IV team expands to keep church transformation going


Written in dry erase marker on the window of Leroy Barber’s office of innovation and vitality at the Oregon-Idaho Conference Center is the phrase: “Innovation happens at the intersection of difference.”

It’s a heady charge – getting United Methodists in the Oregon-Idaho Conference and beyond to consider a church that doesn’t just revolve around traditional worship spaces. This is why, after one year in his position with the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, Barber has added a team of individuals to help spread the gospel of diversity, beloved community and more in hopes that some day soon United Methodists reach that intersection.

Jess Bielman, Sara Barger and Karen Ward have joined the team to serve in various capacities to make the vision of innovation and vitality a reality in Oregon and Idaho.

To get to this intersection, there needs to be more diversity within the church, a pipeline for new leadership within the church and disrupting the way things are for transformation to happen.

“If you’re going to implement change, you need implementers around you – people to execute the strategy,” said Bielman, who serves as associate director for the Oregon-Idaho office of Innovation and Vitality.

Ward serves the Beloved Community coordinator and Barger is a program assistant for the innovation team.

Bielman comes to his position after spending the last 17 years working at Warner Pacific University as a chaplain and religion professor teaching Christian spirituality. He’s been involved church for most of his life and earned his doctorate of ministry from Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC.

He works out of Sunnyside UMC with church innovators as well as recruiting college students for internships within the Office of Innovation and Vitality.

“It is a dynamic time for church, churches, denominations, etc. There is an acute necessity for change that is felt.  This provides a moment to engage different leaders and ministries,” Bielman said. “I have watched former students be enthusiastic about serving the church and unable to find churches and denominations willing to allow them the space and creativity that our Northwest context demands. It is exciting to get to be a part of church and innovation.”

Ward is a priest in the Episcopal church with a “John Wesley holy trouble-making orientation.” Raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, she holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration, psychology and political science along with a master’s degree in divinity, she’s been working in the are of church redevelopment for years.

Her position as coordinator of Beloved Communities is still unfolding, but its about making churches agents of transformation.

“It’s what the Kingdom of God looks like in the world,” she said.

Lately that has meant working with churches who have reached out for training and advise on anti-racism tactics and approaches they can take to be more welcoming. It’s an opt-in model, which Ward said makes for more meaningful change.

“The church is a body, an organism, a living thing. Living things that do not change and grow are dead,” Ward said. “Innovation for the church means being alive, growing and adapting to whatever context it is in to thrive and flourish. The Holy Spirit is the ‘Director of Innovation’ in the church, and out in the world. Trying to keep pace with the Spirit is never boring – and never ends.”

In Barger’s work as program assistant she does more than keep a schedule. She holds a bachelor’s degree in global studies and is working on a master’s degree in conflict resolution and she has a passion for meaningful dialogue, facilitating difficult conversations and making sure all voices are heard. All these passions come into play in the work being done by the Innovation and Vitality team.

“The mission of the UMC to be lived out fully,” she said. “I feel this team embodies this vision and it is an honor to be a part of this team and something bigger UMC and how it will influence the future of our church.”

According to Rev. Lowell Greathouse, coordinator of mission and ministry for the Oregon-Idaho Conference, work done by the innovation and vitality team is made possible through legacy funds available through church closure. The goal of the Conference is to use these funds to create staffing and other resources within the system to not only assist congregations in revitalizing ministry, but also creating new spaces for new people within the life of the church – and make the UMC better for it.

“Today, we live in demanding, challenging times that call upon the church to engage the community in new ways, re-discover our unique opportunity to serve the world as United Methodists, and live out our faith with boldness and vitality,” Greathouse said. “The skills and experiences of the various members of the Innovation Vitality Team give us the opportunity to do this in a number of significant ways.”

Barber has been busy in his first year in this position working with new church planters and innovators, hosting “Ordinary Revivals” in various communities, hosting internships for college students of college to learn where faith and social justice can come together.

With this team in place they can continue to cultivate new young leaders of color, expand internships, offer more trainings, curriculum on bringing diversity into the church, linking up with the Wesley Foundation campus ministry teams to raise up young leaders, use churches as a means to solving the housing and homeless crisis and go out into neighborhoods to be in community with one another. That’s just a short list.

But Barber is hesitant to say they’ve reached the intersection of difference for innovation.

“We’ve created the space for it,” he said.