Profile in leadership

Naomi Garcia was among the Michigan Conference leaders who presented TOM Talks at the 2018 Annual Conference. ~ video image

Meet the Michigan Conference’s Associate Director for Congregational Vibrancy, Naomi Garcia.

July 1, 2018 marked the day when The Michigan Conference took on new life. Nine new districts started to function, and new staff members began their ministry.

A new collaborative staffing model is now in place. MIconnect has shared profiles of the Directors at the table. Now we continue with a series that introduces their Associate Director colleagues. This week we feature Naomi Garcia, an inspirational facilitator and coach with 30 years of service in The West Michigan Conference.

Naomi came to Michigan in 1989, joining the West Michigan Conference Staff as the Director of Youth and Camping Ministries. Over the years her role evolved in areas of equipping, visioning and training for Vital Church Initiative (VCI).

She now takes up the role of Associate Director for Congregational Vibrancy as a partner in the Office of Congregational Vibrancy. Naomi can be reached at mailto:naomigarcia@miumcarchive.org ; 517-347-4030 ext. 4092. Her office is in downtown Grand Rapids: 207 Fulton Street East, Suite 6, Grand Rapids MI 49503.

Meet Naomi Garcia, in her own words …

Please share a little personal background.

I’m a 4th generation immigrant by way of Mexico on my mom’s side and a 5th generation immigrant on my dad’s side of my Latino family. Both my parents and their children grew up in Brownsville, Texas, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande River in the southern tip of the state. My parents were among the first in their respective families of origin to earn college degrees. Both parents were public school teachers who took seriously the privilege and responsibility of being adult role models to students. We went to seemingly every community event that involved current and former students and their families. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day activities usually included multiple faith celebrations … Episcopalian, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Jewish. I’m told I studied Hebrew in Sabbath school at some point.

My mom brought people off the street regularly. When she saw someone on the street, she’d make a deal with God, “If they are still there when I come back, I’ll take them home.”  I’m confident they were always still there. She’d pull over, stopping traffic, reach across her VW Beetle passenger seat to swing open the door and say, “If you don’t have drugs or weapons, and you want a shower, a hot meal, a night’s sleep and breakfast, get in.”  I expect the other person always got in.

My dad was often approached by someone needing something desperately— rent money, a job, a stove, a lamp or attention to a dislocated shoulder. There were only seven of us –our parents and five biological siblings. Our small house often had an assortment of people coming and going. Most of them I never knew why they showed up; just that they needed something one of my parents wanted to provide. Some showed up for a short visit, some spent the night; and one distant relative arrived for a temporary stay while I was in 5th or 6th grade. He was still there while I was in graduate school.

My parents were never disrespected by all these barely known strangers in our home until after my mom developed dementia. Several valuables were stolen. I’m glad my mom wasn’t aware enough to know what happened.

Where have you served and what lessons have you learned along the way about leadership? 

In my final year of earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Comparative Religions and Humanistic Psychology, I asked a recruiter from Perkins Seminary (Southern Methodist University) if there were jobs for educators in the church. In his thick southern drawl he leaned toward me saying in what I heard as a condescending tone, “Oh, honey, you’ll have to be a minister [meaning pastor] to get paid by the church.” A pat on the head was the only thing missing. I remember channeling my mom thinking, “Oh, yeah…?” as I mentally sat back and crossed my arms. I’ve come to understand and believe The Holy One always has a better idea.

I postponed graduate school to drive a bus for a private, Missionary Baptist elementary school and be its chaplain. The bus driving was great fun. Some of the Bible stories I told the children in worship probably caused some rough nights at home. I operated as the unofficial EMT on the playground. I learned I liked children. I count this postponement as the best training for later functioning as the camp ministries executive director on the west side for 24 years.

My Master of Arts degree in Christian Education got me on the staff team of Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, a worshipping community of 2,100 or so at the time. Weekly staff meetings included eleven or twelve full-timers. I was the Director of Youth and Single Adult Ministries. It proved to be a thankless ministry combination for me and a crash course in both local and denominational church politics.

A move to Appanoose County, Iowa, in 1986, placed me in life with people living on the land. That was the same year political voices declared the USA farm crisis over; they had no experience of what they spoke. More than half of the teenagers in the multiple youth groups of Faith United Parish were facing unknown realities of foreclosure on farms passed down for generations before them. Their parents were paying leases for their inherited property seized by financial institutions. Those three years were extremes of both the heights and depths of my professional ministry.

June 1, 1989, marked the beginning of three decades on conference staff in Michigan. A newly created position in Youth and Camping Ministries moved me to Michigan. An evolving montage of ministry opportunities and challenges has kept my professional responses mostly faithful and steady. A variety of on-the-fly credentials have kept my skills adaptable and relevant. The three most timely credentials have been facilitator certification with the Franklin Covey Company (1992), family systems theory-based mediation training with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center among other organizations (beginning in 2006). I then earned the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation with the International Coach Federation (2015). The ongoing development of a variety of leadership, relational and organization skills are the best way for me to continue growing into my God-created self. When I do that well, the faith community benefits, too.

You are now an Associate Director of Congregational Vibrancy. How do you understand that role? 

In response to this position offer last December, I asked, “Why me? Why this position?”  The response was, “Because you do three things no one else does: change, family systems and conflict.” I agreed. And I have embraced that clarity as both my position title and my ministry priority, “change, systems, conflict…4 good.” For the record, I have my supervisor’s permission to not use the title “Associate Director.”  In my experience, the title is more about institutional pay grade than about my ministry role.

I was a silent partner in a family business for a short time. I learned early on that a business name must also serve as advertisement. When the name on signage clearly indicates the business’ specialty, the right customers are attracted.

What are some hopes or goals that you have as you embark on this ministry?

I dream of all persons around the world living authentic relationships in all their comings and goings. Real relationships mostly shaped by each one doing the personal work to act as Jesus did toward outsiders, outcasts and the forgotten. At one time or another, each of us has or will be the outsider, the outcast or the forgotten. Each of is the 1 straying from the 99. Being created in The Holy One’s image means, in part, that each of us already has everything needed:  to live courageously, to claim the expertise of one’s past and humbly offering one’s voice for the benefit of the whole.

Fully invested in intentionally creating protected places and spaces for others to do the same. Embodying our shared belief that each one of us is equal to every other one of us is community. These ways of being together make disagreeing agreeably a relatively easy and regular faith expression. Focusing on change, systems and conflict is the best way for me to be faithful in these times of transition and uncertainty.

Regular offerings of learning communities called Faith Space 4 Systems Thinking (FS4ST) are on the horizon. All sessions are timed between bedtime for young ones and bedtime for parent-types, 8:30-10:00 pm et. The first installment in June was the online 3for90 series (3 weekly sessions of 90 minutes each) on Presence and Functioning. The next FS4ST series is a book study of Multiethnic Conversations this fall; seven weekly sessions of 90 minutes each. Systems thinking peer groups are in the works, too. A variety of related learning opportunities include the Healthy Congregations workshop and Basic Coaching Training in October and Mediation Skills Training Institute in May. More details on these and other learning opportunities appear on the Congregational Vibrancy section of miumcarchive.org.

What excites you the most about your participation in the life of the new Michigan Conference? 

Starting over together. I’ve been on conference staff long enough to have re-created, multiple times, how I function to assist congregations. What’s different this time is the beginnings of approaching our shared call as one re-created organizational system. I’m hopeful that the hierarchical default of our former organizations will be overwhelmed by transparency and trust-worthiness for the Gospel. I’m confident that The Holy One has a better idea of how we might best imitate the Christ and channel the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Where do you see God at work in Michigan and the worldwide connection right now? 

The shorter response is another question. Where is The Holy One not at work?

What is it that nurtures, sustains and guides you in your work?

Connecting the dots of a relentless curiosity. Rediscovering the limits of an unending dance between my physical and spiritual self. Time and space with people. Time and space away from them. A wide variety of opportunities and challenges engaging me toward evolving into my whole, God-created self.

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