We have experienced a lot of transition in the life of ABCWI in a short amount of time. In February, we were saddened by the sudden loss of Rev. Karen Sundland, a gifted pastor and leader. She was serving as the vice president of the Board of Managers at the time of her passing. We have grieved her loss as a leader and friend, and will continue to remember her, lift up her beloved fiancé Rev. Eric Lundquist in our prayers, and celebrate her life on April 22, 11 a.m. at First Baptist Church of West Allis.
One month after Karen’s death, we received the news that Rev. Brandle Morrow had accepted a new position at First Baptist Church Jeffersontown in Louisville, Kentucky, beginning May 1st. We celebrate his call to ministry that has been clarified and extended beyond Wisconsin, and at the same time we will miss his leadership and energy as our Board of Managers president and as senior pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church.
Fortunately, within just a few days, one of our at-large board members, Rev. Kenneth Cutler of Greater Mt. Zion, agreed to fulfill the remainder of Rev. Morrow’s term through October 2023. K. Shani Smith, of Greater Galilee, agreed to step into the role of vice president. We are grateful for their willingness and enthusiasm to step up and serve. Our Nominating Committee will convene after Easter to fill their at-large positions on the Board of Managers.
Along with this transition in leadership, our Board of Managers has been hard at work seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in envisioning who God is calling our region to be and what God is calling us to do in this new season. The region faces different challenges and opportunities than it did in 2017, when the previous Vision Statement, supporting statements and commentary were written, with the phrase “Together Living Faithfully Through Christ Today.” We have been through a regional executive minister transition and the Covid-19 pandemic. Our churches face different circumstances, and it is important for our regional work to reflect the transitions in our churches in order to be a relevant witness of Christ and to resource our congregations. While that statement has carried us through, we recognize that God is always doing something new.
We convened a Board Retreat at First Baptist Church of Madison, as well as online, January 27th and 28th of this year. Each board member was invited to bring a list of ten value words to share with the board. Through a process of asking questions, clarifying definitions, and some fun-filled conversations, we narrowed down our value list to five words that describe the ministry of ABCWI: collaboration, transformation, justice, integrity, and resilience. With those words, we crafted, discerned, and approved via consensus our new Vision statement.
The Vision and Purpose of the ABCWI Regional Office is:
To engage with churches, ministers, and ministries in collaborative and transformative work with our local and global communities by modeling integrity, pursuing justice, and fostering resilience while affirming the sacred worth of each person as beloved in Christ and by His church.
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Romans 12:4-5, NRSV.
The accompanying summary statements and supporting commentary is still a work in process with our Board of Managers and will continue at our August board meeting. You can see the current work and previous work of the Board of Managers here: https://www.abcofwi.org/mission-vision/.
As we approach our Annual Gathering October 13-15 at Green Lake Conference Center, with our focus on Next Generation Ministries, we are excited to share that work and vision with you all as we move into the next generation of the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin.
Be sure to save those dates! Our theme for the Annual Gathering is “God’s Dominion is From Generation to Generation (Daniel 4:3 KJV). Check out the proposed schedule, fees, speakers, and more here: https://www.abcofwi.org/annual-gatherings/
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
March 1st officially marks my one-year anniversary with you all as Executive Minister. In this past year I have traveled as far north as Camp Tamarack in Waupaca, as far west as First Baptist Church in La Crosse, and as far south as First Baptist Church in Beloit and First Baptist Church of Kenosha. I have visited 34 of our 59 churches for worship, shared in ministry opportunities with pastors and lay leaders, met with you in fellowship and worked alongside you in service together. If I haven’t visited your church yet, my plan is to do so over the next several months.
We are a gem of the American Baptist Churches, USA. With our congregations representing a variety of cultural and language backgrounds and community settings from urban to suburban to rural, we truly represent the diversity of our American Baptist family. In worship and theology and practice, we also differ from one another, and we have differed in our practices during Covid between virtual, in-person, and hybrid forms of worship, education, and fellowship. However, we hold these Baptist principles in common across all fifty-nine churches: our distinctives of soul liberty, congregational autonomy and interdependence, religious freedom, and the freedom to study the Bible and apply the Scriptures to our lives by direction of the Holy Spirit. We are the most diverse denomination in the state of Wisconsin, and yet we are small enough that we have opportunities to get to know one another and learn from each other, and those opportunities are growing and expanding this year with a return of the Teaching Pastor’s Forum and our Lay Leadership Trainings (we just held one for Board Leadership). There are opportunities at Camp Tamarack, and we hope to grow and share together what our churches are doing and how we can support one another as we share the Good News of Christ in our communities and beyond. Some of our churches are partnering together in new and exciting ways, such as witnessed by Milwaukee Myanmar Christian Church and Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church this past month.
As you may know, my passion is for the next generation of ministry leaders and am delighted to have that as our focus moving forward this year into our Annual Gathering at Green Lake October 13-15. We have high school youth and young adults in their 20’s and 30’s serving on our Program Committee. We also have young adults serving on our Board of Managers, who are helping craft our new purpose statement and vision. This is an exciting time!
Yes, even despite the decline of churches in the United States, the aging populations of many of our congregations, we know the Holy Spirit is at work. Church is not going to look like it did for many of us in our own childhood and youth. We must instead help the church become what is needed for people today, that they may receive the Good News of Jesus Christ and participate in the love of our neighbors. I am excited, even though it may mean some shifts in how we have done things before. We may see new types of worshiping communities develop even as older churches close. I am encouraged in the young leadership that is rising up and the new generation of believers. I am convinced that we are moving in the right direction, with the Holy Spirit’s direction and the love of Christ within us.
On this first anniversary, I look forward to many years ahead here in Wisconsin with you all, empowered by the Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ in the world.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
Black History Month became a national celebration in 1976, but time set aside for celebrating and learning Black History goes back to at least February 1925 in observation of the birthdays of both Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
As Baptists, we celebrate George Liele, the first African-American licensed to preach and ordained in 1773. He then organized the First African Baptist Church in 1777 in Savannah, Georgia, and then became a missionary to Jamaica where he established a school and church.
Here in Wisconsin, we celebrate the establishment of Calvary Baptist Church in 1895, the oldest African American Baptist Church in the city of Milwaukee. Calvary was the first African American church in Wisconsin to join the Wisconsin Baptist State Convention (now American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin), and in 1923, Rev. Samuel S. Russell helped organize Black Baptist Churches in the Washington Baptist Convention (now the Wisconsin General Baptist State Convention, Inc).
We also celebrate that the first clergywoman to serve as ABCUSA president is Rev. Dr. Trinette McCray from Milwaukee in 1999-2001. Dr. McCray has served in various churches and ministries here in Wisconsin and beyond, and currently a member at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church.
We encourage all our churches to learn their history and especially learn the history of Black Baptist Churches. A History of the Black Baptist Church: I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired by Wayne E. Croft, Sr. is available from Judson Press, www.judsonpress.com. We hold a number of historical records in our archives room here at the region office. Contact Sean Cornell, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 262-782-3140 if you would like to view records.
I think by now we’ve learned to temper our expectations of the new year, especially after the last few. We know better than to make resolutions that a global pandemic or political crisis might interrupt.
However, I am reminded of the words of Jeremiah. The prophet lived during the invasion of Judah by the Babylonian empire. Before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, God instructed Jeremiah to write to the exiles already taken into Babylon these words: Build houses, plant gardens, raise families, pray for the welfare of the city in which you reside (29:4-7). Though Jeremiah knew that Jerusalem would fall to Babylon, God also gave a promise: in a few generations, the people in exile will return. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).
It is hard to raise our expectations. The pandemic may have been declared over, but the occupancy of hospitals is increasing with rising cases of Covid, RSV and flu at the time I write this. We’re not going back to normal, we aren’t even embracing a new normal—we’re understanding that there is no such thing as normal. It is not normal for over one million people to die in fewer than three years from one disease in the United States, and 6.7 million people worldwide. Many survivors are experiencing long Covid symptoms and illness. We’re politically divided. Most churches are not seeing the number of people on an average Sunday return to what it used to be. The church went through about twenty years of change in two.
This is the kicker: nothing will be like it used to be. The exiles learned that the hard way. When we read Ezra and Nehemiah and the latter prophets, we see that the exiles returned home and had divisions among themselves. Sometimes they wanted to cut themselves off from everyone else. Sometimes they had to embrace the culture of the time to survive. They struggled, and they never got back to their “glory days” of David and Solomon—and if you read Samuel and Kings, you know that even in the “glory days” they were full of division and strife and violence. But still, the promise of God endures: God plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.
So it is with us. Nothing will be like we remember it because even our memories are clouded. What may have seemed a great, wonderful time for us may have been filled with hardship for others. A white pastor friend once called the 60’s the “Leave it to Beaver” years based on his childhood memories, but another Black pastor colleague pointed out all the acts of violence he experienced as a child, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Our nostalgia is often a very narrow view.
So here we are, entering 2023. I recently read Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters by Bob Smietana. The first two chapters of the book didn’t surprise me—we know that church attendance has been dwindling for some time since our “glory years” of the 50’s and 60’s. In the 1980’s, average attendance for churches nationwide was around 135. Now it’s 65. One reason is simple reproduction math: families are having fewer children today. Many of our churches are still relying on nostalgic ways of thinking about church. Church was where you knew your family and friends for so long, and now there are other places and organizations.
But there are many other reasons today why that number is sharply dropping. One thing that concerns me as an executive minister is the focus internally on institutional survival. Many churches continue to do things the same way they have done them for many years, but the world has changed. Some churches have resisted the technological changes that would allow people to participate remotely. Others have added the technology, but kept those at home participating in a passive way, where they could only watch, instead of interacting and welcoming those online and encouraging them to give and participate. Still others are focused only on getting people “back into church.”
Many churches have ignored the societal struggles of racism, violence, climate change, hateful rhetoric and rise of white Christian nationalism, in the hope of simply keeping people together. Sometimes we think that’s the safer option, but when racism and discrimination are affecting our own bodies, or we watch family members fall into the conspiracy theory wells, to ignore these things ignores the very pain people live with. Smietana interviews people who’ve left the church because the church couldn’t see the harm they were causing with their silence.
What Smietana concludes, however, is that while churches are shrinking, and yes, some churches are closing, is that despite the odds, we put our faith and trust in God. “Don’t be eager to pronounce the church dead. God is still at work. There is still hope.” While people are leaving churches, they are still seeking faith. People are still seeking a connection with God, a spiritual life.
I have witnessed hope and faith firsthand in our churches here in Wisconsin. We have churches that are focused outwardly: community gardens, street ministry, job training, mental health clinics, afterschool programs, vaccine clinics, food pantries, volunteering, and so much more. Funds were raised here to help the victims of war in Ukraine as well as the survivors of hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Florida. I have witnessed the tangible, life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit alive in our American Baptist Churches in Wisconsin. I’ve listened to our pastors bring anti-racism work to their congregations, hold hard conversations on gun violence, and raise up the issue of white Christian nationalism. I’ve witnessed congregations embracing those who have been harmed by other churches, leaning into Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves as their guide. This is trust in God lived out.
In 2023, we are turning our focus and attention to Next Generation Ministries. I’ll share more in the coming months, but studies from the Fuller Youth Institute show that when churches focus on next generation ministries, all generations benefit. When we minister with youth and young adults and not to them, we believe they are part of the church now, not just our future. Youth and young adults are much more concerned about issues of discrimination and violence and climate change as part of their faith in God, and when we don’t address those issues—not just in worship but in our action—and don’t include youth and young adults in our ministries, we are losing out.
The church has an opportunity for transformation, but we could miss it if we’re too worried about trying to go back to who we used to be. We don’t know for certain what is coming, but as Bob Smietana said, “Don’t be eager to pronounce the church dead.” Christ is risen, and so must we rise in a new way to live into Christ. God still has plans for us, a future with hope. Let’s build and plant here and now, meeting the needs of the people around us now, with our youth and young adults.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
Save the Date for our Annual Gathering, focusing on Next Generation Ministries
October 13-15, 2023 at Green Lake Conference Center
Advent means “arrival” but it’s not a finite action. A better understanding is “coming into view.” It’s like when you’re flying in and you see the city lights of your destination, but not necessarily the runway yet. It’s almost there. You know you will reach it.
Advent is the season of waiting; waiting to celebrate Christ’s birth as we wait for Christ to enter our world and our lives in a new way. After two thousand years, this practice of waiting can become rote, bogged down with the way we have always done things, either at home or at church. Traditions are there to help us remember and to teach us to be ready for what is to come. When the tradition becomes the focus, instead of the teaching method to help us, we may have lost sight of what it is we are waiting for.
But again, we misunderstand waiting. This is not a passive action, but an active waiting, a participating in the world to prepare the world for what is to come. The scriptures tell us that “now is the time to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11). We are called to wake up from our weariness of the world, and participate in God’s reign on earth now, even as we are waiting for it to come.
We read passages from the prophets, the stories of John the Baptist, the tales of Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah. All the things, all the stories, all the people that came before to prepare the way, so that we might be reminded this is our work, too.
The voice is crying out from the wilderness to us, “prepare the way of the Lord!”
Are you ready? All earth is waiting!
May you have a wonderful and joyous Christmas celebration, but may we remember that the work of Christ is beginning to come into view. There is more ahead.
Blessings to you in the waiting.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
I am an autumn person. I love this season when things get colder and we pull out the sweaters and extra blankets, drink warm cocoa or cider and watch the leaves fall and prepare for winter. I like this time when things slow down a bit outdoors. I know this is not a universal feeling, that come spring I will have felt cooped up for far too long and be ready to get out in warmer weather again, but for now, I can appreciate the beauty of this season as we near the end of 2022.
This is the first year we can really say we are pre-post-pandemic. We had vaccines rolling out in 2021 but with different variants of Covid, many of our churches chose to go remote only to keep others safe up through this spring. Even those who remained in-person at times kept (and still keep) mask requirements and temperature checks. We’re not through it yet, and none of us have gone back to our life before the pandemic.
We’ve had to learn to do things differently. The pandemic sped up some decisions that we knew we needed to make a while ago, and I know some of our churches are still working on shifting, but overall we have embraced online giving and online worship as a form of participation. In a world where few of us write checks anymore, and the pandemic made us weary of handling cash, those who have gone to online giving have recognized the value of setting up automatic payments and easier ways for people to give. Online worship hasn’t become an alternative to in-person; instead, it is a form of communal worship. We know that immune compromised folks, seniors, and those who live far away can now participate with us, no matter where they are.
It’s easy for us to grumble about what we have lost in terms of convenience. For those of us who grieve, this is a real loss. Over one million people in the United States, and over six and a half million worldwide, have died from Covid. Thousands more live with the effects of long Covid. Our lives have been changed forever.
Nonetheless, some of the changes we have made are necessary, such as accepting people who will continue to wear masks for their own protection. Before the pandemic, we might have thought it strange. Making online accommodations for participation in worship, as well as Zoom meetings, online Bible studies, and other opportunities have all been good things.
Our region has made some dramatic changes in the last year. Offering hybrid opportunities means that people can engage from a distance, or when they’re not feeling well, or something comes up that would make it impossible to drive to a meeting or event. We are beginning to offer new trainings for our church leadership, lay ministers, and clergy. Smaller group gatherings that allow us to get to know one another better and reduce risk of illness. Our camping and outdoor ministry programs changed to make campers safer and even offered some online opportunities for gathering last spring when cases were on the rise.
We know that the last few years have been hard. About twenty years of change came in only two years. People have not returned to in-person worship as we had hoped (this is across all denominations throughout the country). We’re still in the midst of understanding these shifts in participation and in our culture in general, but we are open to where the Spirit is moving.
As we enter the last two months of the year, I am grateful for the opportunities God has given us to look back and see where the Holy Spirit has been at work. I am grateful for the new insights and innovations and ministries that have come forth. I am grateful for our pastors who have navigated these changes and hung in there, even when technology failed us on Sunday mornings, and for church members who remained patient when things seemed to change Sunday to Sunday. We are in this together.
In pondering this past year with gratitude, will you consider supporting the ministries of our region? Individually and as a church, your mission giving is what supports the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin: our camping and outdoor ministries, our trainings for church leaders and ministers, our guidance to churches in pastoral transitions, and much more. Next year, our theme for our Annul Gathering (October 13-15, 2023 at Green Lake) is Next Generation Ministries: focusing on both the need of ministry with our youth and young adults, as well as cultivating the next generation of ministry leaders. What does God have in store for your church next? For you?
We are the most diverse denominational body in this state. There is no one else like us in Wisconsin, with our churches of different cultures and languages and theologies and worship styles, covenanting together in our shared faith in Christ to do mission together. Consider what you can do to help support the work of Christ through the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin.
I am grateful for you, and grateful to be part of this wonderful ministry together!
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell