Becoming a Church They Don’t Want to Leave


I’m telling this story backwards. Stay with me…

I’m moving. Again. People who know me are laughing. When we bought our condo three years ago I declared: “This is it, we’re home. I’m never moving again.”

Now this will be the sixth time my husband and I have moved since February 2017. It started out as an adventure. Our kids were all out of college, our youngest was moving to Chicago for law school, and my husband said: “We don’t need this big old house! It’s just the two of us. Let’s move to the city too.” We told our daughter she had to pay for law school, but we would help with room and board—the catch was she’d have to live with us the first year. After living more than 1,000 miles away during undergrad, she was in. “Home cooked meals!” We found a two-bedroom apartment, and I gave my husband two years to get the city out of his system.

I ended up being the one to fall madly in love with city-living. We rented a couple of times and moved to a cottage in Michigan in between—until we found our neighborhood, our home. It has been an amazing adventure, and it’s made us much more flexible. We are less attached to stuff. We are more open to differences. These moves taught us so much: about ourselves, about others, about community.

We joined a church we had attended (sporadically) when we were dating. We knew we belonged immediately. The people know their mission. They have a vision and express what it means to live it out in their lives:

We believe we can find meaning and purpose in our lives and build a better world through a vibrant and distinctive faith experience. We envision this to be community-driven, lay-led, and Christ-centered in a way that challenges and supports the institutional church, acting as a model for the future of Catholic communities in our city. Leading us onward and upholding our vision is an emphasis on community, justice, spirituality, and service.

The vision is focused on radical inclusivity, exquisite worship, and transformative kindship. The mission is simple: “Encounter the God who loves you. Engage the community who welcomes you. Serve the world who needs you.” And yet it takes a lot of work. It’s a community where liturgy really is “the work of the people.” We’ve had a change in leadership since we’ve been here, but the mission doesn’t change. The vision doesn’t change because it’s about the community and these simple ways of living out the Gospel. It’s based on the model of the church as a place to heal, Pope Francis’ emphasis from early in his papacy:

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle… heal the wounds, heal the wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.

In this community, people come as they are: faithful, struggling to be so, doubting, hurting, angry at the Church, and everything in between. But because it is a place where we share stories, all of that is expected. I know the reflections of young moms and dads, of parents of teenagers who struggle with mental health, of the woman who works with the kinship initiative because she was once homeless and it provided her a lifeline and recognized her dignity. I hear the reflections of persons who are in interfaith marriages, and of those who have been divorced and remarried. Also the stories of people who have walked the path of adoption, or IVF. I hear the stories of people who never thought they’d step foot in a church again but found a home here. And I hear these stories from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.

I can’t imagine leaving this church. I am torn… Torn between driving an hour each way on Sunday morning and maybe another day of the week to engage in our faith community in a meaningful way, or of starting over in my old neighborhood parish as we move back home to be with family. Maybe I will participate in the listening sessions they are currently engaged in as an effort to be a part of building something vibrant, something that might one day feel like a thriving community. I don’t want to leave the parish I’ve worshipped in for these past seven years. I know if I do, I will grieve the loss. I am praying and discerning what this means for us now.

Why do I share all of this? Because, as church leaders, I want you to think about what it means to be a church that people don’t want to leave. What does it mean to be a community that nourishes its souls to the extent that they will grieve if they have to leave? A place that lifts up the gospel every Sunday as a call to action in the world today, as a call to find our meaning and purpose in this world as we bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. To be a faith community in which people are transformed. A place where people come to heal and to help heal one another.

So, here my five takeaways for church leaders, as I discern what it is that makes this community so special.

  1. A shared It’s not enough to have a stated vision or mission. People have to know it, believe it, and be willing to get behind it. This church embraces a simple mission that everyone can remember, but they also envision what it means for that mission to be centered on Christ, lay-led, and community driven. That’s important because a church where the leadership is everything (and does everything) is not a sustainable model, and likely not a thriving community. We all have to believe we are called to this mission for it to be manifested in the world.
  2. Create space for storytelling and story-listening. When we create spaces for people to share their struggles, their celebrations, their anxieties, and their hopes—all of it—we build community. We create a space where the story of God is our story, too. Where we see in the Sunday readings a call to reflect on what it means for us today. Where we ask: Where does this story resonate? Who walks with me in this story? Who am I called to walk with? Too often we hear only a few people’s stories—a pastor, another church leader, and maybe once in awhile an engaged parishioner who gives a witness talk. I am convinced that becoming a storytelling community (where all stories are valid and valued) is more important than any “program” or curriculum we might be considering. 
  3. Heal the wounds. Let’s be real. Too many people are hurting, sometimes from the wounds of life, sometimes from abuses of the church or church leadership, sometimes from the division and polarization in our churches and in the world. How can people come together as community and be expected to shove all that down and carry on?! We have to allow for the pain to be acknowledged, for losses to be grieved, and for healing to take place. Sometimes that’s through spiritual direction, sometimes listening sessions, sometimes small groups, sometimes ritual and memorial. A good place to start: recognizing that we all carry wounds and need one another, and we need our Lord’s healing grace. 
  4. Look for and expect the close encounters. You’ve heard in ministry that we don’t bring God to people, because God is already there. We just help people recognize that truth. Perhaps, but sometimes we also get in the way—not on purpose, but by focusing on “churchy” things. God is in all of it. God is in the chaos, in our messy lives. By always looking for those God sightings, by expecting we will bump up against the sacred in the “everyday” and the “ordinary” of life, we help people recognize those encounters with God. We learn to “taste and see” God in one another, in creation, in liturgy, in service, in advocating for and working for justice, in prayer, in silence, in suffering, in everything! Encounter the God who loves you—not just in church on Sunday, but out in the world, every day.
  5. Wrap all of that up with exquisite worship in the Sunday liturgy. Every Sunday, share the vision, listen to and tell the stories, heal the wounds, even if just by a kind word, a grace-filled moment, an embrace of love and belonging. Share those encounters. Where is God in our world today? Where did we see him this week? And then respond to the Spirit’s nudges that send us forth to continue that mission in the world—until we come together again. 

I’m living in that in-between space of life’s transition. But I know wherever we end up, this is what I’m looking for in a faith community. What would you include in your recipe for a thriving church community? Share your thoughts with us… And if you’re craving help in your journey to thriving, please reach out to connect with me, or with one of our other Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coaches—just click HERE to get started.



Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.




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