By: Christa Meland
In April, four churches started the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI)—a revitalization process designed to transform congregations by providing them resources and recommendations to reach new people for Christ. The conference-wide Reach • Renew • Rejoice initiative helps make this program possible. Within the past eight years, 45 Minnesota United Methodist churches have completed the process. We’ll follow the four current church participants as they go through the program, checking back with their leaders periodically to find out what they are doing, and what they are learning and discerning.
Someone at St. Paul’s UMC in Mendota Heights aptly described the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) as “a check-up” not unlike an annual physical exam with a doctor. It’s an opportunity to assess the overall health of the church and explore how to improve it.
One of the first things church leaders—Rev. Amy Jo Bur and a designated HCI team of lay people—have done as part of the process is conduct interviews with city and county officials, business owners, and a variety of other representatives in their area. The purpose is to find out what the greatest needs are and to determine to what degree the church is known within its community.
“We weren’t as visible as we thought we were,” said Bur. But she noted that the church is very well known within and around the local elementary school that it partners with. That was a positive affirmation.
Another initial step for all HCI churches is to assess their resources—everything from their budgets to their personnel and buildings.
Rev. Andy Petter, who serves Wesley UMC in Hibbing, said one of the greatest learnings for his congregation so far has been seeing the church through visitors’ eyes. A small group walked through the building as if they were coming in for the first time and identified a variety of changes that would make it more inviting and accessible to newcomers. For example, at a lift entrance in the back, there’s an ugly door that’s falling apart; they want to replace that with a new door that can be opened with the push of a button. They see the need for better signage to point people where they’re going. And they wish to make a mostly unused old-fashioned parlor/fireside room into an inviting gathering place where people have coffee and chat.
Petter pointed out that churches have life cycles, and part of what HCI is helping his church discover so far is that it’s pretty far along in that life cycle.
“To get to a healthier part of the life cycle requires new vision,” he said—noting that he hopes HCI will help the church look ahead and cast a new vision to lead it into the future.
HCI is “about shining a light on ourselves and being honest about who we are—as pastors, leaders, and churches,” Petter said.
After doing the community interviews and assessment of resources, HCI teams and pastors go through several training sessions. This fall, each church will have a consultation weekend led by an HCI team from the Minnesota Conference. The pastor(s) and staff will be interviewed, church members will be invited to a town hall-style informational meeting about HCI, and the conference team will present a report that contains a handful of strategic recommendations—suggested actions that each church can take to live into its mission, reach new people, and meet critical needs in its community.
Once the recommendations are presented, each church will take a vote on whether to accept and work on them. If at least 70 percent of members vote to proceed, the church will be assigned a coach (or several) to help it work on the suggestions, which might include things
like changes in governance, developing a signature ministry, or creating a more dynamic Sunday experience.
Rev. Bob Kandels, who serves Grace UMC in Paynesville, said his community interviews indicated that people know the church. The question in his mind is: Then why aren’t they coming? He hopes the HCI process helps the church think about invitation and creating a culture of evangelism to reach new people.
“HCI is an awakening call to remind us that we can’t go as we are going,” said Kandels, noting that going through the process requires a certain amount of vulnerability as each church comes to grips with some difficult realities. The HCI team at his church realizes that they’ll probably face some opposition from those who like the status quo and don’t want to try something new. But they know they can’t let that deter them from finding ways to innovate and prepare for the future.
“We are going to take the bull by the horns and risk it,” Kandels said. “It’s humbling, and there’s so much to learn.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church