Communities of Transformation began as a response to the need to serve families in the community in a different way. In 2010, Bishop Paul Leeland of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church gathered leaders from around the conference to talk about how the conference was walking with disadvantaged families. Bishop Leeland, Rev. Neil McDavid, Director of Connectional Ministries, and Susan Hunt, Director of Mission and Advocacy, presented this vision to the Conference Core Team and with their support began the early steps of launching a new ministry.
“I knew many of our churches were looking for a way to serve people in need in a more holistic way.” - Susan Hunt
Fred and Laurel Blackwell were chosen to lead the initiative, and their natural spiritual gifts became the foundation of a new relational ministry. An incubator team was formed: Sheila Bates, Carol Bloomer, Jack Bloomer, Bryan Cole, Stephanie Cole, Clara Ester, David Willis, Susan Hunt, Clifford Jones, Dan Morris, and Laurie Williams agreed to develop a plan for the new ministry. This team reflected socio-economic diversity as well as interdenominational representation. This early leadership team provided guidance, encouragement, support, and enthusiasm.
The team devoted the first eighteen months to building a learning community within the Conference and becoming equipped in the method of holistic ministry. Members of our first conference leadership board were Fred and Laurel Blackwell, Clara Ester, Susan Hunt, Dan Morris, David Willis, and Beth Norton.
In 2012, our leadership chose Dothan, Alabama, as the first Circles of Transformation site. At this time Fred and Laurel Blackwell were building a partnership with Circles USA and strengthening their current partnership with the AWF Conference. Circles USA seeks to inspire and equip communities to reduce poverty and remove the barriers that stand in the way.
The conference team, guided by Laurel and Fred, worked to develop partners throughout the Dothan area to build a strong team of volunteers. In the spring of 2013, the Dothan Circles of Transformation site met for the first time.
Over the next two years, communities across the conference took part in book studies, discussion groups, and presentations. Each site formed an interdenominational leadership team. Laurel trained and developed each team as the foundation of COT was laid in each community. As momentum grew, so did the need to gather community leaders from across the conference. Aldersgate UMC in Montgomery opened their doors for COT leadership team members from Brewton, Eufaula, Mobile, Phenix City, and Selma. Natural leaders emerged from each community team. Additionally, COT partnered with the General Board of Global Ministries to begin working with a US-2 Missionary who would serve in Mobile.
In the fall of 2014, as those five communities were laying the groundwork for relational ministry, Laurel was creating a foundation for the organization. Laurel cultivated a relationship with Heather Cunningham, the National Training Director of Think Tank, Inc., which exists to alleviate poverty by equipping communities to embrace mindsets and practices that restore the social fabric of society. Think Tank wrote the leadership curriculum used by members at each site. Laurel’s vision for growth and stability for those leading this ministry was achieved by a partnership with Americorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).
In February 2015, COT received a three-year grant from the federal government to receive six VISTA members on a cost-share basis. Five amazing leaders emerged and would serve as site coordinators in Brewton, Dothan, Eufaula, Phenix City, and Selma. A sixth team member served as a Communications VISTA. This team worked to launch the second wave of COT sites across the conference. Each site hosted an open house informational meeting that was called a “Taste and See” referencing Psalm 34:8. The Eufaula site held a Taste and See on February 16, 2015. The Mobile site held a Taste and See on March 19, 2015. The Brewton site held a Taste and See on April 9, 2015. The Phenix City site held a Taste and See on July 28, 2015. The Selma site held a Taste and See on August 17, 2015.
At the same time, Circles of Transformation ended their contract with Circles USA and branched out in a new direction. In January 2016, Circles of Transformation was officially renamed Communities of Transformation.
In February 2016, COT hired Administrative Assistant Janet Wooten. Laurel and the conference board planned an awareness event for the AWF Conference in March of 2016. Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, spoke at Serving Those Who Live Life On the Margins in Daphne and Montgomery, Alabama. Community members from across the state attended the event to learn about Communities of Transformation and hear Mr. Lupton speak about long-term ministry.
In March 2016, the first staff professional development event was held in Gulf Shores. This event laid the groundwork for how staff members would be trained and developed. COT Staff continue to gather every year for a professional development event to grow as leaders in the community, train new staff members, and discern best practices for holistic ministry.
Seven new positions were developed during 2016. Communities of Transformation grew to include a Performance Measurement VISTA, a Program and Outreach Development VISTA, a Grant Resource Development position, and site coordinators in Union Springs, Baldwin County, Montgomery, and the Demopolis District.
In August 2016, COT hosted their first Cost of Poverty Experience in Montgomery, Alabama. Over 80 individuals participated in a poverty simulation meant to mimic a month-long experience of a family in poverty. The event was eye-opening for everyone who attended and brought awareness for the soon-to-launch Montgomery site.
Late in 2016 Laurel was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment. The foundation that was built by Laurel and the COT team kept the ministry moving forward through the hardest situations.
In the spring of 2017, God continued to move as new sites launched in Evergreen and Montgomery. Communities of Transformation in Evergreen began in a unique way: the site created a community garden.
About a year after her diagnosis, Laurel’s conditioned worsened and she was admitted into the hospital. We said goodbye a short few weeks later. An outpouring of love was shown during her celebration of life, and our communities grieved the loss of an extraordinary woman.
As 2018 began, Fred was named interim director and continued the work he and Laurel had started. Fred spent weeks visiting staff and sites, assessing each site and bringing clarity to areas of growth that needed to be addressed.
In April, Fred gathered the staff for a spring professional development event to look at the future of the organization. The staff developed work groups in a variety of areas to prepare the organization for the next phase of growth. Fred also announced that he would be stepping down as interim director and that a hiring committee would begin searching for a new full-time director.
COT continued to grow under Fred’s leadership as our Demopolis District site launched at Pine Hill and a new site coordinator joined the team.
The summer of 2018 was a turning point for Communities of Transformation, as we were selected as the Missional Offering recipient for the AWF Annual Conference. The churches of the AWF Conference again poured their love into this ministry and provided the financial foundation to propel COT into the future. At the end of the summer, the conference hired Katy Wrona as the new Director of COT.
Our journey has been spirit-led as we continue to grow following God’s path. We are excited to see what is next and we invite you to be part of our future story!