What Makes Vital Congregations
In a meeting of the Mission Strategy Committee in early October 2010, Bishop Mathes said, “We are in the business of vibrant worshipping communities.” He encouraged the committee to seek sparks of missional energy in our congregations and to learn what they are doing to advance God’s mission in their communities and how to support them in their efforts.
At our recent Diocesan Convention, our bishop, with the endorsement of the Executive Council, gave legs to those words as he presented the Vital Congregations Plan to the convention for its approval. This plan represents a culmination of discussions about developing more vibrant and healthy congregations in our diocese.
The approved Vital Congregations Plan calls for building more vibrant congregations around the diocese by structuring our common life around eight mission areas (generally grouped by geography yet also having other affinity points). Each area will have an area missioner, appointed by Executive Council, who will serve as organizer or convener. These area missioners will form the new Vital Congregations Committee (formerly the Mission Strategy Committee). Congregations will develop action plans and measure progress towards goals using three critical metrics/primary indicators: average Sunday attendance, pledge and plate giving, and the number of people served in mission (or other comparable service ministry metric). Congregations that receive financial support from the diocese will have specific benchmarks to meet, made in consultation with their leadership and their area missioner.
The theological foundation of the plan stands on the idea that God’s mission is undertaken in partnership, as Jesus sent out his disciples two-by-two (Mark 6:7), and that communities of faith give and support one another (Romans 15:26). The Episcopal Church has a strong sense of connected ministry. The smallest unit of the church is the diocese, and our faith communities comprise that greater community. As Episcopalians we are meant to be in relationship with one another as we are in relationship with our bishop.
The Vital Congregations Plan gives us a format to begin to think about being church differently by opening up possibilities for partnership and encouraging collaboration within the mission areas, as well as beyond. Such opportunities include youth ministry, Christian formation, joint vestry/bishop committee leadership workshops, ministry fairs or swap meets, and special day liturgies such as Epiphany and Ascension, or special days of remembrance such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or the feast day of Oscar Romero or the Virgen de Guadalupe, or special liturgies in times of natural or human-made crisis. Cutting costs may be achieved by using shared resources, such as bookkeeping, administration, janitorial and landscaping services.
Fear will be our biggest obstacle to achieving these partnerships. Clergy members and lay leadership may feel vulnerable with one another about their challenges. There is a perceived fear of losing independence and identity, even as we remember the paradox of Jesus’ teachings, that we need to lose our life to save it. The Vital Congregations Plan invites us to trust more deeply as we strive to thrive, not merely to survive, as connected congregations, proclaiming the Gospel and showing forth fearless love, for one another and for the world. +