As some congregations struggle with financing their ministry, they can lose sight of their mission as the focus becomes centered on survival. The path to regaining that focus can be hard to find, but it is not something congregations will have to navigate on their own any longer.
That’s where a new program offered by the United Church of Christ comes in, to help those congregations discern, discover and decide on a new mission through the New Beginning Assessment Service.
"Many of our congregations that are struggling at this time face a future that seems challenging and difficult," said the Rev. David Schoen, minister for UCC Congregational Assessment and Support. "New Beginnings Assessment Service helps just such congregations make bold decisions about their future, instead of letting their future get chosen for them."
"For a stage of life that many of our congregations find themselves in, New Beginnings is a Godsend," said the Rev. Wendy Vanderhart, associate conference minister for the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC. "The deep engagement of the congregation in a prayerful and clearly defined process embodies our resurrection faith. New Beginnings is grassroots, discernful, and lifts the eyes of a congregation to engage its neighborhood. Beginning with a high bar of boldness inspires congregants to stay the course and fulfill an end of its own choosing."
Local Church Ministries invested in New Beginnings, Schoen said, to help those congregations who often feel forgotten and alone. The UCC is offering the service in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
A training session begins the 6-to-8-month process of guiding congregations that are stuck in their ministry make a bold decision about their future. From there, the service engages pastors, lay leaders and members about setting and beginning their new course.
Seven churches in the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC completed an assessment in the last calendar year, and nine others completed assessments two years ago. First Congregational Church of Sheffield in Sheffield, Mass. went through the process in 2012. Pastor, the Rev. Jill Graham, said it helped create a new identity for the members to live into.
"What this process does that is different is that it doesn’t leave any stone unturned," said Graham, who is also a regional minister for the UCC Massachusetts Conference. "You have to ask yourself some very difficult questions. It’s not some dandy new mission statement for the back page of the bulletin. It’s changing the attitude and understanding of how we do church."
First Congregational, which is 279 years old but has always been a church with a small membership, boldly decided to broaden its definition of neighborhood by looking beyond its community. Graham said she is seeing some shifting toward that new reality.
"The big change [for us] is a willingness to experiment with outreach, to connect with the community and bringing the church into the community in ways we’ve never done before," Graham said.
"It has been exciting to see how New Beginnings provokes a deep discussion and engaged decision-making in congregations about the future that our still speaking God has in store for them," Schoen said.
The Michigan Conference of the UCC has five congregations that started the New Beginnings journey in December, and the conference received training the first weekend in February to share in the assessment process.
"I think these are churches that have been struggling for a vision or direction in their ministry, so this looked like a good opportunity for them to focus," said the Rev. Cheryl Burke, associate conference minister for the Michigan Conference. "As a conference, we were looking for a program to work with what we call Quadrant 3 or Quadrant 4 churches — churches starting to lose their initial vision or churches that have lost their vision, but still have programs and membership."
Burke is hopeful that the assessment process will be complete in May for the five congregations, mostly in rural areas and resort towns, which means a fluctuating demographic from which to draw regular members. During the process, the conference plans to provide pastors and lay leaders with training and support from the Center for Progressive Renewal in Atlanta.
"It’s a wide spectrum of training for the congregations, so they feel like they can own [the outcome]," Burke said.
Just what are some of the characteristics of congregations that need a new beginning? It could be a combination of fewer than 70 people in worship, building issues, aging membership, changing neighborhood demographics, and financial issues (such as trouble playing bills or loans).
Several more UCC conferences and individual congregations, Schoen said, will begin the New Beginnings Assessment process this spring and fall.
"Part of my excitement and enthusiasm is the strength and spirit of the ecumenical collaboration between the HOPE Partnership (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ as we all work together through New Beginnings to make an impact not only in our congregations but in the communities that our congregations exist in and serve," Schoen said.
Asked what advice a congregation might consider with the New Beginnings Assessment Service, Burke suggests that churches "come and see," she said. "See what it’s about. If you’re not sure what your vision for ministry is, come and see what it looks like and if it’s helpful to you."
Those interested in the service can learn more about it with an introductory webinar at 3 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Feb. 25. Among the topics the webinar will address are the assessment process, cost and scheduling, and expectations of congregations and conferences.