Founded in 1856, Mt. Ayr UMC is a rural southern Iowa congregation. It’s a friendly, welcoming church that cares about its relationship with the community. And as such, Mt. Ayr welcomed the opportunity to be one of the pilot churches for the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI), a program designed to help strengthen leadership and grow churches.
Prescriptions for a Better Church
Mt. Ayr’s pastor, Rev. Charles “Skip” Rushing, praises the HCI process. “As the process goes along, and the more intense the study and reading, and the laity get involved, you can watch the process work. You can see the process spread in the church as you do that work. It was very interesting seeing them begin to face what we sort of didn’t do right as well as what we do do right.”
As Mt. Ayr identified the things that were keeping them from growing and discovered what to do about them, they saw amazing changes. “We’ve had phenomenal, tremendous growth, unbelievable growth in the church. In 2009, we might have 70 folks, 80 maybe. Now we’re 120, 125,” says Rev. Rushing. “There’s a tangible result to the HCI process, because of the things we adjusted. So the prescriptions are applicable; they’re actual. You can actually see what happens.”
The solutions that HCI offered Mt. Ayr were varied, and the results came quickly. “Some of those prescriptions were signage, worship change. And as soon as we started to do those, we began to see the results. Not only in numbers of people who worship, but in ministries – people wanting to start ministries,” explains Rev. Rushing.
Helping the Community
“What happened with HCI, it ignited a positive feeling,” he says. “It began to allow them to dream the dream, to see that there are no limits. That if we dreamed the dream, all things are possible in Christ. It really helped us to remember that. So out of that came an after-school program on Wednesday, which is thriving. Youth group has grown unbelievably since HCI started. It’s allowing people to have energy and a positive feeling about what can happen.”
Rushing notes that Mt. Ayr’s growth has revealed itself in multiple ways. “In practical ways, we do more missions, we do more community involvement and engagement. In a more subtle sort of way, that positive has filtered into the relationships in the community that we have, with the school, with the organizations, with our community center. You can just feel that people like to be around people who are positive,” he says, pointing out that the community, United Methodists and non-United Methodists alike, feel more warmly towards the church.
Some of the ways that Mt. Ayr is reaching out include helping to pay for computers for students and providing funds for snacks. “Our church pays for a lot of the afternoon snack milk, because the free and reduced kids are not allowed to have milk in the afternoon. So our church has stepped up to pay for that, and that has a big impact on the educators, on the kids, on the community,” says Rev. Rushing.
“We don’t say that we do that. We don’t advertise. And that’s been a big part of HCI: We don’t have to advertise the Holy Spirit as the word. I like to remind people that because we’re at church, kids will have milk. So HCI has helped us name the reason we are here, which is really a powerful thing. Because you came to church, a child who does not know you or never will know you will get milk this afternoon.”
Transformation for Church and Leaders
As a result of these changes, Mt. Ayr has grown it from a fairly small church to a smaller mid-sized church, and one that is more program-oriented. “I have had to learn how to be a different kind of pastor through HCI, because of the growth,” Rev. Rushing says, explaining that he has been working with a coach to help him pastor in different ways. “Personally, for me, it has reminded me why I do this.”
Part of the journey has also been the joy of watching the congregation and lay leaders grow. “I’ve been able to see a lot of light bulbs go on, which always keeps me energized,” he says. “I see transformation happen in individual lives and in the community. That’s been a real miracle of HCI, for me, to watch how it has transformed attitudes. How it’s taken folks who may not always be positive and given them an opportunity to cast a positive vision. It has reminded me of the power of the body of Christ in many ways.”
Being All In
Rev. Rushing looks very favorably on his church’s experience with the Healthy Church Initiative, and recommends it to other churches that are eager to embrace the program wholeheartedly. “I think HCI is a great thing. It’s not the answer to everything. It’s not the be-all and end-all. You have to have strong lay involvement,” he emphasizes. “You’ve gotta be all in with HCI. You can’t just stand on the periphery and do a little here and a little there. When you get your prescriptions, you live into them and you will see results. It’s all in.”
He sees it as an instrument to help churches turn corners. It has definitely helped Mt. Ayr. “We are a different church than when we began HCI. Because we were able to sort of name the things that weren’t allowing us to grow, we were able, as a church community, to be honest with ourselves. If you’re willing to do that, it’s not going to solve all your problems or give you all the answers, but it certainly gives you a rubric, a place to start to seek those answers.”