cooked meal and a chance to relax, fellowship together, and play games.
At the outset, Ann Marie had a goal for recruiting and training 6 fresh expression pioneers from her congregation. They are now blessed with 15 pioneers who meet with people in small groups, developing fresh expressions and supporting their ministry. Over 60 people engaged in the Fresh Expressions training out of a membership of 200.
Ann Marie described Fresh Expressions as the handles that helped her congregation understand ministry on the fringes. They have been a tangible and accessible means of communicating and demonstrating ministry in the community. She defines incarnational ministry as becoming real and authentically like Christ to those in their community; and she defines the fringes in broad terms, as folks on the margins, including socio-economic and spiritual margins (those hurt by the church). In the past, the congregation was a large, traditional, downtown church known as a “country club church,” but now after all the work to create a cultural shift they like to be known as “the movement on Main.”
In the vision casting phase, Ann Marie reports that prayer was extremely important, especially prayers for things only God is capable of providing. They were seeking how and where God wanted them to move, not just corporately but also individually. Their new fresh expressions in the community developed from those prayers.
Another large part of the process has been training people to listen to those they are around everyday and notice where God is already at work in the community. None of their current fresh expressions happen without prayer and listening to the community.
Lastly, Ann Marie shared about the power of stories. Part of the fresh expressions training and the cultural shift they bring to the church comes from continuously sharing stories of change. She said that, “Those stories are shared constantly and consistently with the premise that every story matters and we’re all a part of God’s story.” Finding the intersection of our story with God’s story has been both crucial and life-giving. Constantly telling and retelling the stories of their fresh expressions has helped overcome the stigma of being a “country club” church.
A fresh expression of church can come from anywhere and can take virtually any form, but what keeps it alive is its connection to the local church. Sharing the story of how people’s lives are changed by having a supporting congregation is critical to the success of a particular expression. Sharing stories is how faith and life intersect. It is what helps us realize that our story is part of God’s story, and we can be the hands and feet of God in the world.
Faithful God, thank you for all the different ways your love is incarnate in the world. Help your church continue to find new ways to share your love with those around us. Help us continue to be bold in our witness and to try new things. Bless the ministry of all Fresh Expressions leaders and pioneers as they work to be your hands and feet in their communities. Amen.
About the Author
Timothy Bowman is an ELCA pastor currently serving in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod along with his wife, Allyson. Most recently serving as Associate Pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Mankato, MN, he is now serving Grace Lutheran Church in Nerstrand, MN, and also serves as a board member of Crossroads Campus Ministry at Minnesota State Mankato. Tim has an MDiv (Luther Seminary) and a BA (Bethel University). As part of the Seeds Project Tim is partnering with Luther Seminary’s Faith+Lead platform as a Digital Journalist working to share the stories of identified Innovators on Faith+Lead.
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