(United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.): The Call to Action Steering Team has released the findings of independent research commissioned by the committee regarding congregational vitality and an operational assessment of the connectional church, and invites others to review the research and provide comments and ideas.
The steering team reviewed the two reports at their June meeting, and will be further examining the implications of the data as they work toward formulating recommendations to be presented to the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table in November.
“We will be using that information to fashion and forward recommendations about how The United Methodist Church should organize, the role of its leaders, and the kinds of processes we should use to fulfill our mission,” said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, steering team chair.
Comprehensive research was conducted on data from various sources in order to gain information about the factors that lead to congregations being more vital as evidenced by attendance, growth and engagement. The process included interviews with stakeholders across The United Methodist Church, group meetings, and surveys targeted at different stakeholder groups. In addition, data on attendance, growth, and engagement from over 32,000 churches in North America was analyzed.
The highly reliable statistical findings indicate that high vitality churches come in all sizes, ethnic representations, church settings, and geographies, but they consistently share some common factors that work together to influence congregational vitality.
Dynamic churches tend to have inspirational preaching, lots of small groups and programs including programs for children and youth, and a mix of both traditional and contemporary worship services including contemporary music and multi-media in contemporary services. Other factors include effective lay leaders, rotating lay leadership, more topical preaching in traditional services, pastors who work at developing and mentoring lay leaders, and length of pastoral appointment.
An essential finding of the research was that it’s the combination of factors that contribute to vitality, rather than any one or two.
“The most exciting thing about these findings is that they show that what is working for these churches can work for many churches, and we can deliver resources and support that lead to vitality for many more congregations,” said Bishop Palmer.
The four key drivers of vitality indicators were consistent regardless of church size, predominant ethnicity, and jurisdiction. However, in addition to these vitality indicators, some nuances by church size and jurisdiction were noted. For large churches, being representative of the community and having pastors who spend more time on preaching, planning and leading worship had a strong relationship with vitality.
In the South Central and Southeast jurisdictions, the length of tenure of the clergy as pastors had a relationship with vitality, while in the Northeast, pastors spending more time on personal devotion and worship had a strong relationship. In the Western jurisdiction, churches that are representative of the community and have pastor that leads in the context of the community have a higher association with vitality.
The second body of research was a system-wide operational assessment of the connectional church which looked at how the denomination is currently using people, money and processes at the district, annual conference and general church levels.
The report concludes that the church is “confronting a ‘creeping crisis of relevancy’ of both internal and external origin” and “although the crisis is being influenced by financial duress, it is not foremost a financial crisis.”
The study indicated some key areas where improvement is needed including:
• More clarity and understanding about the denomination’s mission, culture and values
• Less perceived organizational “distance” between and among the foundational units of the church
• Better defined leadership roles, responsibilities, and accountability; and improvements in trust
• More standardized management processes and reporting systems
• Utilizing opportunities for improved affordability and effectiveness
“It’s important that we align our culture, structures and processes in ways that support vitality in congregations,” said Palmer. “The findings confirmed that there are key areas that need improvement. The steering team and many others share a commitment to address these elements as we enter the next phases of our work.”
Both of the full reports are available for review at www.umc.org/ctaresearch, and readers can share observations and suggestions through the website.