When Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi was assigned to lead United Methodists in Western Pennsylvania last July, she and her husband, Pastor Raphael Koikoi, found themselves in a situation facing many clergy couples, but with an added twist.
Pastor Koikoi was serving the Sharp Street UMC in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, where the Bishop had served as a superintendent until her election as Bishop. When she moved to the Pittsburgh area on September 1, 2016, the couple had to live apart, but prayed that God would soon find a way for them to be together.
Just before Christmas, they learned that their prayers had been answered. Word came in a letter from Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore Washington Conference. It said: “I am pleased to appoint Pastor Koikoi as The Upper Allegheny Valley Director of Ministry and Community Development." Bishop Easterling wrote that she reached this decision after "prayerful discernment, and discussion with [her] Cabinet."
Beginning February 1, 2017, Pastor Raphael will serve in extension ministry in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, on loan from the Baltimore-Washington Conference. He will maintain his membership in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, remaining ultimately under the supervision of Bishop Easterling.
In his new appointment, Pastor Raphael will design and implement community-based ministries in the Upper Allegheny area. He will plan and carry out creative outreach programs to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community, working with government and non-governmental agencies on developing food security for the community, planning and implementing community asset-based educational opportunities, and planning and conducting community worship services designed to be inclusive of the growing diversity of the community.
He will work in collaboration with the pastor and laity of Natrona Heights: Grace and Freeport United Methodist churches. The Rev. Dawn Lynn Check was aware of the need for such ministries when she became pastor of those churches on July 1, 2016. She began praying about how God might be calling the churches to meet needs ranging from issues of systemic poverty, to a growing minority population and a lack of sense of community. At one point, she contacted the local school district, which has facilities close to the Grace church, to how the churches might help.
God added some urgency to her efforts when, after some unfortunate racial incidents in the schools, administrators reached out to Grace and Freeport. Rev. Check talked with her District Superintendent, Joel Garrett, about the situation and what the churches’ role could be, and he encouraged her to define a vision for community ministry.
Once that was done, Revs. Check and Garrett began to think about the gifts a person would need to do this ministry. Having met Pastor Raphael, both agreed that he possessed those gifts. After talking with him specifically about this ministry, they were convinced of it.
Their written plan was then presented to Bishop Easterling for her consideration. She caught the vision. Bishop Easterling concluded her letter of appointment with these words, "May the inspiration of the Holy Spirit guide and gift all those involved with the endeavor."
The need for ministry beyond the church walls has been seen in the Upper Allegheny Region for several years. The ministry will be funded by an endowment received by the Conference to provide for new ministries there.
The Rev. Amy Wagner, Conference director of congregation development, noted that research by her predecessor, the Rev. Jim Walker, indicated there was an undeniable desire for community engagement and relationship-building among the people, but that planting a new congregation might not be the best way of achieving that goal.
“This model -- linking existing congregations more fully and intentionally to the needs of the community through a person who is deeply immersed in caring for the community -- meets the need for care and connection that residents have expressed,” Wagner said.