March 8, 2017

A vital conversation

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

Stan Dueck grew up in the Mennonite Brethren Church in central California before finding his way to the Church of the Brethren. Now director of transforming practices for the Church of the Brethren, he has a passion for helping congregations realize their potential. He was instrumental in creating the Vital Ministry Journey (VMJ) for congregations seeking renewal. Recently he sat down with Walt Wiltschek to talk about congregational revitalization efforts that excite him—and offer continued hope for the church.

What sparked your interest in this field?

When I was in college, a professor said, “You’re a member at Zion Mennonite Brethren Church, aren’t you? Are those five men still running the church?” He had done his master’s thesis on that congregation. Those things spark an interest in how churches function, looking at the systems dynamic and the family relational systems that are alive and well in Mennonite and Church of the Brethren cultures. When [my wife] Julie and I got married, we went to a congregation that had gone through a devastating split and decline. They hired a missionary who had a PhD in anthropology, and he helped rebuild the congregation from 30-some people to 150. It grew steadily and planted four churches. It confirmed for me the capacity of congregations is much greater than we imagine it to be.

We limit ourselves. We put ourselves in boxes, and we put our congregations in boxes, especially if they’re family churches. We have a hard time separating the values of our core families from the values of the church.

Those events were significant in sparking my interest. Since then I’ve had training in congregational development and my interest in organizational management and systems has been part of it.

Where did the idea for Vital Ministry Journey originate?

It started out of a conversation with Dave Steele [now general secretary of the Church of the Brethren], when he was district executive of Middle Pennsylvania, about a different approach to congregational vitality. But the first congregation that used VMJ was Newport, in Shenandoah District. Duane Painter, the pastor, was a leader in the church at the time. The draft proposal was still on sheets of paper when I got a call.

Duane said, “We’re going through some changes.”

I said, “Hey, do you want to try something new?”

Many said, “This will never work,” but 60 percent of their church participated in small groups. Just as many showed up for the follow-up gathering. They had involved kids down to middle school, and we had a “Keys to Congregational Vitality” session with lots of conversation. They talked about where they were going, what their future was— it was very encouraging for them and me as well.

After that, Duane asked the leadership to follow through on key themes. They had people who would sit at the back of the congregation. Some leaders became intentional about connecting with these people. That hospitality and friendship resulted in people bringing their friends.

Both men’s and women’s groups were doing creative and energizing ministries for the church and community, and in a matter of time they were growing and started new outreach ministries. So they had some immediate success, and Duane became a real advocate for Vital Ministry Journey. It’s taken on its own life. Over a hundred congregations have participated in some form, everything from small-group gatherings, to listening/focus groups built around key questions, to interviews, to community forums. It’s more successful than I anticipated. It’s also been much more organic—which I think is very Anabaptist/Pietist—than I anticipated.

How would you define “vitality”?

To me vitality is a congregation that finds its spirit and voice in a way that brings out that God-giving life presence within the congregation, and it flows out to the community. Vitality is significantly tapped when they, in a deep spiritual way, connect to the Spirit of God. It changes the motivation to “what we’re called to do.”

When that sense of call is not our driving motivation, I don’t think we have vital congregations. And you see changes happen in congregations that become more aware of their community and needs. They make changes out of the sense that this is how we can best do ministry with the gifts we have. It’s a sense of who we are, but also a sense of God calling us in living beyond who we think we are, as well.

What leads congregations to look at this issue?

Some are at that point because of a change or a conflict, or they see themselves in a rut. It can be a change in pastoral ministry, or significant loss in terms of membership— maybe now we’re an older church feeling hopeless because typically growing churches have young families. But that’s a myth. According to the US Study of Congregational Life, two out of five growing congregations do not have a high level of children and youth involvement, and two out of five growing congregations are pastored by women. We live our life as congregations shaped by assumptions, and so part of this is conversations challenging assumptions about what it means to be the church.

What are some of the tools you use?

The core construct is built on reading scripture as a community, the model of Appreciative Inquiry, and work done by Richard Boyatzis, Anthony Jack, and Ann Weems on how people respond to change. Some people call it Appreciative Way. There’s a related model, SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results), helping congregations discern a spiritual strategic plan. Philosophically they connect well with the Church of the Brethren and our Anabaptist/Pietist sense.

Out of our theological framework there is a sense that by a really empowering presence of God’s Spirit we as Christians have the capacity to do incredible things. How can we build upon the strengths of who we are? How can this process challenge us to think about our strengths? How might we use them in new ways? How might we dream about being the church in more healthy, vital ways?

What difference does the Anabaptist/Pietist lens make in this process?

This is intentionally about involving and engaging the community. That’s why the small groups are so important. It’s much easier to change if you trust somebody. It’s much more difficult if there’s that reactionary fear—what am I going to lose out of this change? Or what do I need to fight against in this change?

Building those relationships and having conversations in safe places is important. Out of those small groups, trust begins to surface and build. You can build a dynamic from there that can create the change in positive directions for a congregation versus somebody saying, “This is what you need to do.” If they begin to sense it themselves, then they’re open to it.

How long does it take a congregation to move through this journey?

It’s not intended to end, just as our discipleship is an ongoing process. We want congregations to see themselves on a vital ministry journey of discernment and discipleship. So it’s an ongoing process—not just, “We’ll do this thing for six or twelve months,” and it comes to the end and we say, “OK, we checked this off.”

Congregations have done multiple small groups, surveys, retreats, follow-up processes, and other things. It’s not one-size-fits-all. Some congregations are producing materials, creating resources out of their experiences. It’s evolving as an organic process that lives out of the vision of what it means to be the Church of the Brethren.

How do you know it’s been successful?

There are always going to be churches where it doesn’t click. But are leaders beginning to help the congregation wrestle with assumptions, ask different questions, and implement ministries that move them into the community?

A congregation in Maryland went through the process. The question that kept coming up was: Did the church make the right decision 30 or 40 years ago by staying in its current location? Had God called them to be there, and what did that mean for them as a church? Part of that was this feeling that they were indeed to be there. It had an impact on their call of pastoral leadership. If the church is committed to staying, then what might it mean for the type of leadership they need, what they are able to do as pastoral leaders?

Another congregation has done creative things and built ministries that have reached out into the community. From that the congregation has grown by 30 percent over the last few years.

Is there a deepening spirituality within the congregation? Is there growing hospitality, not just to each other but how does that extend out in mission? Is there a sense of multiplication: “Are we here to multiply disciples? What does that mean in terms of who we are and how we function?”

Are small groups or other ways that people relate to each other multiplying? You see that people want to be together, enter relationships and friendships, draw closer, mature in their own spiritual walk but do it with others, as well. Those are signs of multiplication that I’m looking for.

You’re trying to help the congregation build new habits and practices—saying you’ll change is easy, but actually doing it is difficult. You start by changing some of the patterns and practices, and that begins to reshape the thinking, and then the thinking reshapes the values, beliefs, and culture so that it becomes internalized.

What else should people know?

We don’t want congregations to do Vital Ministry Journey just to do it, but to go into it with the idea of: “What is the critical question or key outcome that we want to realize as a church and that we sense God calling us to live into at this time?” I think that’s important to stress—at this time. It’s not a once-and-done deal, but God is continually calling us to be and to do something. You don’t need 100 percent approval. You just need a critical mass of people who have the capacity to move the congregation into a positive direction.

How do we call people out and use their gifts in service for both the church and the world, as living instruments of God’s kingdom? We want people ultimately to see themselves in that disciple-forming cycle of gathering, calling, forming, and sending.

Walt Wiltschek, a former editor of Messenger, is news editor for the Mennonite Church USA.