As devoted followers of Jesus Christ, we say that we are committed to practices that will encourage growth in our faith. We know that Discipleship is the process of being shaped by the Holy Spirit through spiritual practices to become more like Jesus.
But how does that look as we go about the business of our day-to-day lives?
Many if not most senior pastors and church staffs have wondered how best to help people find a path to discipleship in a way that is meaningful to them and relevant to their lives and faith. Under Dr. Tim Bruster’s leadership, this common conversation went from abstract idea (“we really need to do more in the area of discipleship”) to the concrete program we know today as Healthy Plate Discipleship.
“I was about to be commissioned as a deacon in the Central Texas Conference in 2014,” Reverend Casey Orr remembers. “And that same year Tim agreed to allow me to transition into a new role at First Church – from Director of Youth Ministries to Associate Pastor of Discipleship.”
“When I discovered that Casey Orr’s passion was discipling — and when that awareness on her part intersected with our need as a church to have a well-defined path or process to discipleship for people, we created the pastor of discipleship position and Casey moved into it,” Tim explains. With this move into this special area of adult ministries, Casey was charged with making this somewhat intangible idea tangible, measurable, and at long last doable with a high degree of effectiveness.
“We identified the need to develop a unifying vision for discipleship for the congregation – one that would hold all age levels together – one that was accessible and meaningful to people who were new to faith and people who had been faithful and mature disciples for decades,” she elaborates. “We had a lot of good programs and ministries, but we had no way to communicate a unifying purpose they each serve. Our most important question was: are we accidentally and hopefully making disciples or intentionally and certainly making disciples?”
Casey says that once she fully understood the scope of this huge assignment, she told Tim she was committed to doing the development work but needed to take it slowly – taking plenty of time for deep learning and discerning, and then to give it time to grow — and to allow some of the information she needed to emerge from the congregation.
“I asked for four years,” she remembers; it was ready in two. During this time, Casey would first study our context, do research on discipleship, figure out what is needed at First Church and establish a first draft of a plan. Then, she would begin the education process for staff and lay leadership — and working closely with both, prepare for a church-wide launch. She says that she knew throughout the development process that the key to making this initiative successful would be in allowing it to take root in our church culture and to maintain the consistency that would convince people it wasn’t just a gimmick.
“Acts 2:42-47 is a succinct description of discipleship in general — and more specifically a good summary of our Healthy Plate concept,” Tim explains. “In that section of Acts we see (and with a little bit of imagination, we can experience) the sense of awe that came over the early church as they explored — and discovered — how best to follow the example of Jesus.”
“From the very beginning, I was borrowing from Tim’s confidence, Casey now confides. “The project was enormous and while First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth was not the first church I served, it was my first appointment.” She laughs. “I was 29 and he frankly had no good reason to entrust such a thing to me.”
“I honestly think that’s one of the most beautiful things about Tim’s leadership,” she continues. “He trusts the people with whom he is surrounded. He guides and encourages, but he doesn’t micromanage. He sees his team as co-visioners. He always welcomed our hair-brained ideas and big dreams and hopes for the future. He always wanted us to be rightly fitted for our work and put us in places that we could both serve the church and grow as leaders. He’s terribly humble” she adds, “and never saw any reason to center himself in the process of developing Healthy Plate.”
Once Casey had this idea fully fleshed out, she presented her draft of the program first to Tim, then to other groups who would be part of the roll-out and would add their support and influence as the congregation learned and lived into this new way of thinking about church membership.
“What I learned from my year of research about discipleship plans and experiences from other churches is that comprehensive visions of discipleship are only successful when the senior pastor is the champion,” Casey relates. “So, I knew from the beginning that Tim’s faith in me could help drive it forward, but his lack of ego could stop it dead in its tracks.” She smiles, “So I pushed him to the center!”
Remembering her excitement at this stage of the Healthy Plate development process, Casey says that at every step, Tim was involved. “From the genesis of the idea,” she emphasizes, “he was influencing its future.”
Casey says that when she was finally ready and pitched her first draft to Tim, there came an unanticipated surprise. While he agreed with the five areas of discipleship Casey had filled the “plate” with: worship, study, give, serve, and pray, Tim immediately picked up on what was missing. “He told me that fellowship was missing,” she remembers, “and that community is critical for disciples. We agreed that fellowship wasn’t the right word, and it was Tim who added PLAY to the plate!”
After a few other minor tweaks, the plan was ready to introduce to the staff, then the lay leadership, including a vote from the Church Council to adopt and presentation to the Board of Stewards to empower them to help with buy-in from the congregation. With much affirmation, feedback, and only minor adjustments (Casey’s homework and attention to detail was thorough!), Casey and the communications team planned the six-week rollout of Healthy Plate Discipleship promotions including a special animated video, a branding strategy that would help the congregation differentiate between categories, a series of articles explaining the categories and how they help build a life of discipleship, and a detailed plan for the churchwide launch party to be held after church on Sunday, November 13, 2016. Touted in our Weekly News as “An Exciting New Vision for the Future of Our Church,” the Health Plate Discipleship program was rolled out with a dedicated six-week sermon series (one for each Healthy Plate category) and a churchwide celebration to kick off this new faith shaping experience for all ages and stages.
With the churchwide adoption of this vital discipleship program that grew out of Tim’s deeply held intent to provide a solid, doable vehicle for discipleship in our time, First Church is helping its members to keep their Healthy Plates loaded with a variety of engaging discipleship opportunities for all who are need a refill or reboot to Christian discipleship.
Following its robust and successful launch, ongoing support for the Healthy Plate Discipleship program took many forms: Allison and Dave Alvarado hosted Healthy Plate Discipleship Breakfast events, Casey and Rev. Lance Marshall led a “Feed Your Soul” Healthy Plate Discipleship Retreat, and church members were (and still are!) invited and encouraged to do their own healthy plate check-in online to see how they’re doing with keeping their Healthy Plate full and balanced. The Healthy Plate covenant is in every new member packet, and several recurring programs are aimed at helping people get started, renew their commitment, and monitor their plates for healthy balance.
“Tim believed in the vision from the beginning,” Casey emphasizes. “In each new phase, he was making it his own. I was always willing to hand him talking points, but he never needed them. With his full heart, total ownership, a strong endorsement, we officially launched Healthy Plate Discipleship in the fall of 2016. He was the champion of Healthy Plate Discipleship which is what I dreamed of from the start.”
Casey adds that it has proven critical that Tim was the champion since she moved to Tennessee in 2018. “Because he has owned and celebrated the vision so completely, it has continued to grow in ways I could have never imagined. Lance and Zhenya and Lisa and Dave and others have given it this extended life because he has empowered them to dream and create, just as he did for me. And under his leadership, the congregation has grown as deeper, more discerning, disciples of Jesus Christ who have a vision of what it looks like to actually BE and LIVE as God’s people in the world.”
Tim says that this simple but all-encompassing concept of discipleship — the ways in which we form our discipleship as individuals and as a church — also describes what it means to be a church, today and from the earliest days of the Christian movement.
“We boiled this concept down into what we call Healthy Plate Discipleship to help us remember not only all the important aspects of Christian discipleship, but also that there needs to be a balance between these aspects,” he adds. “Using the balanced diet as metaphor, it’s easier to hold ourselves accountable for not only what we’re doing to develop and maintain our discipleship, but how well we’re striking that healthy balance we all aspire to as disciples of Jesus.”