By: Amanda Yanchury
Do you ever wonder what United Methodist churches look like in different parts of the country? What they are doing in Florida, the Northeast, or Nevada, in order to reach out to people in their communities?
The United Methodist Church is a connectional church—which means we are lucky enough to be able to learn from one another and share in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Team Vital, a new project developed out of the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops, seeks to understand what it means to be a vital congregation, study what vital congregations are doing to be successful, and collect these practices and ideas to share with United Methodists around the denomination.
Dan Johnson, Minnesota Conference Director of Congregational Development, provides background on why this project is urgently needed.
“We’ve experienced a decline in membership since the 1970s—even though attendance wasn’t dramatically affected,” he said. “When the 2000s hit, attendance started to drop, and by the recession, money coming into the church began to fall.”
Because of this trend, the United Methodist Call to Action was adopted to point our energy and resources toward developing vital congregations.
Amy Valdez Barker, executive secretary of the Connectional Table, explains the process of how the United Methodist Church is going about developing more vital congregations.
“The Vital Congregations tracking system was created, where churches report on goals: worship attendance, new professions of faith, persons participating in small groups, people participating in missions, and stewardship and giving to missions,” Valdez Barker says. “If we track these goals, we can see how we affect the number of healthy churches from state to state, and learn from that.”
With help from consulting group Towers Watson, the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table defined four factors of vitality: growth, involvement, engagement, and giving. They created a questionnaire to assess the factors and completed a review on these statistics. Each church which displayed at least two criteria put it in the “vital” category. Johnson said the top 25 percent of congregations were studied to see what these vital congregations had in common, and that Team Vital will focus on those metrics.
In 2011, twelve percent of Minnesota Conference churches were vital, according to this analysis. Minnesota Conference has put programs in place to try and increase this number –like Healthy Church Initiative, new church starts, and others. By 2013, the percentage of vital congregations has grown to fourteen percent.
Bishop John Schol sent out invitations to conferences for Team Vital, and Minnesota caught the eye of the team because two-thirds of our churches are submitting goals to the Vital Congregations dashboard; we instituted a process for congregational ministry plans and clergy excellence plans (our CMP is now adapted on the denominational level); and we employ a conference-wide strategic plan.
Eleven conferences have elected to journey together for the next two years. They will come together twice a year to share best practices and ideas. The end goal is to create a pool of resources for other conferences to use to help their congregations become vital.
The group’s inaugural meeting took place in February, where they focused on sharing their current circumstances—evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Conference leaders asked, “What can we take back to Minnesota? What can we share with others to help them grow?”
The hope is that there will be changes made in individual conferences and a set of best practices and resources for others to glean from. Valdez Barker says the group is working with an open mind, and hopes that by focusing on vital congregations, a lot will be learned about each other and how we minister to our communities.
“We want to let God do God’s work through this process and not hold too tightly to what we think might come out of it, but to allow the Holy Spirit to work through it,” Valdez Barker says. “God is the one ultimately responsible for the fruit.”
Amanda Yanchury is communications assistant for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church