What is the Congregational Vitality Project?

The Congregational Vitality Project is an effort to more deeply understand what makes for vital congregations, how to measure vitality of congregations, and ways in which we cultivate vitality in congregations. An important aspect of this project is promoting and measuring missional activity to move beyond “maintenance” or even sustainability. Common tools can assist congregations, dioceses, and denominations (even non-denominational or non-affiliated churches) to better understand congregational vitality and measure effectiveness/outcomes of vitality efforts to continuously improve training and outcomes in congregations of all sizes.

 

Focus and Sources of Research

My main focus is on congregational vitality as expressed in my own Episcopal tradition. This does not, however, limit this work to the Episcopal Church. I draw on my learning and experience as a priest in the Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Practices, The College for Congregational Development, workshops and conferences, and Episcopal dioceses (especially the Episcopal Diocese of Texas) focusing on the importance of vital missional congregations. I also draw on congregational research and resources beyond the Episcopal Church. These particularly include: the Congregational Vitality Project of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Vital Congregations of the United Methodist Church (UMC), Alban at Duke Divinity School, Faith Communities Today, Congregational Consulting Group, Healthy Congregations, Inc., and the wider non-profit sector.

There are also numerous books and other publications which are widely read and used in congregations. Many of the most notable are referenced in various sections of this site. This is a “work in progress”, or a journey, so I am updating and revising as new learning becomes available. I also desire for this to be relational and conversational with others passionate about congregational vitality and the mission of the Church.

 

Genesis and Work of the Congregational Vitality Mission Project

My work with congregational vitality can be traced back to seminary when I actively participated as a member of the Congregational Studies committee, which was a joint effort of Episcopal Divinity School and the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. I have engaged this work “in the field” while serving as a priest full-time in Episcopal congregations for nearly a decade. Dramatic shifts underway for the Episcopal Church (and all of Christianity) has led me in recent years to think more deeply and critically about how we live out our mission as followers of Christ Jesus. Since 2012 I have devoted considerable time to mission projects I believe important to the Jesus movement in the 21st century. Looking at how we can cultivate and support vital congregations is an important focus of this work. I’m passionate about God’s mission and seeing vital congregations fulfilling God’s call to actively and effectively participate to form disciples mature in faith who serve the world as the heart and hands of Christ Jesus.

 

Looking at Congregational Vitality

Congregational Vitality measures a congregation’s effectiveness in living into God’s mission of reconciliation. In the Catechism (Outline of the Faith) in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP) this is defined as restoring all people to unity with God in Christ as it worships and prays, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love. Two key components of living as vital missional congregations are mission and viability.

Mission is rooted in the two greatest commandments: to love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40) and the great commission: to make disciples of all nations and to teach and obey all Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). This is expressed through Christian community effectively fulfilling the missional promises of our Baptismal Covenant: proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305).

Viability is a congregation being able to continue mission into the future. This requires a healthy system, articulation of vision (and ability to revise over time), effective evangelism and faith formation to grow Christians mature in faith, solid leadership structures, and capable stewardship of finances, time, and talent.

Looking more closely at mission and viability, congregational vitality requires a congregation to do well across numerous aspects of church life and be able to measure/assess their own effectiveness. Of all the materials I have read, presentations I have seen, and conversations I have participated in over the years, I believe the most comprehensive and thoughtful understanding on factors contributing to congregational vitality is by Mary MacGregor and Reb Scarborough for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. MacGregor and Scarborough developed what they call the 12 Marks of Healthy Church Behavior with reference to work done by internationally respected congregational systems consultant Peter L. Steinke.

 

12 Marks of Healthy Church Behavior [Congregational Vitality]

  1. Worships: Designs and carries out in a thoughtful and excellent fashion worship that is responsive to the individual nature of the congregation. The congregation understands the power of the Holy Eucharist to renew the spirit. Worship is vibrant and alive and touches the worshipper. Liturgy is well planned and executed.
  2. Knows Itself and Moves Forward: Defines itself by its sense of values, mission (purpose) and vision with resulting plans for the congregation. The culture is one of expectation of constant movement and change, seeking God’s will for its future. This awareness is grounded in theological definition and understanding.
  3. Invites, Incorporates: Invites, displays hospitality and works toward inclusion of newcomers and members into active participation in congregational life with an emphasis on relationship formation.
  4. Disciples: Takes seriously the formation of disciples, grounded in the Baptismal Covenant with emphasis on spiritual formation, biblical education and prayer.
  5. Lives as Stewards: Promotes good stewardship of parishioner’s time, spiritual gifts, talents and money.
  6. Empowers: Fosters a culture of empowering ministry utilizing knowledge of persons’ spiritual gifts, passions and talents for service coupled with expectation and accountability for those who undertake ministry.
  7. Cares: Responds with thoughtfulness and pastoral sensitivity to individuals in the congregation when illness, personal crisis, death and other challenging life circumstances arise.
  8. Reaches Out: Focuses significant ministry outside the congregation to the community and beyond.
  9. Fosters a Learning Culture for Leaders: Understands that leaders in Christian community have a distinctive call, that they seek God’s guidance, are willing to risk, lead change well and learn from experience. Leaders are trained and expected to mentor future leaders. Lay leaders foster a healthy relationship with their clergy.
  10. Communicates: Generates effective communications inside the church and outside to the community.
  11. Manages Conflict: Conflicted situations are managed with practices/processes that foster and reflect a theology of reconciliation.
  12. Understands the Need to Be Connected to the Greater Church: Demonstrates connectedness and support for the wider church.

Source: “12 Marks of Healthy Church Behavior” by Mary MacGregor and Reb Scarborough (Congregational Vitality Development Basics 101, Episcopal Diocese of Texas), 2004, edited 2011. References: Peter Steinke; The Evangelism, Church Growth, Worship and Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church of Canada

 

Organizing Discussion on Congregational Vitality

In the following pages I take a closer look at those aspects which contribute to cultivating, supporting, and measuring congregational vitality. While all of the 12 Marks are important to having a vital congregation, and I will eventually touch on all areas, I focus on those aspects which most closely align with what are considered more “congregational development” topics. It should be noted that many of these topics share overlap with others (as learning, skills, experience, etc. can be applied across multiple areas). I include a brief discussion on Governance as a separate topic (although it does share some overlap with areas such as leadership development) as there are important and practical points to note in how Episcopal congregations are governed.

Notes for January 2018: I am currently working on an overview of Systems Theory in Congregations and Considerations for Change (Life Cycle and Change Cycle) as these areas cut across every aspect of congregational life and impact congregational vitality. I am also researching and thinking about tools for Measuring Congregational Vitality. I will publish pages as soon as I have material available for each area.