By Lucas Kauffman
The Church of the Brethren Congregational Life Ministries started the Vital Ministry Journey in 2011. According to Jonathan Shively, executive director of Congregational Life Ministries, the initiative started with a conversation between Congregational Life staff and Middle Pennsylvania District executive David Steele. Shively and Stan Dueck, director of Transforming Practices, had conversations with Steele about how to find a way to work with different congregations to solve problems proactively.
Vital Ministry Journey is designed to uniquely fit each congregation. It begins with a 60-day, 6-session Bible study for small groups within a congregation, for everyone from youth to adults. Congregational Life provides the Bible sessions in a lectio divina format, with a series of study questions and time for sharing and prayer. Each small group agrees to covenants and guidelines for respectful communication. Communication is carried out through a style of mutual invitation, in which everyone is invited to participate.
Every small group has a facilitator. Every congregation is coached by a district coach or staff of Congregational Life Ministries. The Vital Ministry Journey experience for each congregation begins with a kick-off event, and ends with a celebration. The celebration also is a way to hear feedback from each small group.
The Vital Ministry Journey helps support congregations in a more identifiable way in their respective districts. It helps people within congregations strengthen relationships, and also helps congregations think about their life and mission both within the congregation and in the community. The Vital Ministry Journey may, in addition, help a congregation identify members’ passions, interests, and energy.
More than 60 congregations have completed, or have started the first step of the journey.
“We wanted to find a process that fit all kinds of congregations,” said Shively. “Each congregation will have its own different outcomes.”
Resources developing out of Vital Ministry Journey
There are several things that the Vital Ministry can be used for, including looking at a congregation’s mission, discovery, and affirmation. The process also takes a look at the question of what God is doing in the congregation, and in the world. Several resources are planned by Congregational Life staff, to be developed as part of the Vital Ministry Journey. “There are stewardship and evangelical resources, as well as worship resources being planned,” said Shively.
A related resource is the new spiritual gifts resource Congregational Life is now offering to congregations, see www.brethren.org/news/2014/congregational-life-offers-spiritual-gifts-resource.html . The spiritual gifts resource can be used as a next step in the Vital Ministry Journey, or as another alternative to the Vital Ministry Journey. It is one of a “tool kit of resources,” said Shively. “Congregations can pick different resources. The resources are not dependent on each other.”
A congregational survey is a part of that tool kit. “The survey helps look at marks of vital congregations,” said Shively. “It helps congregations take a more intentional look at their life together, and look at strengths, as well as areas that they could improve.”
Response from congregations and districts
More than 60 congregations have completed, or have started the first step of the journey. Five districts have partnered with Congregational Life Ministries to offer the Vital Ministry Journey to congregations, and individual congregations in three other districts have participated.
“The response to the Vital Ministry Journey has mostly been positive,” said Shively. “Creating a focus on relationships has been positive, and having a focus on scripture is powerful for people. There is also a sense of energy that comes from congregations that have been through this. Congregations want to do something further, like continue Bible studies, some churches want to have more of a presence within their own community, churches want to continue building relationships with people, they look at their structures and worship and some churches look at their visioning processes.”
Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill., is one congregation that recently started on the Vital Ministry Journey. The congregation went through the small group study in the fall of 2013.
Jeanne Davies, associate pastor, said that the Highland Avenue Church went through the process because it wanted to look at the mission of the congregation. “There was a new program available from the Congregational Life Office, and we wanted to give it a try,’ she said.
According to Davies, people at Highland Avenue loved it. “People have said that they want to continue the small group Bible study,” she said. “We tried to form groups of people who really did not know each other, and that helped people get to know each other better.”
Right now, Highland Avenue is still in the process of putting together all the feedback from the Vital Ministry Journey. “We had a big celebration in December with discussion, and some groups gave their own reports,” said Davies. “Everything is being put together in a document, which is being reviewed by the church board.”
Davies recommends the Vital Ministry Journey to other congregations as “both a scripture-centered process and a discernment process, which is great. It helps invite the Holy Spirit in, and it helps the community to have a voice, with the small group format. It definitely helped strengthen relationships among people.
“I am excited to see where this process leads, and to see the next step in the process,” she said.
One reason that the Vital Ministry Journey has been so well received, according to Shively, is because of the partnership with the districts. “We listen well to both districts and congregations,” said Shively. ”I am pleasantly surprised at how well this has turned out,” he said. “I did not know how it would go in the beginning.”
For more information and resources
The Vital Ministry Journey resources are provided by Congregational Life Ministries and available to order from Brethren Press. For more information about the Vital Ministry Journey, go to www.brethren.org/congregationallife/vmj/about.html . To purchase materials from Brethren Press, go to www.brethrenpress.com or call 800-441-3712.
— Lucas Kauffman in a student at Manchester University and recently completed a January term internship with the Church of the Brethren News Services.