Readiness for revitalization

September 08, 2016
Members of Oakwood United Methodist Church in New Ulm pray for students and staff at a nearby elementary school they are partnering with after preparing appreciation gifts for teachers there.

By: Christa Meland

There’s no shortage of stories about growth and vitality among churches that have completed a transformational process (for example, check out this one about Detroit Lakes UMC and this one about Christ UMC in Rochester). But how does a congregation prepare itself for the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) or the Missional Church Consultation Initiative (MCCI)?

Readiness factors

Members of the Cabinet—which includes the bishop, the district superintendents, and Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries—invite churches to participate based on several readiness factors:

Leadership: The pastor must have the capacity to lead the congregation through a transformation process and changes recommended through it. “Does the clergyperson have zest for ministry, passion, perseverance to work a change process, and a heart for the gospel and reaching the community?” said Gregorson. “We really look for leaders who have the trust of their congregation.”

Congregational health: For revitalization to work, the congregation must be healthy in how members work and live together. A church isn’t ready for a process if there is conflict and discord. Another sign of readiness is having tried something new within the past few years. “We’re looking to build on what’s there, not fix something that’s broken,” Gregorson said.

Financial capacity: The congregation must have resources to implement change. Starting a new ministry or worship service, creating a discipleship or leadership development process, and other prescriptions can require money.

Commitment: There needs to be a core group of lay people who are committed to full participation in the process. “How much does the congregation want to adapt and change?” asked Gregorson.

How congregations can prepare

If the major readiness factors are in place, there are several ways a congregation can prepare itself for a revitalization process. Here are three:

Books: Gather a small team of leaders and read and discuss Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal and/or Renovate or Die by Bob Farr. This is a great way to get a core group thinking about change. 

Breakthrough workshops: The conference offers several of these each year focused around key practices for congregations of all sizes. Attending one and implementing recommended practices introduced is a great way to experiment with change and practice some of what HCI would involve but on a smaller scale.

Choosing the Faithful Path: This process, based on a book of the same name, is new to the conference—and two congregations in the Southern Prairie District recently piloted it. Ideally suited to churches that have between 50 and 100 in worship, the process is a 10-week self-study that helps a congregation explore the question, “What are we able, willing, and committed to do to fulfill the call and commission of the church?” A facilitator is present at the beginning, middle, and end—and in the weeks between, a group from the congregation reads the book and discusses it in the context of its own situation. Sometimes the congregation might discover that its faithful path is to merge or close, and other times, it may be going through a more intensive change process—like HCI. 

Choosing the Faithful Path

In recent months, Oakwood United Methodist Church in New Ulm and Springfield United Methodist Church participated in Choosing the Faithful Path.

“It was a very healthy process for our church,” said Rev. Richard “Ric” Jacobsen, who serves Oakwood UMC. He said the process helps churches take inventory of their strengths and their challenges in many areas—including outreach, worship, and discipleship. While the process affirmed that Oakwood has strong outreach ministries (its multi-faceted partnership with an elementary school has become a model for other churches) and is in a pretty good financial position, it also uncovered some painful truths about areas for improvement. 

“Some of the things it pointed out about Oakwood are that we don’t do leadership development well—we’re not real intentional about raising up new leaders—and we need to be more intentional about disciple making and spiritual growth through Bible studies and small groups,” Jacobsen said. 

Oakwood plans to make some changes immediately based on what it learned through the process—including setting term limits for leaders so the church can train up new people, restructuring committees so members are freed up to spend more time in service, and starting new prayer initiatives.

For Oakwood, Choosing the Faithful Path will likely be a precursor to HCI, which will help it identify and implement additional changes that represent new possibilities. It will probably become a first step for other small churches to determine readiness for HCI too—particularly given that Missional Journey (a revitalization process for smaller churches) has ended. Gregorson said it didn’t get enough traction, in part because the model didn’t offer as much coaching as churches needed. (More coaching is offered through HCI, which churches of all sizes can now participate in.)

On the horizon

Gregorson said now that some churches are a few years out from having completed HCI, it might be time to think about a next iteration of the process to help them keep moving forward. 

“If churches have been working their HCI plan for three years, now what?” said Gregorson. “You have to continue to reassess every three to five years. We want to help congregations be fruitful and make an impact for the long term.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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