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Thriving Congregations: Experimenting Our Way Forward

By Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

It was a beautiful November day as we gathered in Floresville, TX, just south of San Antonio. Bit-by-bit they arrived—team members of the Thriving Congregations Project from three Methodist churches who drove about an hour to spend the day together planning for innovation at their churches. These churches have been meeting together monthly with their coach, the Rev. Dr. Tanya Campen, for a year now, preparing for this day. They are committed to experimenting with changes in how they do faith-formation ministries, by re-inventing Christian practices. They’ve worked together as a group of churches, but are each choosing their own experiments in direction and practices. 

Networked Churches Thrive 

While not everyone from each of the teams had spent time together before, the comfort level in the room revealed the deeper connections that had already been established in Zoom meetings filled with conversation, vibrant relationships, and times of prayer. The competitiveness in conversation (you know what I mean—“idea one-upmanship”) that often plagues ministry leadership gatherings was absent; they banded together to dive into this serious and important work in a spirit of shared community.   

Experiments Bring Change 

For churches, like other organizations, strategic planning and mission statements matter. But right now, in this “post-Covid/Oh no, Covid’ s back again” season of our lives, SMALL, ongoing experiments need to become our new ministry normal. The skills learned in setting up and executing experiments in congregational life will change how people think about their church, and how they think about change. Our Thriving Congregations churches are doing just that for the next months. They will test, tweak, evaluate and then come back again next year and conceive another experiment, and then come back the following year to do it again. 

Listening as the Norm 

Our three Texas churches had prepared for their day together by spending their summer listening. They listened to people from inside their church and outside in the community. They did not survey their congregations about service times or what would attract people to come back. They asked questions about longings and losses:  

1. What have you lost in the last year? What are you missing?

2. What are you afraid of or concerned about right now?

3. What would you love to be able to do?

4. What’s one thing you are longing for, for yourself?

5. What are you longing for, for your friends and family?

Based on what they learned in this “deeper listening” exercise, they conceived and planned experiments with the input and insights of their fellow Thriving Congregations church leaders.  

Re-Invention vs. Innovation

Vibrant Faith Coach Jim Merhaut wrote our Catalyst research piece a couple of weeks ago about the power of re-invention vs innovation. You can to read it here.  In the spirit of re-invention, our three Thriving Congregations churches meeting in Floresville looked closely at the Christian practices of their church and chose one to re-invent, based on insights from their listening process. The places they landed for their experiments were widely diverse—from playing with developing a new online sermon format, to dinner gatherings for church and community, to developing a new congregational celebration. They heard people’s desire for connection in their listening, and decided to explore new ways to meet that longing. Going forward they will intentionally focus on moving relationships in their congregations from superficial to formative. And they will do that by re-inventing something they are already doing, rather than trying to create something new.  

The Difference a Coach Makes

These three Methodist churches were ready to experiment because of their year-long relationship with one another and their coach, Tanya Campen. Tanya helped them build a foundation for planning, and shepherded their connections with each other, leading to deeper and more sustaining relationships. A coach asks questions about what is blocking progress and helps a ministry team get unstuck.  Tanya’s expertise is to put “skin” on the skeleton of the idea the church team has developed, and target dates for execution.  

We’re very excited to see what God will do with these congregational experiments—we’ll share the stories of these experiments from our 29 Thriving Congregations Project churches in the coming months. 

In the meantime, have YOU ever thought about pursuing Coaching training?  Vibrant Faith’s Coaching School is now accredited by the International Coaching Federation, and we have a growing number of coaches who have been certified.  We are so proud of them and their work. Vibrant Faith launched our coaching school because we know from our own experience that the kinds of changes that churches need to thrive today happen best in the partnership between a leader and a coach. We’d love to help you learn how to be that coach for your fellow children’s or youth ministers, or senior pastors. For more info about our 2022 coaching schools, contact Jim LaDoux at jladoux@ vibrantfaith.org

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Nashville with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.

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