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Exploring Your Congregation's Vitality

A Path Through the Maze

Websites are like mazes.  You take one path and that leads to a set of new choices leading to more choices.  Sometimes the choices lead you back to the beginning, sometimes to a dead end and you have to use the "Back" arrow.  Mazes can be explored in many ways.  You can make choices randomly, you can follow your interests, or you can try to figure out the system the designers had in mind.  Some mazes even have a helper who sits on a stand high above the maze and assists people who are lost to find their way back.

 This section of the website suggests a process to take you through the website, stopping to explore areas of particular interest to you, and skipping to others according to your needs.  It helps you cover most of the parts of the site.  Groups from congregations can use it to engage the website in a process to study and increase their own congregation's vitality or to get ready to write their profile if they are searching for a pastor.  It is one, but not the only way, to navigate the maze.  

Build your team

The first step in navigating the maze along this path is to get your team of explorers together.  Choose a group that includes clergy and other professional staff, lay leaders and other lay members.  You may want to do some of the scouting-out ahead of time, so you can make the most of your meeting time together.  Team members may want to explore and present different pages to the group.  You will probably want to meet several times, doing one or two steps each time.  Having access to a computer while the group is meeting is helpful, but not essential.Here's what the overall plan looks like:  

What Does our Faith Say about Congregational Vitality?
Who Are You?
Where Are You?
Where Are You Vital Now?
What Is God Calling You To Be and Do?
How Can You Nurture That Call?
What Might Be Getting in the Way?
What Other Resources Do You Need?

Most sections have some information, questions to ponder together, opportunities to respond, and links to more information.  These allow your team to spend as much or as little time in each section as you find helpful.  Your responses will help tailor this website and other resources to people's needs.  When you're ready to proceed, go on to the next section. 

1. What Does Our Faith Say About Congregational Vitality?

Although the term "congregational vitality" is not used in the Bible, the Bible has a lot to say about vitality.  The Ready, Set, Grow Bible Study is a good place to start.

 

Our faith tradition also provides theological resources for thinking about congregational vitality.  One way to think and talk about these theological positions in a user-friendly manner is presented in the What Matters section of this website.  In this section, six key UCC beliefs are explored through stories of real people and questions for reflection.  You might want to discuss some of them with your group now.  You also may want to use them in other settings, such as confirmation and adult education classes, or even as an opening devotional at a church meeting.

Respond:  From these resources, what are the most important things to keep in mind as you start along the path toward greater vitality?

 Want to explore more?

The New Testament writers had a lot to say about what a vital congregation should be and do.  Here are some, but not all, of the important passages:


Matthew
5:13-16 (Salt and Light)
11:28-30 (My yoke is easy)
22:36-40 (Greatest Commandment)
25:34-40 (The Sheep and  the Goats)
28:18-20 (Great Commission)

Luke-Acts
Luke 4:18-19 (Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me)
Luke 4:43-45 (Proclaim the Good News)
Acts 1:8 (You Will Receive Power)
Acts 2:41-47 (Life Among the Believers)
Acts 5:42 - 6:7 (Seven Chosen to Serve)

Mark
10:41-45 (Greatest is Servant)

John
4:23-24    (God is Spirit)
10:14-18 (The Good Shepherd)
13:34-35 (A New Commandment)
20:21(Peace Be with You)

Epistles
Romans 12:1-8 (Varieties of Gifts)
Romans 15:1-7 (Please Others, Not Yourselves)
I Corinthians 12:12-31 (One Body - Many Members)
II Corinthians 5:17 - 6:1 (In Christ, A New Creation)
Galatians 5:13-15 (Freedom or Indulgence)
Galatians 6:1-2 (Bear One Another's Burdens)


Take some time in your team to study some of these passages together.  You may want to assign different ones to groups of 2-4 people and then report and summarize their findings.  You could also begin each team meeting with discussion of a few of them.

Respond:  What is the purpose of the church in these passages?  What are the marks of the church?

You may also want to study the letters to the churches in Revelation and discuss what might be in a letter to your church. 
 
2. Who Are You?
What is it that makes your congregation unique from others in town?  From other UCC's in your association?  What do you do that is different?  Or how do you do the same things differently?  How are those in your congregation different from those in other congregations?  How is your congregation's story or heritage unique to you?  Although Christian beliefs at the core are the same, different congregations emphasize different parts of the Gospel or use different language to talk about their faith.  What do you emphasize?

Respond:  Describe your congregation in 25 words or less. What are your congregation's unique gifts for ministry?

Want to explore more?

One good print resource for congregational self-study is Studying Congregations:  A New Handbook (Nancy T. Ammerman, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William McKinney, Nashville:  Abingdon, 1998).

Some people find quantitative methods using surveys and statistics to be helpful in learning more about their congregations, while others find more qualitative methods such as participant observation, interviews, and discussions of congregational history and symbols to be more helpful.  Good resources of both types are available for studying congregations.

Quantitative – Several organizations have developed congregational studies tools and instruments.  They provide surveys, scoring, and reports that compare your congregation with others.

They include:
•    The US Congregational Life Survey (www.uscongregations.org )
•    The Hartford Institute for Religious Research which provides three instruments (Pastoral Search Inventory, Church Planning Inventory, and Parish Profile Inventory) (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/cong/cong_church_inventory.html )
•    The Natural Church Development Program (www.ncd-international.org ) which is also available through Local Church Ministries Church Development and Renewal staff members (http://www.ucc.org/evangelism/whatwecando.htm)
•    Visions-Decisions which supplies a brief 30-item survey (http://www.visions-decisions.com/survey.htm)

Qualitative – Three resources applying qualitative methods to local congregations are:
•    Congregation:  Stories and Structures by James F. Hopewell (Philadelphia:Fortress, 1987) is a classic, with many interesting exercises to help you explore your congregation's identity.
•    Chapter 2 on Identity from Handbook of Congregational Studies, downloadable from http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/out_of_print_congstudhndbk.html.
•    The Soul of the Congregation by Thomas Edward Frank (Nashville:Abingdon, 2000), particularly the section on "Learning a Congregation's Culture " pages 161-168.

 
3. Where Are You?
OK, so you know who you are.  That's a good beginning.  Now, you need to think about your mission field.  Who in your community needs to hear the Gospel and your particular brand of it?  Who is in your community anyway?

Visit the Demographic Tool section for a link to a nifty website that shows all sorts of interesting census information about the community around your congregation, as well as a helpful article on how to use demographics.   Explore this site and print some of the maps and charts and discuss them in your team.  You can also download the data into an Excel spread-sheet for more in-depth analysis.  You may want to experiment with different areas around your church building, or with separate reports for the town in which your congregation is located and a nearby town where many members live, as well.

Were there surprises in the reports?  How has your community changed in the last few years?  How is it expected to change in the next few years?  Where are the areas of growth and vitality?  Given this information and what you know about who you are, who is NOT part of your congregation?  Of these, who might be the unchurched among you?  Do you need to think about relocation?

Statistics, however, are only one way to explore your neighborhood, and never substitute for more direct contact.  David Schoen has provided a useful process to supplement statistics with real-life experience in  Know Your Neighborhood.  Visit that page now for more ideas and activities.

Respond:  What did you learn from looking at the community that you didn't already know? Who are the unchurched in your community?

 Want to explore more?

In addition to the demographic reports available on line, the UCC Research Services office provides special purpose reports you may find of interest.  For example, they can provide demographic data for a specific geography, such as 1, 3, and 5-mile rings around any location.  As you examine your community, you may have particular questions for which this would be helpful.  To arrange for a special report, contact the Research Services office through Destiny Shellhammer.

Another widely-used demographics technique, particularly by market-research firms, involves dividing up the population into "lifestyle" segments, clusters of people based both on demographics and their buying habits.  The Lutheran Hour Ministries organization has developed research-based religious profiles of different lifestyle segments, including the rates of unchurched people in various segments as well as their concerns and issues.  These profiles can be obtained at www.lhm.org/toolkit.  Although you must sign in as a user, there is no charge for doing so.

These profiles can be useful to you in understanding the religious concerns of people in your community even if you don't have the matching lifestyle segment information.  For example, census reports of your community may show a large number of young lower-income families, or of young singles or of seniors.  With a little searching, you can find a similar life-style segment for your target group from the list in that site's "3rd Step:  Obtaining Reports" under "Religious Research and Outreach Planning Tools" and print the relevant report to share with your team.   The report helps people get a better picture of the unchurched in their communities and their religious needs so that they can plan how to reach them most effectively.

Congregations in Transition:  A Guide for Analyzing, Assessing, and Adapting in Changing Communities by Carl S. Dudley and Nancy T. Ammerman (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2002) is a hands-on workbook that helps you study your community and think through how to minister in it.

4. Where Are You Vital Now?
Think back over the last two years in your congregation.  What was the time you felt the most vital?  What worship or other event was the highlight?  Where was the most energy in a meeting (OK, positive energy)?  When did you go away feeling you had really helped people?  In what activities did you most exemplify Jesus?

Respond:  Please describe in a few sentences the 1-3 most vital moments.

 

The Congregational Vitality Initiative Team has identified seven areas of congregational life:

A.    Hope-filled Worship
B.    Nurturing Faith
C.    Extravagant Welcome
D.    Visionary Leadership
E.    Bold Local and Global Witness
F.    Inspiring Generosity
G.    Life Together

Think about each of them in your own congregation.

➢    In what ways does your worship bring hope?
➢    What are the most vital ways that you nurture the faith of children, youth, and adults?
➢    How do you best show God's extravagant welcome to members, to visitors, and to the community?
➢    In what ways in the last two years did your leaders constructively address a congregational problem?
➢    How does your congregation best witness for God in your community or the world?
➢    What have been the examples of generosity that inspired your congregation in the last five years?
➢    What have been the most effective ways of enriching life together in your congregation?
➢    In what other areas has your congregation demonstrated vitality?

Respond:  In which two of these areas do you believe your congregation is most vital?

Please visit the Vital Congregations forum to tell us more about what you do to be vital in these areas.

Respond:  In which two of these areas do you believe your congregation is least vital? Why?

Please visit the Vital Signs resource pages for the areas mentioned for help in increasing your vitality in these areas.  

Want to explore more?

One way to identify areas of vitality is to examine how your congregation has changed recently.  Each year, the UCC Research Office prepares 11 Year Reports for every congregation in the denomination.  These reports list on one page many of the statistics that each congregation provided in its Yearbook Reports for the last 11 years.  By scanning the report for your church, you can see in what areas your congregation experienced the most change.  How did attendance change?  What about the church school?  New members, transfers out?  How did giving change?  Did pledging increase, did you give more to OCWM?  Did capital expenses increase or decrease?  By entering this information into a spreadsheet or graphics program, you can easily produce some helpful analyses about how your congregation changed in different areas of its life.  You can get a copy of the report for your congregation from your Conference Office or by contacting Research Services Destiny Shellhammer

Some of the congregational studies tools and instruments already mentioned (The Hartford Institute for Religious Research's Pastoral Search Inventory, Church Planning Inventory, and Parish Profile Inventory (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/cong/cong_church_inventory.html) , the US Congregational Life Survey (www.uscongregations.org), the Faith Communities Today Survey, and the Natural Church Development Program available through Local Church Development (http://www.ucc.org/evangelism/whatwecando.htm ) and www.ncd-international.org, as well as programs such as Kennon Callahan's 12 Keys to an Effective Church (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1983) series can be used to explore areas of relative strength and weakness in your congregation.



5. What Is God Calling You To Be and Do?

As you have discussed and thought and prayed about the places and moments of vitality in your congregation, you may have heard the call of God for your congregation.  If you were totally to live out that call, what would it look like?  How would your congregation embody the love of God in your community?  What are your highest hopes for your congregation?  Please share them with each other now.

Respond: In which of the seven areas do you hear the call of God for your congregation most strongly?



 
__  Hope-filled Worship
__  Nurturing Faith
__  Extravagant Welcome
__  Visionary Leadership
__  Bold Local and Global Witness
__  Inspiring Generosity
__  Life Together

How would you describe that call in one or two sentences?

Anthony Robinson, in the It's a Whole New World resource page describes how the cultural context in which congregations do ministry has changed in the last few years and challenges us to address those changes.  If you have not already done so, explore that resource with your team now.  How would you do the ministry you described above in the light of the changes discussed by Robinson?

Respond:  What new skills or resources might you need to do ministry today?
 

Want to explore more?

Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations by Alice Mann and Gil Rendle, available from Alban Institute, www.alban.org is one resource to help you discern God's call.  The article "Claiming the Light:  Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Transformation" by Paul Chaffee (downloadable from www.congregationalresources.org) is another.


 6. How Can You Nurture That Call?

The best way to get the fire of vitality going is to blow on the embers that are already present.  Blow gently if the embers are dim, more strongly if flames are bright.  How can you strengthen and build upon the existing areas of vitality?  

  Perhaps you can take a light from a fire in one area to help another area become ablaze.  What new twist to an old program might make it more relevant today or help you extend vitality into new areas?  How can successful programs or practices be modified to build vitality in other areas?

Or maybe your congregational vitality is so strong that you need to start a new fire somewhere else or with new people.  How can you replicate your vitality in other settings?

Perhaps your call is to do a new thing, to reach out to a new group of people or provide a ministry that nobody else in your community is providing.  The resources in the Vital Signs pages will help provide background.  Check the Vital Congregations section to see who else in the denomination may already have a vital ministry in that area, or post a question on one of the forums on this page or the UCC website.

Association, Conference, and National staff members are good resources for helping congregations fan the flames of vitality.  They can cheer you on, and point you to other resources in your area, including congregations that have developed similar ministries and community organizations with which you might partner.  They may know of funding sources you could tap.  If you need help navigating the maze of national offices, call the toll-free number 866-822-8224.  Or call your Conference Office for suggestions of National staff resource persons.

Respond:  What areas of vitality in your congregation might be building blocks for more vitality? What are the first few steps you need to take?

Want to explore more?   

If you have a good idea of your call, but need some help envisioning it, two books that provide examples of congregational ministry and steps to develop yours are Acting on Your Faith:  Congregations Making a Difference:  A Guide to Success in Service and Social Action by Victor N. Claman and David E. Butler with Jessica A. Boyatt (Boston:  Insights, 1994) and Next Steps in Community Ministry:  Hands-on Leadership by Carl S. Dudley (Alban Institute, 1996).
 

7. What Might Be Getting in the Way of Your Vitality?

Rick Warren in The Purpose-Driven Church says that the WRONG question is "What will make our church grow?" while the RIGHT question is "What is keeping our church from growing?"

Maybe you have a good idea of your call and of what you need to do to nurture it, but you lack just two things – time and money.  The resources listed on the <Inspiring Generosity> page may be the next step you need to take.  Some of them are very hands-on, like how to conduct a stewardship campaign, while others such as Robert Wuthnow's The Crisis in the Churches:  Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woe and Robert Sitze's The Great Permission:  An Asset-Based Field Guide for Congregations provide a different way of thinking about the resources you already have and how to enable them for ministry.

Just as God loves and accepts us as we are, God loves our congregation as it is, warts and all.  We don't need to be perfect or even identify and fix our weaknesses before God can use us as a vital force in our communities and the world.  However, sometimes our warts get in the way.  Sometimes we need to deal with issues that keep us from growing, such as the need to relocate or building limitations, or even conflict within the church.  If you think this is true of your congregation, you may want to spend some time discussing what is keeping you from growing and how to overcome it.

Respond:  In one or two sentences, what is keeping you from being more vital and what do you need to do to overcome it?

Want to explore more?

Chapter 5 in Studying Congregations provides information on studying the financial, physical, and social resources of local congregations.

The special purpose demographic reports provided by the UCC Research Services office may be especially helpful if you are considering relocating your church building.  Reports can be generated for a number of different possible locations, and the demographics of each area compared.  To arrange for a special report, contact the Research Services office through Destiny Shellhammer.

Chapter 4 on "Process" from Handbook of Congregational Studies, downloadable from http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/out_of_print_congstudhndbk.html and Chapter 4 from Studying Congregations, both address questions of when you might want to examine process issues in your congregation and how to do so.  The Alban Institute (www.alban.org) has additional resources on process issues in congregations.  Conference staff can also be excellent resources in dealing with many of these issues.

 
8. What Other Resources Do You Need?

So you hear God's call.  Now the work really begins of how to make that vision a reality.  This website, www.uccvitality.org, was created to try to provide you with some of the tools you need.  Explore the different areas, especially those where you hear God's call.  Take ideas from what other churches have done, and contribute ideas that have worked for you.  And don't forget the non-web resources, also.  Check out some of the resources and publications listed in the back of the UCC Desk Calendar and Planbook.  Talk to your Association and Conference staff members.

After you have explored the resources on this website, go to the Feedback section and let us know what was useful and what was missing.  Tell us what more you are looking for so we can try to develop it or point you to it.

 Then do your planning.  Share the vision as widely as possible in the congregation.  Set reasonable goals and timetables, and update them as required.  And pray.  Pray unceasingly.

Respond:  What do you need the most to make your congregation more vital?


 Want to explore more?

Click on other pages of this website, www.ucc.org/vitality.  Also, you may want to check out the forums on the UCC website.  If no postings are relevant to your specific question or interest, try posting your question.

Another place to find more resources is www.congregationalresources.org, a joint effort of the Alban Institute and the Indianapolis Center for Congregations and funded by the Lilly Endowment.

This resource was written Marjorie H. Royle, Ph.D. She is a research consultant working with churches and other non-profits, as well as an active layperson in her local congregation, association, and the Central Atlantic Conference. She is a former director of the Research Office for the UCC Board for Homeland Ministries.

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. David C. Schoen
Minister and Team Leader, Congregational Assessment and Support
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3827
schoend@ucc.org