New tools add punch to vital congregations


(UMNS) With Advent approaching, United Methodist congregations are seeking new ways to attract visitors who will connect with the church — and stay after Christmas.
A Wichita, Kan., congregation tried something new last year, and the Rev. Nathan Stanton is still excited about the results.
Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church, where Stanton is senior pastor, was part of a pilot for the Innovative Leadership Project, created by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. The project encourages congregations to use a new process to determine the best way to become vital, stay vital or increase vitality.
One aspect of the project is a goal-setting tool based on values, assets and process called VAP-IT, which stands for Values, Assets, Process-Initiate, Test. It was a hit at Pleasant Valley.
“We used the VAP-IT process to increase the quality of our Advent season as a time to prepare our church to provide an excellent set of Christmas Eve services with the hopes of inspiring folks to reconnect with Pleasant Valley the following month,” Stanton said.
“We tried to focus on the idea that people did not have to return to worship but that they also could connect to the church through various other opportunities — a financial-management class, children’s and youth activities, and adult Sunday school and small groups.”
Stanton said about 110 visitors came to the church during the 2010 Advent season and five to 10 people returned to take advantage of other options.

‘What should we do differently next time?’
He appreciates that Innovative Leadership also encourages teamwork and emphasizes process rather than stressing individual contributions.
“One of the encouraging parts of the VAP-IT process is its focus on process and strategy to move the church or the team away from loading responsibility on one person,” said Stanton, whose 600-member congregation is in an urban area that is half Hispanic and half Anglo.
“Too many times,” he added, when something doesn’t go as anticipated, “we look for a scapegoat instead of looking at the process. What did we do? What should we do differently next time?”

It all boils down to a spiritual process — being the church first, Stanton said.
“We’ve incorporated a style of ministry that draws on spiritual growth as teams, as well as processes that allow us to think through our values, our resources and the best possible processes to create fruit for the kingdom.”
The Council of Bishops’ Call to Action urges United Methodists as a church to “redirect the flow of attention, energy and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

In development during the past three years, the project was tested in churches in Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Riverside, Calif.; and Wichita.

Inviting people into relationship with Christ
The first annual (regional) conference to adopt the project is Tennessee, which launched it this month.

“The Innovative Leadership Project is a breath of fresh air as it charts a course for equipping and empowering congregations to expand and revitalize ministries,” said Bettye P. Lewis, connectional ministries director for the conference.

According to Lewis, the project — designed for local church teams of clergy and laity — “explores spiritual/theological foundations, enhances leadership development and designs a discipleship system for church vitality,” she said.
How does one define a vital congregation?
Vital congregations have a clear mission and vision, practice corporate and individual spiritual disciplines, and share clergy and lay leadership, said MaryJane Pierce Norton, leadership ministries executive at the Board of Discipleship. “Vital congregations nurture growth in discipleship through mutual support and accountability, and they cultivate intentional and mutual relationships with the most vulnerable – the poor, children, the imprisoned, the powerless.”
Pierce Norton said a vital congregation consistently invites people into relationship with Jesus Christ.

Developed by Craig Kennet Miller, who heads pastoral leadership at the board, the Innovative Leadership Project is available to groups of churches or individual congregations. A new round of training launched on Nov. 5, but participating churches can set their own schedule for the seven-month training period.

Leading, believing, belonging, behaving
“Part of the idea of the Innovative Leadership Project is that you participate in four seminars over the course of the training period with your church team, and you do that with other churches,” Miller said. The Tennessee Conference is developing a strategy to invite churches to participate in the project and to provide seminars for participating churches.
“They see this as a way for their conference to respond to the Call to Action,” he added.
The Innovative Leadership Project is designed for churches in a district, cluster or city to gather for the seminars and learn together. Between the seminars, church teams and individuals work on assignments with the goal of developing and improving ministry areas in the congregation.
“Each project team of five to 10 people should include the lead pastor, staff related to the overall program of the church and key laity who have influence in the congregation,” Miller said. To develop effective strategies, teams focus on specific congregational systems grouped under four areas of congregational life — leading, believing, belonging and behaving.
The church leadership team uses a series of tools to develop their spiritual life, learn about their congregation, discover the context of their community and launch new ministries. In the final seminar, the team identifies three congregational systems on which to focus in the first six months to a year.

With each church’s $300 registration, all materials are provided in a kit, including 10 guidebooks, a USB flash drive with the presentation material for four seminars, tools to reproduce for church leaders and three GodFilms videos, which are used in the seminars.
The board offers webinars throughout the year to train people to lead the seminars. A complete overview of the program is available online at
*Gillem is a Brentwood, Tenn.,-based freelance writer for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or