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When Pastor Adam Hamilton embarked on a series of sermons about Moses last year, he knew the gravity of his message.
Hamilton knew his call to action had the power to change the lives of children and families forever.
So he started at the beginning.
Inside Leawood’s United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, the nation’s largest Methodist congregation, Hamilton reminded church members that Moses was adopted – rescued – by Pharaoh’s daughter.
“She becomes the savior of the savior of Israel,” he said.
Hamilton also paused to acknowledge the hundreds of members who had been adopted, had lived in foster care or had been helped by others. It included his son-in-law, who had been taken in by his fourth-grade teacher, who found the pupil sleeping on his doorstep.
“He calls the boy’s dad and says: ‘Do you think I could help with your son?’” Hamilton said.
Hamilton also told his flock that he was praying for his daughters. He was praying that someone was nurturing the men his daughters would someday marry.
Hamilton’s call to action that August morning wasn’t simple. It wasn’t pounding nails at Habitat for Humanity, buying school supplies or taking on one of the myriad projects the church has become known for. It was far more profound.
“Are there some of you that God might be calling to be part of our foster care ministry? Or our adoption ministry?” he asked.
Leadership, as the Kansas Leadership Center tells its conference participants, is risky. And Hamilton’s sermon was a risk other pastors might have shied away from. In fact, it was a risk to call on congregants to follow suit and consider taking more risks themselves.
Those willing to take a chance could take comfort that they wouldn’t be doing so alone. Hamilton reminded members that the church has resources and monthly support programs for families willing to do the work.
“We have a vision of hundreds of our people adopting children or becoming foster parents,” he says later. Civic work is not a lofty expectation at the church. It’s a requirement that is clearly defined upfront.
“We just say: You can’t join the church unless you’re committed to serving outside the walls of our church,” Hamilton says.
It comes down to a fundamental core belief.
“For us as Christians, the ideal is the kingdom of God – this place where justice and beauty and truth reign. Where people love their neighbors and they love their enemies and they love God,” Hamilton explained. “So we tell folks: You’re really not living into being a Christian unless you’re out there with your sleeves rolled up looking for the person who is sick or hungry or naked
or in prison and doing something about it.”
“We don’t have all the answers. We’re not the great suburban army of saviors.” — Pastor Adam Hamilton, United Methodist Church of the Resurrection
It’s Hamilton’s job to help sketch out a vision for creating that change, and remind people of it. Church of the Resurrection organizes large volunteer teams to fix homes, serve dinners at soup kitchens, work internationally and much more.
Church members helped after Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters. Members work in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Russia and Honduras. They’ve built long-term relationships with six regional elementary schools, where nearly 100 percent of the students live in poverty. Members buy and read books at the schools, tutor, paint and purchase classroom supplies. This fall they bought 2,647 pieces of school clothing, distributed 25,000 books and outfitted 1,646 children with all of their school supplies.
Church of the Resurrection has built relationships with city staff and nonprofits to determine where its congregation can do the most good. They meet with the Mid-America Regional Council during strategic planning to learn about poverty and other factors that could guide their civic commitments.
When the church celebrated its 25th anniversary on Oct. 25, 2015, its members had completed 28,680 hours of community service – the goal was 25,000 – in 25 days.
“This was a stretch for us, but reflects a high level of mobilization that is expected (of) our people, and it was a great way to celebrate our anniversary by living out the vision of working with others to transform the community,” says Dan Entwistle, the church’s managing executive director and a Kansas Leadership Center alumnus.
The church also doesn’t shy away from tackling society’s riskiest subjects. As racial tension has increased, members have met with urban churches to talk about their experiences and learn from one another. One meeting allowed congregants to meet with members of St. James United Methodist Church, which is located in the urban core of Kansas City, Missouri.
The group is led by the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, the son of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II.
“A large part of it is getting to know each other, hearing each other’s stories,” Hamilton says.
Yet even good deeds have risks. Hamilton points out that church members get energized by the work and can easily forget that they don’t always know what’s best for others. His church works hard to get direction and build consensus from those they seek to help before work starts.
“We don’t have all the answers. We’re not the great suburban army of saviors. We’re just people who are willing to offer whatever we can to be of service,” he says.
In an increasingly skeptical society, Church of the Resurrection has been criticized for its new $90 million church building going up in Leawood. Hamilton expected that. He knows they’re known as “that big church in Johnson County.”
But he also thinks that critics are hard-pressed to insult the congregation’s integrity when they realize its members donated more than 120,000 volunteer hours outside church walls in 2015 and serve as the largest source of the metro area’s blood and food donations. Or when they learn it gives every dime of Christmas Eve collections – when everyone is asked to give as much as they spent on their own families – to local and international charities that benefit children.
Even though Church of the Resurrection has achieved impressive successes as a faith community, it’s not one that’s willing to rest on its laurels. But that continued push rests on a willingness to take on new risks in how it tries to serve the community.
“Let’s be the church that’s not just big,” Hamilton tells members. “Let’s be the church that’s big-hearted. Let’s be the church that’s known for serving in the community, not for the size of our buildings or membership.”
—Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.