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Listening and empowering are key to new district superintendent

By Mary Stamp

From his first career as a physical therapist, Gregg Sealey carries a commitment to heal people into his ministry as a pastor and now as the new Inland District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church, succeeding Dale Cockrum.

The Rev. Gregg Sealey brings insights from therapy to ministry.

During his seven years as pastor at Covenant United Methodist Church (UMC) in North Spokane, he was certified as a professional coach to come alongside individuals and groups, asking questions to provoke transformation.

He will apply those skills as district superintendent.

In July and August, he visited the district’s 47 churches from Ritzville to Montana, the Canadian border to the Oregon borders, and in Idaho south to White Bird.

This fall, he is meeting with each church to discover its directions and pastoral leadership needs. Gregg brings three questions for congregations to consider:

1) Who are we as a church community?  2) Who are neighbors around the church and what are their needs?  3) What is our sense of call?

“Some can readily answer those, but answers for others are less clear,” said Gregg.  “I hope to help churches gain clarity on their answers to those questions.”

As a judicatory official, he’s aware some may see his input as a top down, professionalized role, rather than as coming alongside churches with resources for their work.  When he converses with people in churches, he seeks to equip ministry, rather than bringing an answer for a congregation.

“The district’s churches are diverse theologically, and there are people on both sides of hot-button social issues.” Gregg said.

In addition to people on the right and left views of theology and issues, there are people with multiple perspectives.  Some are entrenched. Some are evenly split.

“It’s a challenge, but when communities embrace one another it looks a lot like God’s Kin-dom,” he said. “Each church needs to do its best to recognize issues, and look at the larger picture of what unites us—the love of God in Jesus Christ—so we can be true friends at the end of the day.”

He believes churches need to engage in difficult topics, disagree and still love each other because that’s how God’s Kin-dom looks. 

“It’s counter to the culture that divides us into red and blue, black and white, old and young, gay and straight,” he said.  “The church’s beginnings were countercultural.”

Gregg is aware some churches are more preference driven, and others are more purpose centered.

“Our focus has to be on our mission, not what we like or don’t like,” he said.  “Churches focused on preferences rather than purpose may split over a decision about worship style or the green shag carpet.  Some focus on maintaining their building, while others see the building as a tool for mission.”

By asking questions, he hopes to help people see possibilities, so a building doesn’t become an albatross.  Some congregations are already discovering what it’s like to do mission in the world without a building.

Recently Gregg was at the closing worship service for Central United Methodist Church. He is helping the congregation explore possibilities of what they can do for ministry with funds from selling the building.

Shalom Ministries continues in the building and is discerning what to do, depending on what happens with the building.

The Rev. Stephen Johnson, the last pastor, helped members connect with other churches.  A congregation with members from African countries that worshiped there is now worshiping at Fowler United Methodist Church.

Recently Trinity UMC closed and members joined Fowler, merging officially on July 1.  Fowler is selling the Trinity building, Gregg said.

Like small urban churches, small rural churches are trying to discern their mission.  

Towns vary in size but most struggle as young people move elsewhere for jobs, rather than staying as part of multigenerational families.  Farming now requires fewer people.

As young people leave, and rural communities with low-cost housing draw low-income people who have problems and need services, small towns now deal with urban issues, but lack resources.

Gregg, whose parents grew up on Nebraska farms, earned a bachelor’s degree in 1993 at the University of Washington and a master’s in physical therapy in 1996. From 1996 to 2003, he practiced physical therapy at an outpatient clinic in Snohomish County.

Having grown up United Methodist, he connected with a vibrant church in Marysville with young families, children, small groups and community ministries.  At a retreat on worship, someone told Gregg he should be a pastor.  Someone previously had told him that when he was in high school. 

“I began to wonder if I was called to be a pastor,” he said. “Then I had a dramatic encounter with God and felt called.”

From 2003 to 2007, he was at St. Paul School of Theology at Kansas City, Mo., and served a church in Leavenworth, Kans.  From 2007 to 2009, he served a church in Hoquiam before coming in 2009 to Covenant United Methodist Church, a 275-member church with 120 at worship each week.

After study for a certificate as a professional coach from 2012 to 2015 with Coaches Training International at San Rafael, Calif., he began to put his agenda aside and ask questions to find church members’ agendas.

The training shifted him from being a pastor with clear ideas about what a church should do to asking open-ended questions to help people discern what they want to do. At Covenant, he worked with and listened to the community of faith and the community around the church.  It increased interactions among members, and more happened.

About three years ago, the church shifted its governance from multiple committees to a single board focused on “the big picture.”  Instead of committees, there are ministry teams. 

The congregation shifted to focus on their call to have an impact on the world, Gregg said.

That approach is part of a shift from paying a professional pastor to do ministry to equipping members to do ministry.

For example, a member saw an article about using bubble wrap to help keep homeless people sleeping outdoors warmer.  Two met, applied for a grant and started a ministry to prepare bubble wrap.

“A ministry team can be born out of someone’s passion,” he said.

Passion and interest continue for the church to do its long-term ministries with a sister church in El Salvador, the Spokane Alliance and a community garden, as well as church tasks of worship, finance and maintenance.

“Someone’s passion may lead to looking at how to live their faith in the world.  As a pastor, I asked questions and encouraged members to ask what God is calling them to do,” he said.

One role as district superintendent is to work with the Pacific Northwest Conference United Methodist Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, and others from the conference and district to make prayerful decisions about placing pastors, based on interviews with pastors and churches.

Depending on the situations, pastors now move every four or more years, rather than every two years.  One pastor has served the Elmore UMC for 29 years.

“Our founder, John Wesley, did not want pastors to stay so long that moss grew under their feet.  He believed laity would be more engaged if pastors were not there too long,” Gregg said.

He believes professional ministry, which has a purpose, may mean some lay people wait for the pastor to do the ministry.  If members are not engaged, a church can become just something to do on Sunday morning, rather than a way of life.

Today, he said, pastors’ terms have lengthened because it takes time for a leader to have an impact on a community.  Previously most church members were born, raised, lived and died in a community.  Pastors came and went.

“Now church members move with multiple careers, so longer terms for pastors gives stability and continuity, helping keep momentum for ministry,” Gregg said.

He feeds his spiritual life by contemplative meditation and prayer.  He meditates as he practices mindfulness, does physical exercise, eats well and engages with people. While he sets aside time to pray, he seeks to “be mindful as I move around each day.

“Physical therapy heals one person at a time.  A pastor can help one at a time and help the faith community be God’s healing presence in the world,” said Gregg, who as district superintendent will help 47 congregations “be God’s healing presence in the world.”

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