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Presidential Perspective: Vital Signs

Philip AmersonA biology class taken almost fifty years ago laid out four basic human vital signs: temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Recently, I wondered how good my memory was, so I did a little research and discovered I remembered correctly. However, just as I was giving myself an A+ in Vital Signs 101, I learned that other new “vital signs” have been added by modern medicine. Signs like pain, blood glucose or oxygen levels, pupil size, and an array of body chemistry tests are now included. The more we learn, the more we add to knowledge of the full range of indicators of health and vibrancy.

There is considerable interest today in the vital signs of congregations. In United Methodism we have the Vital Congregations Initiative. Jews are working with a program called Synagogue 3000. The Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Nazarene, Episcopalian, African Methodist Episcopal, Lutheran, and Free Methodist churches all have programs focusing on benchmarks or measures of vitality. A major ecumenical research effort is housed at Hartford Seminary. It is called Faith Communities Today, and I recommend it as an exceptional resource on congregational life (http://faithcommunitiestoday.org).

In June 2012, Garrett-Evangelical hosted an ecumenical gathering of top-level researchers and practitioners to join in conversation about the Vital Congregations Initiative in The United Methodist Church (www. umvitalcongregations.org). The divergent group of stakeholders, led by Bishop John Schol of the Baltimore- Washington Conference, discussed how local churches can connect with new mission fields. “We have some challenges,” said Schol. “We see this in some of our statistics, but we also see a bright future as we live out our vision as United Methodists to connect with new generations of believers and to grow highly vital congregations.” The Rev. Amy Valdez-Barker, a Ph.D. student at Garrett-Evangelical, serves as the national project manager of the Vital Congregations Initiative.

I came away from the meetings encouraged. It was good to see an ongoing and open process designed to learn from others across denominational and research lines. This initiative is proceeding in prayerful and theologically-grounded ways. Currently, the research looks at congregational vitality in terms of indicators like worship attendance, small group participation, multiple worship styles, local mission outreach, etc. It seeks to hold congregational leaders, clergy, and laity accountable for the health of their local church. I also chuckle a bit. I remember such collecting of data from my early days as a pastor. In fact, I remember my pastor father collecting such data in the 1950s. This has been going on for a long time. Today we have put the information on dashboards and can access it more quickly on our computers, but similar efforts were done in the past, except the data was collected in notebooks.

The danger of depending on such research and a few measures of vitality for a congregation is that the data collected may miss what is occurring in the context all around. What of the neighborhood, the ecology, the schools, the economy? What of the untapped gifts of the people in the neighborhood or in the pew? And, as a seminary leader, I know we should assess the quality, passion, and commitments of emerging leaders. If an agrarian expert were asked to evaluate a farm, that researcher would not limit the review to the size, color, or activities of the barn alone. The researcher would want to know about the soil, the water sources, the history of environmental care, and the potential for crop production or livestock in the future. One would need to know what kind of farmer would be needed and what preparation she or he should have for the future. I am simply calling for some “new” signs of vitality to be added to our list of congregational vital signs in 2012 and beyond.

For example, we at Garrett-Evangelical will be giving attention to what clergy and congregational leaders in various settings are discovering today. These front line practitioners have critical knowledge to share. Dr. John A. Rich, chair of the Department of Health Management at Drexel University, is a remarkable, Harvard-educated physician who graduated at the top of his class. Instead of seeking a career in a highly regarded position, he instead decided to work in programs that addressed basic and critical health care needs for poor, urban neighborhoods. Recently, when asked for one idea to improve health care in our communities, he replied simply, “Discover who in your neighborhood helps make it a healthier place and ask how will we honor them.”

I give thanks for the work of the Vital Congregations Initiative and for places like Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Even more, I give thanks for courageous clergy and lay leaders who serve in places that too often go unrecognized. Most of all, I give thanks for the rising generation of students who have accepted God’s call to serve Christ. It is remarkable to see them and hear their stories of faith and hope. For me, these future leaders are the most important vital signs of all. 

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