An Opinion: Inner-City Ministry

Is adherence to a United Methodist Rubric Germane to Discipline-Making in Distressed Neighborhoods?

Food distribution at an Inner City Ministry Site

Food Distribution is a primary component of Inner City Ministry

Summer 2005, the pathway to a vibrant missional field ripe for ministry was unveiled on the eastside of inner-city Cleveland, OH. It was in the north Broadway neighborhood with over 100 years of Methodist history. There had been a 138-year Methodist presence in this neighborhood but in fewer than 10 years, the Conference and North Coast District of East Ohio considered it best to vacate the neighborhood because this United Methodist congregation was no longer relevant[1] by the definition of relevancy embraced by the conference at that time. The congregation could no longer thrive when it acknowledged and responded to the basic needs of the people living in the neighborhood. Allocating resources to address the needs of the neighborhood left very few resources to respond to the requirements of the larger UM organization. 

A 501c3, Enhancement Ministries, Inc. (EMI), was established by the church to align for outside funding sources. EMI, working alongside the congregation, championed opportunities to reshape (rethink) church in this eastside neighborhood. The congregation was called upon to play a dual inspirational role, provider of tangible resources and the role of the light that leads to an invisible God. It meant maintaining some semblance of traditional church tenets as the congregation leaned into ways to embrace the identified 21st Century mission field. A mission field with children and their families seeking meaningful ways to re-invent the neighborhood. This gleam of hope was ministry that reached beyond the walls of the church and spilled over into the heart of the community. Inner city ministry must directly impact the lives of families, especially school aged children in the community where they live![2]

Serving alongside members of the last UM congregation at that location, representing a 138-year presence of Methodism in that neighborhood is a clear reminder of how God remains actively involved in the life of humankind. July 2005 – December 2010 was final season of ministry at that location for the faithful few who were committed to directly touching the lives of those inner-city families at that location.  Their core Christian values were inspiring and energized but their ability to advocate for longevity in alignment with the established UM rubric did not redeem our quest. Advocates lacked enough balance between both human and financial resources. The formula for the appropriate mix of financial and human resources remind two of the main challenges for the quality of spiritual development for congregations in general. Finding this balance has proven to be weightier for ministry in urban settings.  People with means are quick to exercise their option to remain or abandon any community not meeting their needs. Some will opt to give financial support from a distance or not at all. Inner city ministry always gives its advocates a mixture of heartfelt achievement along with reasons for pain, thus creating wonderful sparks of hope.  

The faithful few seasoned members that remained at this eastside Cleveland location until the final closing worship December 2010 reverberated with a collective assessment of accountability as a response to God’s call to make disciples in all settings.  Parents and children need a place to regain a sense of wholeness and spiritual stability[3]. A signature program was one that attempted to stabilize life for students suspended from grades K-8 from neighborhood schools.  Another program was the forerunner of online applications for tax preparation and social service assistance for marginalized families. The church’s small pool of retired parishioners made a lasting impression on the lives of those families and students while addressing the needs in this urban setting.

From January 2011 – June 2014, the North Coast District continued to reload the toolbox with what would be helpful for working in Cleveland’s inner-city. Though no two neighborhoods are identical, the basic tenets of respect influenced by Christ’s love are always appropriate. There were significant discussions, wisdom seeking, wisdom sharing, prayer and retracing congregational steps over those years. The prevailing question continued to be “should the congregation stick with a UMC rubric because this is what protocol requires or discontinue because this ministry typology leans more to  social services and had no approved place for fruit-bearing in a UMC ministry model designed for inner city Cleveland at that time. At least, those were the words from leadership.

Communities like Cleveland’s North Broadway are still prime mission fields for the United Methodist Church (UMC) to claim a footprint in the inner city and nurture the hearts of families through ministry. Mission Insite data supports anecdotal information about the north Broadway neighborhood[4]

The data indicates that a significant number of children live within two (2) miles of the old United Methodist facility. The facility has been sold but the children and families in the community are still challenged by the same needs. Who will God send to bring a word to them shaped by UM polity? Or, will there ever be another UM presence in this corner of God’s mission field?  

The Mosaic for this mission field demographics places “Getting by, Small-City Endeavors and New Generation Activists” in the top three categories. Those “Getting By” stand at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, a financially challenged cluster of young high school-educated and mainly African American households. “Small-city Endeavors” has a split personality, reflecting this cluster’s mix of young and old, singles, families and single parent households. Worship for both groups must be inspirational (celebration, praise). They are open to spontaneity in worship, or unpredictable things happening during worship. Worship must emphasize personal transformation and new hope. Before we can get them to faithfully participate in celebratory worship, the UMC must first demonstrate that it sees and value this demographic as individuals.[5]

The New Generation Activists” are often the first home-on-their-own cluster for young singles and single-parent families. More than a third of the households are under 35 years old and nine out of 10 are single. This group responds best to informal worship designed to coach Christians through the ambiguities of living. They are also open to unpredictability and surprise, and contemporary technologies and music. They are driven more by sudden need or chronic anxiety than spiritual discipline. For this group, a spiritual community must lead somewhere, and readily connect participants with practical small groups and service projects (after school programs; alternative learning).

While serving as active pastor at this location, my family and I bought property and lived in this mission field too as a sign of commitment. I never treated it as a rite of passage to a more upscale appointment. My personal history with poverty, a dysfunctional childhood household and matriculating in unequal and inequitable education systems as a child made this mission field a core driver for my purpose and call to serve.  My desire to leave this world a better place keeps me grounded and focused on the least of these, especially children challenged by societal and circumstances at home beyond their control that impact their academic learning. I believe that our responsibility to add blocks of hope and steppingstones in a path that move others beyond where we can ever think or imagine (Ephesians 3:20) never fades. It just takes on differ expressions and new forms.

[1] Maddox, Randy L. Rethinking Wesley’s Theology for Contemporary Methodism. Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1998.


[3] Jones, W. Paul. Worlds Within a Congregation:Dealing with Theological Diversity. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

[5] Atkinson, David J, David F Field, Arthur Holmes, and Oliver O’Donovan. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.

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