Prayer is central to the Rev. Lee Strawhun's ministry at Westwood United Methodist Church, Cincinnati. Two years ago, he and his congregation heard about the Breakthrough Prayer Initiative and knew it would be perfect for them. It is one of several short Traction Tracks courses - specific training, resourcing, coaching and implementation components developed within the Missional Church Consultation Initiative.
Launched in 2011 by Bishop Bruce Ough, and continued by Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, MCCI is designed for churches that need revitalization. A spinoff of MCCI, Traction Tracks contains pullout training components from MCCI resourcing.
"We heard about Traction Tracks through the conference website and gathered about six people to go to a Sunday afternoon event (Breakthrough Prayer Initiative)," Strawhun recalled. "We had been emphasizing prayer for over eight years and needed a boost in our ministry. From the very beginning of my pastorate at Westwood UMC, God told me (yes, I use that language), 'Nothing will be accomplished at Westwood without prayer.'"
Located on the city's west side, Westwood is in an urban mixed neighborhood experiencing a rebirth with young families moving into the area.
"We are a 177-year-old ministry that had its largest attendance in the 1960s and now worships around 400 in four different services in four different styles," said Strawhun, senior pastor. "We also have an African congregation that worships in the building. We are very active in the community and have a full-time missionary on staff."
With the church council's blessing, the Breakthrough Prayer team began to plan a rich variety of events and ministries. These include prayer walks around the community, the local elementary school, downtown Cincinnati and the church, as well as an annual prayer retreat. A prayer chain with requests and praises goes out weekly. A prayer wall includes requests for and answers to prayer. In the monthly newsletter, "The Prayer Corner" features testimonies about God's answers. Monthly videos, shown during worship services, feature prayer testimonies and publicity for prayer events. Postcards are available for members and attendees to send to people for whom they are praying. Each staff member and ministry has a prayer partner. Prayer stations around the church provide quiet settings in which to pray.
"What has happened at Westwood UMC is miraculous and extraordinary," said the Rev. Sue Nilson Kibbey. She leads the conference's Office of Missional Church Development.
Traction Tracks is designed for churches and pastors who may not have the capacity for the entire MCCI, but who could gain traction from the learning, training, guidance and application of one aspect, she explained. The individual short courses are geared for congregations of any size and setting.
'Many amazing stories have emerged'
Now in its third year, Traction Tracks offers classes every fall and spring. "More than 20 Traction Tracks courses have been offered since we began," Nilson Kibbey said. Those have included about 140 congregation pastors/teams, with nearly 1,000 participants overall.
Traction Tracks courses are neither randomly selected nor merely the result of a topic suggestion. They are all pullouts from MCCI resourcing, already proven to make a significant difference in a church's revitalization journey.
Palmer, who has described Traction Tractions as a key initiative for revitalization, is a vocal supporter of the popular courses. "Results have been uniformly fruitful," Nilson Kibbey said, "and many amazing stories have emerged from them."
The Rev. Mark Fuerstenau, for example, serves a two-point charge in the West Ohio Conference. Recently, he and a team from one of his small United Methodist churches, Mount Cory, participated in a course called "Family Ties: Home, Church and Community." The result? Today, nearly every child and youth in their small town is involved in some aspect of the congregation's ministries.
"Every Traction Track course," Nilson Kibbey said, "requires the pastor to attend and to bring along a team, so all are trained and equipped and have momentum to go home and implement across the congregation together."
Other Traction Tracks topics have included "Be Our Guest," "Social Media Strategies," "Sparking a Volunteer Revolution through Catalytic Outreach," "Streamlining Your Administrative Structure," "Visual Identity and Communication" and "Worship Design and Enhancement."
Unlike MCCI, which is by episcopal invitation only and funded by the conference, Traction Tracks asks congregational teams to pay a registration fee that covers materials and meals.
"MCCI and Traction Tracks are all based on a model of training, equipping, assignments, application, guidance/coaching and accountability," Nilson Kibbey said. "This model helps ensure that pastors and teams move from teachability into 'action-ability,' truly implementing new skills and tools for traction forward in a specific aspect of renewal."
Other annual conferences have asked if their pastors and teams could participate via live video connection. "We are actively exploring that possibility," Nilson Kibbey said, "and hope by January 2020 to make this a reality."
- Barbara Dunlap-Berg