Intentionality paves way for vitality
No brutal critiques from billionaires decided which budding entrepreneur would get their investment, but the experience was as energized as any episode of ABC's "Shark Tank" reality show — with a few differences.
Instead of successful businesspeople grilling contestants about their business plans, annual conference representatives thoughtfully judged proposals designed by their colleagues to increase congregational vitality.
The winner? A preaching improvement pilot presented by a team from the Upper New York Annual Conference.
The drama-free exercise took place during Team Vital, a two-year, peer-learning experience led by the Council of Bishops and coordinated by the denomination's Discipleship Ministries (General Board of Discipleship) with support from various other United Methodist agencies.
Congregational vitality and new church-development staff, district superintendents, bishops and local pastors from seven annual conferences gathered twice each year beginning in 2013 to learn how to increase the number of vital congregations in their conferences. They shared strategies, learned about new resources and held each other accountable for meeting goals. Between sessions, participants worked to incorporate what they had learned.
It is part of the denomination's Vital Congregation's Initiative, which launched in 2011 to help congregations and conferences across the connection increase their vitality and disciple-making ability.
Leaders say Team Vital and other strategies are helping the denomination achieve its vitality goals, but the method used is not the key. Intentionality is. It is producing positive results.
A congregational vitality report presented to the denomination's Council of Bishops in November showed the percentage of highly vital U.S. congregations — those with at least two of five vitality indicators in the top 25 percent of churches and none in the bottom 25 percent — increased from 15 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2012. Professions of faith, small-group participation, mission participation and mission giving also grew.
Church starts in the United States jumped from 116 in 2012 to 145 in 2013. In the denomination's central conferences in Africa, Asia and Europe, 688 new faith communities launched.
The number of highly vital congregations dropped to 27 percent in 2013, with growth only in small-group participation and mission giving. More than 70 percent of churches are still struggling to be vital.
Despite those challenges, vitality is increasing "in congregations of all sizes and geographic areas," says New Jersey Area Bishop John R. Schol, a Vital Congregations leader.
His area is one of them. "We are one of 10 conferences to increase in the percent of highly vital congregations," he says. "We are also the conference with the second-highest percentage of congregations growing."
The critical component
Specific strategies have made those gains in the New Jersey Area possible: helping congregations assess where they are and the steps needed to reach their goals, equipping lay and clergy leaders through coaching and learning groups, and providing financial resources to help churches grow.
The main strategy for the Upper New York Conference is Hand to Plow, an adaptation of the Healthy Church Initiative many conferences are using. It is a series of clergy and lay peer-learning groups focused on specific factors — clarity of vision and mission, effective leadership and vital worship. It also includes congregational assessments and consultations.
That is in addition to the newly launched Illuminate Preaching Academy proposed during Team Vital, says the Rev. Aaron Bouwens, the conference's director of vital congregations.
At the academy's core are "bright spot preachers" — pastors from the conference who embody the skills and characteristics identified as unique to effective preachers. They will serve as mentors to other pastors. The model also offers four training sessions and instruction by outside resource people, all over the course of six months.
The strategic plan for the Minnesota Conference, another Team Vital participant, is Journey Toward Vitality. Its focus is "equipping missional congregations, developing missional leaders, generating missional resources and extending missional impact."
"Numbers are a lagging indicator, and we have not seen dramatic change in those yet, but the culture is shifting," says the Rev. Cindy Gregorson, the conference's director of connectional ministries.
The Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, executive secretary of the denomination's Connectional Table, says churches and conferences with a "clearly defined and adopted strategic plan for mission and ministry" are experiencing the most fruitfulness.
The Rev. Tim Bias agrees and says that is key. Bias is general secretary of Discipleship Ministries, one of the agencies charged with leading the vitality initiative.
Churches with a clear vision that is lived into and "not just a written vision on the wall" are experiencing greater vitality, he says. That is also true for conferences that intentionally equip laity and clergy to fulfill their mission and engage in their community.
"The key focus of any congregation is helping people grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, and if we're growing disciples of Jesus Christ, the system doesn't make any difference," Bias says. "Any one system that helps us grow in our faith and engages us in the community is a good system."
More to come
Bouwens says the Team Vital experience helped his conference — particularly the conversation between conferences about what they are doing and reflections with his own team about what they learned.
"The greatest benefit was the chance to pull together some leaders, get offsite out of the context of the conference and have a place to have conversation around what are we doing in our conference," he says. "Certainly, the time with our team held the greatest value."
Both Gregorson and the Rev. Bener Agtarap, superintendent for congregational vitality in the California-Nevada Conference, agree.
Agtarap says building working relationships with other conference leaders who share "common vision and passion for creating and improving the culture of congregational vitality" was an added benefit.
On the downside, Gregorson says, the project did not function as a "true strategy team" for her conference because only part of the leadership team could participate. Because the conference is already implementing a variety of strategies, the team felt there was not as much new learning as anticipated.
It was also a significant financial investment, Schol says, with conferences covering costs for five to seven participants.
Overall, participants believe the project helped sharpen and focus their work, he says. It also showed "there is no one way to grow vitality."
That will likely prove true in the central conferences with a project launching this year called Bright Spots. It will focus on increasing vitality in Nigeria, Central Congo and the Philippines using a research method called "positive variance" or "bright spots."
"This process studies the most vital congregations and identifies what they are doing that is different from other congregations," Schol says. "The goal is to help all congregations do what will increase their vitality."
Because ministry is "contextual and varies because of culture," he says, each geographic area will likely identify and adopt different characteristics of vital churches — their own "bright spots."
Valdez Barker says the Manila Episcopal Area already is seeing signs of growth with a strategic plan called UMC DOC: Disciples of Christ. Each month, Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan shares a lesson with three "care" or accountability groups of district superintendents. The superintendents then replicate that lesson and process with their pastors, who do the same with their congregations.
"This emphasis on class-meeting style growth has been very fruitful," Valdez Barker says, with churches seeing increases in both small groups and worship attendance.
She calls it just one example of the vitality growing within conferences that are "intentional and strategic."
Schol is optimistic about the progress, but says the church must do more.
"We anticipate continued growth in the future, but also recognize we have significant challenges ahead of us," he says. "The culture is looking for new ways to experience and encounter God. What worked for so long for The United Methodist Church was no longer connecting with people in our communities. The Vital Congregations Initiative is helping congregations better connect with the community."
The ultimate goal, he says, is building a church that is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Factors Calculated In Vitality
To be considered "highly vital," a congregation must be in the top 25 percent of all U.S. congregations in two of the four major areas and cannot be in the bottom 25 percent in any one of the areas.
- Five-year change in average worship attendance, divided by five-year average of worship attendance.
- Five-year change in persons received by profession of faith and faith restored, divided by five-year average professions and faith restored.
- Number of people (all ages) in small groups, Bible study and Sunday school as a percent of worship attendance.
- Number of young adults in Christian formation activities as a percentage of worship attendance.
- Average worship attendance as a percentage of professing membership.
- Engagement in the Community
- Number of people engaged in mission as a percent of worship attendance.
- Number of professions of faith and faith restored (who are not confirmands) as a percent of worship attendance.
- Apportionment percentage paid for most current year.
- Five-year change in mission giving per attendee, divided by five-year average of mission giving per attendee.
- Five-year change in giving (defined as total non-capital local church spending) per attendee, divided by five-year average of non-capital spending per attendee.
Source: General Council on Finance and Administration, published by United Methodist News Service, Nov. 19, 2014.