Principles of Congregational Vitality
Congregations lose their fire when they lose a compelling vision of what God has called them to accomplish together. A compelling vision is the result of a congregation sharing the answers to some very simple questions:
- Who is God sending us to engage as disciples?
- What is the transformation we have been called and equipped to bring to our community?
However, many churches have spent time developing vision statements with little impact on their vitality or their community. This is because truly discerning the compelling vision is not the first step in renewing congregational vitality.
Step 1 – Root Practices: Building an Excellent Spiritual Leadership Team
Congregations are spiritual communities. Vital congregations are characterized by leaders who are deeply developed spiritually and who are gathered into teams who accept responsibility for the mission they share. Too often leaders expect to begin the process of renewal by changing something in the congregation or the church’s program. This is a mistake because renewal really begins with change in the leaders themselves. This is the root of congregational vitality. Vital congregations are led by leadership teams with the following qualities:
- The people on the team have a deep personal commitment to growing in their own discipleship, including a personal daily spiritual discipline.
- The people on the team understand themselves to be a spiritual community and have a covenant to share some common spiritual discipline, which they understand is fundamental to their ability to work together and to lead the congregation.
- The people on the team represent the diversity of the congregation.
- The team has influence in the congregation because of the high commitment they have to the congregation and the trust they inspire among the members.
In a congregation seeking to increase vitality, the first place to begin to work is in the gathering and development of a core leadership team with these qualities. Leadership in a vital congregation cannot be a matter of honor or tenure. As vitality increases, leaders are continually identified and developed, and excellent spiritual leadership is found not only at the core of the congregation, but also as the driver of every program and ministry of the congregation. Spiritual leadership team-building is not a passing phase of renewal, but an ongoing core quality of a vital congregation.
Step 2 – Grow Practices: Discerning the Vision
The Mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Every vital UMC congregation has a compelling vision of how they are expressing the mission in their place and time. An excellent spiritual leadership team has as its first responsibility the discernment and articulation of the vision of the congregation. The practices leading to that discernment include:
- Assessing the strengths and gifts (assets) of the congregation. What are we good at and what do we love? What are the resources with which we are entrusted in service of God’s mission to the world? God put us here; who are we?
- Assessing the reality of the mission field. Who is our neighbor? What are the challenges and opportunities in our mission field? Who are the people in the mission field God has especially equipped to reach and to bless? God put us here; where are we?
The vision of the congregation will be found in an intersection between the assets of the congregation and the reality of the mission field. As Frederic Buchner put it, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
The vision of a vital congregation is not a bumper sticker or a marketing gimmick. It is an expression of the vocation of the congregation. They will recognize it when they hear it, though they are often unable to discern it without help. In addition, it will change over time as the mission context changes, and as their gifts and strengths change.
This work of discerning and articulating is not a phase in renewal; it is an ongoing core practice of vital congregations. You will continue to ask, “Who are we now and where are we now?” Your capacity will change and so will your neighbor – so, too, will your vision.
Step 3 – Bloom Practices: Intentional, Adaptive Ministry PlansWithout a ministry plan, a vision is a mere dream. The vision calls us to the place we (and God) desire to go. However, an intentional ministry plan is like the map to help us get there. An intentional ministry plan will be a response to real answers to the following questions:
- How can we use the assets we have to engage the people God is sending us as disciple-nurturers?
- For what ministries, programs and practices are we well-equipped to transform our community in a way that can bless our neighbors?
Making a good plan is almost always harder than we think it will be. We are likely to want to do something that someone else has done. We are even more likely to do what we have already been doing, but harder or better. As the well-known saying goes, “The definition of insanity is doing what you did before and expecting different results.” Renewed vitality usually means doing new things in new ways. And because you and your calling are unique, it probably means doing something unique. Doing new and unique things may require giving up some old habits that no longer serve. In addition, making new habits can be hard, right?
Renewal also can be hard because as soon as we start to do new things, we often find they don’t have the results we thought they would. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. When the territory turns out to have a river that was not on the map, we have to adapt the map to the reality.
- Is what we’re doing accomplishing the outcome we intended?
- If not, what can we learn from that, and how can we adjust in order to accomplish it?
Vital congregations are continually updating their intentional ministry plans in order to move persistently toward the vision that God has given them. They do not lose heart when things don’t go as planned. They learn and improve their plans.