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S.C. uses ‘vital congregations’ plan to stem decline

By Jessica Connor

South Carolina is joining other annual conferences across the United Methodist Church in an initiative designed to revitalize congregations — and stop the growing membership decline.

Since the fall, the S.C. Conference has been doing what Rock Hill District Superintendent the Rev. Sara White calls intentional visioning.  They are asking local congregations to examine themselves with an eye toward the future and set concrete, realistic goals for their growth and vitality.

It s a call to accountability, and I happen to think it s a great idea,  White said.

Known as the Vital Congregations Call to Action, the initiative came from the denomination s Council of Bishops out of its desire to do what it could to help revitalize congregations worldwide.

(The bishops) were finding in annual conferences ¦ that many congregations could not be considered healthy congregations,  White said.

So they looked at healthy, growing congregations and noticed that those congregations exhibited particular characteristics that were absent from those that were not healthy or growing. These characteristics include having inviting and inspiring worship; engaged disciples in mission and outreach; gifted, empowered and equipped lay leadership; effective, equipped and inspired clergy leadership; small group ministries; and a strong children s and youth ministry.

So they developed this initiative, which asks churches to look at themselves and their membership numbers, determine where they stand in these areas, and enter goals for themselves in an online database for the whole denomination (visit the website at www.umvitalcongregations.org).

Last summer, the S.C. Conference s cabinet endorsed the initiative, and district superintendents began rolling out the plan in local churches.

S.C. UMC goals are due March 11, and those goals will be shared at General Conference 2012, set for April 24-May 4. It will be shared in legislation slated for the quadrennial gathering. Every South Carolina district will have a vital congregations celebration event to mark the successful completion of the project; Rock Hill s will be March 4, and the rest will be March 11.

The point is to try to help turn local churches around,  said Dr. Tim McClendon, Columbia District superintendent, noting goals could be helpful in stemming a 40-year membership decline in the UMC. If we don t set goals and have a target, you re surely going to miss it. 

S.C. Resident Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor said the initiative is an effort to help churches be alive and more of what God is calling them to be, as well as to reverse the decline of the UMC in the United States.

The church is growing in other parts of the world, but in the United States, it s not,  Taylor said, noting that instead of gaining ground, we are losing ground “ despite efforts in South Carolina and elsewhere to strengthen local congregations through Natural Church Development and other programs.

You can go ahead and ride off into the sunset, or you can try to make those changes to help us be in ministry,  Taylor said. God s called us to do it, and we need to step up and do what we can to be alive. 

Realistic goals behind the numbers

While the vitality goals are expressed numerically, behind the numbers lay realistic growth visions for these congregations, White said.

She noted the best example of realistic visioning she has heard: the congregation that went into their patterns over the past several years and recognized they were losing members at the rate of 5 percent a year. They decided it was unrealistic to expect they would turn that around completely and grow by 10 percent. So their first year s goal was that by the end of 2012 they would lose only 1 percent of members. In 2013, they would lose no membership. In 2014, they would begin to go up.

That s a realistic setting of goals, and I like realistic,  White said. I think it s cruel to ask congregations to set goals for themselves they have no hope of being able to do. 

She said district superintendents have the opportunity to see what has been entered in of churches in their areas, and they can call the church and ask how it arrived at that expectation if anything seems awry “ and help them if needed.

Good, but be careful

McClendon said he thinks the initiative can be good for the church as long as the information is used properly. It should be used to help the individual church grow and not be used to gauge problems in clergy or church effectiveness.

If the data is used to measure XYZ church against itself, fine,  McClendon said. But if the data is used to measure XYZ church against RSTU church, there might be a difficulty. 

He also said the initiative makes assumptions that the problem with the decline comes from within the congregation, and that might not be the case. It could be the clergy member, the denomination structure, society s view of religion in general, etc.

The Rev. Bob Huggins, who pastors St. John UMC in Sumter, said he hopes the initiative fosters connectionalism, not competition. He said he personally enjoys trying new programming, but he is concerned whether churches are really going to respond to it in a way that will make a difference for them.

The church can look at itself all day long with statistical data, but unless you have the resources within the church to make a difference, then (it might not be helpful),  Huggins said, noting the challenge is with smaller churches who need more hands-on connections, resources and techniques to grow.

Associate Conference Lay Leader Barbara Ware said the initiative brings a strong opportunity to take a serious look at possibilities to make our churches more vital, no matter their size.

It seems with any new initiative or program there is concern about reinventing the wheel  or making more work for our churches,  Ware said. Nonetheless, it is good for churches to step back and take a look at their congregations through a different color lens. It is true that whether you are a congregation of ten or a thousand, there is always new ministry to be done. 

The Rev. Joseph Curtis, who pastors First UMC in Lancaster, said the biggest hurdle will be getting local churches to see the initiative as a true opportunity.

I believe if the churches will see this as an opportunity to look at these areas that studies show increase vitality, and not as the General Church giving us something new to do and report, it will greatly benefit the local church,  Curtis said.

White said she has had a range of responses about the initiative from her churches “ from I m not going to do it  to it s been really helpful and brought us into conversation we have not had before.  And she is encouraged by how many have said the latter.

The most important thing is how does this impact the life of the local congregation and give them a better future in ministry and service for Jesus Christ,  White said. That s most important. 

For more information on Vital Congregations, visit www.umvitalcongre gations.org .

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