Monday, October 3, 2011

Steps to Build a Vital Congregation

Major plans for congregational development are under way for the Goromonzi Township in Zimbabwe. The community is filled with couples below the age of 40 who are African and highly literate. Church leaders there say new residential construction in the area has great potential for membership growth. Energetic church members are considered one of the strengths in this area; lack of funds presents the biggest challenge. Leaders are clear that their mission in the Goromonzi Township is to create new disciples and equip them with knowledge to continue reaching new members. Leaders hope to nearly double their average worship attendance and the number of people joining by profession of faith by 2015.

This single assessment is only a small portion of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference Vital Congregations Strategic Plan. The Conference, led by Bishop Eben Kanukai Nhiwatiwa, is among the first to submit their overall vision to the Council of Bishops. The plan outlines how they will work within the conference during next quadrennium to meet the denomination goal of fostering and sustaining an increase in vital congregations. This is something that every conference in the denomination is being asked to do through the Vital Congregations Project. The Zimbabwe East Annual Conference used a planning tool that can be found on the Vital Congregations web site. More than 20,000 people have visited the site to find tools on setting goals, to learn about the 16 ministry strategies of highly vital congregations; and resources to set, monitor and reach five goals - weekly attendance, new believers, mission engagement and benevolent giving. If you haven't had a chance to visit the site, I encourage you to take a look.

The Vital Congregations web site shows that much is already being done to implement the Call to Action that was supported by the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops in November 2010. We agreed that focusing on creating vital congregations would be a denominational priority starting in January 2011. It's exciting to see the thoughtful vision developed out of the Call to Action Report begin to take shape in resources that will help our local congregations look to the future.

The Four Areas of Focus and Vital Congregations
The goal setting process for congregations and Annual Conferences builds on the UMC’s Four Areas of Focus – 1) new places for new people, 2) developing principled Christian leaders, 3) improving global health and 4) engaging in ministry with the poor. The Four Areas are reflected in the identified “drivers” or qualities found in vital congregations, such as engaged and competent clergy and lay leadership, disciples who are engaged in mission and who donate generously to missions. As described in the Vital Congregations Planning Guide, missional ministries are examples of Wesley’s “means of grace” – works of mercy and justice that include ministry with the poor and the marginalized and improving health globally, such as joining the Imagine No Malaria campaign. Missional justice ministries are those that seek to transform systems of injustice that create poverty and diminish people’s health around the globe. For Annual Conferences and local congregations, setting specific goals to start new vital congregations is the heart of the matter – creating new places of vitality where disciples of Jesus Christ are born and nurtured in the faith for the transformation of the world. As we move into a new quadrennium, our attention to increasing and sustaining vital congregations is a deepening of our commitment to the Four Areas of Focus. Measuring the fruits of our ministries in these areas helps us focus on bearing witness to God’s transforming love and grace through Jesus Christ in our own lives, our communities and world.

As we see in the work by the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference, the goals that are set give clarity and focus to ministry. It also has provided opportunity for church leaders to discuss the needs and kind of training they want to be successful in meeting their goals. In the Goromonzi Township, the pastors have identified the need for training on how to create new congregations and how to raise money for new places to worship as key to their success.

In the United States, most of the Annual Conferences have taken part in webinars about the Vital Congregations Project since April 2011. All of our Conferences are developing creative strategies to grow more vital congregations. This is a season of exploration and discovery for the church as we become the Church that is making disciples, growing vital congregations and transforming the world.

Conferences are demonstrating this effort to set goals and to put measurements in place regarding vital congregations is not just about numbers and denomination growth. This is about being good stewards and being effective at the call God has given us -- to be in ministry with the world.

For more information about the Call to Action and recommendations being made by the Connectional Table to the General Conference visit www.umccalltoaction.org.