Common Barriers to Congregational Growth: Series entry #1

May 01, 2013

Minnesota Conference’s Office of Congregational Development provides strategy and resources for launching new faith communities and revitalizing existing congregations. In my capacity as director, I have the opportunity to connect with United Methodist churches all across Minnesota. We are very diverse in size, location, culture, ethnicity, mission field, age, theology, socio-economics, organizational structure, worship style, and a variety of other factors. At the same time, we share a common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and we are all challenged by many of the same issues that thwart this mission. In this series, I will address five of the most common barriers to congregational growth in spirituality, number, and community impact.

Likely the most pervasive obstacle to effective ministry is the lack of clear and powerful core values and ministry vision. It may find verbiage in different ways, but all United Methodist churches have the same mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But because of the unique identity of each local church and its unique mission field (geographic, demographic, or psychographic community), the core values and ministry vision vary significantly. If our mission is what we do, our values are who we are and our vision is where we are going. Without this clarity of purpose, ministry cannot be intentionally planned—and without a plan, churches get caught on the merry-go-round of endless activity that leads nowhere or in passionate dreams that are little more than hallucination.

Values, mission, and vision determine priorities

Sometimes organizational conversations about values, mission, and vision generate more rolled eyes than open hearts, minds, and doors. And so it should, if it remains only conversation. However, when values (who we are), mission (what we do) and vision (where we’re going) are intentionally used to determine our church’s priorities, restructure leadership, allocate resources, evaluate ministries, and claim successes, then such clarity of purpose becomes the driving force for the Holy Spirit to energize and transform ministry at every stage of the congregational life cycle. Without such life-giving purpose, churches become shackled by rote tradition that has lost its relevance or pulled in multiple directions by the whims of individual personal preference.

A study of vital congregations released March 11, 2013, by the General Board of Discipleship reveals that United Methodist churches that effectively navigate change almost always demonstrate three common characteristics: a pastor not afraid to lead, laity who will partner as a team with the pastor, and a God-led purpose or vision.

Kim Shockley, project team leader observed, “Successful change is most likely to occur if the vision and mission of the strong pastor and willing lay leaders partnership is developed from a process of discernment and prayer that helps a congregation understand where God wants them to go. If those three things are in place, then the outcomes seem to be a healthy, vital congregation that is growing, that is reaching new people because they have a sense of purpose about what they are.” Shockley likened the three elements of change to the three strands of cord described in Ecclesiastes 4:12: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (The full study report is available at

These important strands may be frayed in your church if values, mission, and vision are not a rallying point for the congregation; if there is no signature ministry by which you are known in your community.

If your church ceased to exist today, would anyone outside the congregation miss your church tomorrow? Your office of congregational development provides processes and coaching to help churches in this fruitful and spirit-filled work. We have a purpose too!

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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