Garrett-Evangelical News

Denominational Leaders, Congregational Developers and Professors Imagine More Highly Vital United Methodist Congregations


A small group discussion on the morning of day two
asked participants to name the characteristics
of leadership that we want to build, develop,
and nurture for vital congregations?  

EVANSTON, Illinois, June 2012 – Only six weeks after the 2012 General Conference, denominational leaders met to discuss theories, best practices and challenges for creating even more highly vital congregations in The United Methodist Church. The UM Vital Congregations Initiative held a conversation on the campus of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on June 12-13. United Methodist bishops, pastors, laity, researchers, practitioners, leaders from various United Methodist boards and agencies and evangelism professors from some of the United Methodist theological schools came together for this significant conversation.

The divergent group of stakeholders, led by Vital Congregations team leader Bishop John Schol, discussed how the local church could 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 conversation stemmed from the adaptive challenge presented by the Call to Action Steering Team in 2010. Since its adoption by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table, the bishops and the Connectional Table have committed to a ten-year sustained effort to direct the flow of prayers, attention, energy and resources to increase the number of vital congregations in the denomination.  

“We were delighted to host this groundbreaking group where the very best of church plans continue to be shaped by quality research and conversation,” said Philip Amerson, president of Garrett-Evangelical. “It is clear other voices are needed at the table, but this was a remarkable gathering to bring together leaders in various capacities in our denomination to explore growing vital congregations.”

In 2010 the Call to Action Steering Team engaged Towers Watson, a professional services company that helps organizations improve performance, to identify the number of highly vital United Methodist congregations and what they do to achieve vitality. They found that fifteen percent of the United Methodist congregations in the United States were highly vital. Highly vital congregations are dynamic congregations that grow over time, involve more of their disciples in ministry, engage in the community and give generously to mission. To increase vitality, highly vital congregations strengthen worship, clergy leadership, lay leadership, and ministry, particularly small groups, mission engagement and children and youth ministries.

Six weeks earlier at General Conference, the denomination celebrated the goals of 79 conferences toward growing vital congregations, which included goals set by 73 percent of the congregations in the United States. “The conversations among United Methodist circles in the current climate of declining numbers has often and too easily relied on blaming others for our challenges,” said Amy Valdez-Barker, project manager of the Vital Congregations Initiative. “It is time to work together across generations and differences to engage in vital witness and mission in our communities.”

Participants shared the importance of discovering and communicating our common identity as United Methodists. They also agreed that the development and sharing of tools, resources and best practices for the multitude of contexts represented in United Methodist congregations will be critical as the denomination moves forward. “This is a great starting place,” said Greg Bergquist, the new Cal-Nevada Conference Superintendent in charge of Leadership Development. “You can count us in! We would love to participate in the group that wants to be explorers in this Vital Congregations Expedition.”

The Vital Congregations Initiative will continue to be overseen by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. The goal to double the number of highly vital congregations in the United States is supported through the recent goal-setting by congregations and conferences. A group of conferences willing to explore and experiment with growing and sustaining more congregations will be organized later this year as part of the next step of growing the number of vital congregations. To learn more, go to  

Garrett-Evangelical, founded in 1853, is a graduate school of theology related to The United Methodist Church.  Located on the campus of Northwestern University, the seminary serves more than 500 students from many denominations and cultural backgrounds, fostering an atmosphere of ecumenical interaction.  Garrett-Evangelical creates bold leaders through master of divinity, master of arts, master of theological studies, doctor of philosophy and doctor of ministry degrees. Its 4,500 living alumni serve church and society around the world.

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New Certification Will Lift Up Best Practices

Vicki Brown, GBHEM

image001Certification for collegiate ministry will lift up best practices with a vital ministry that differs in key ways from local church work, according to campus ministers, agency staff, and seminary administrators.

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Board of Directors approved a certification track for certifying those working in collegiate ministries at the March meeting in Nashville, Tenn., and several United Methodist theological schools are already working on course offerings that will fulfill the educational requirements.

“With so much talk about vital congregations, it's easy to forget that not all of our vital congregations come in the form of a traditional church with steeple. Some of those vibrant communities are our campus ministries,” said Narcie Jeter, campus minister at Winthrop University, who will be moving to the Gator Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida this summer.

The Rev. Bridgette Young Ross, GBHEM’s assistant general secretary for Campus Ministry and College Chaplaincy, agreed.

“More than ever, we need those in ministry with college and university students to have a calling and a passion for this particular work. A certification in collegiate ministry will empower them with a skill set and affirmation from the church that this is a ministry of vital importance which requires specific core competencies,” Young Ross said.

Jeter added that campus ministers have to be radical in their hospitality and in their evangelism and outreach on campus and in the community. “If the ministry does not continue to be one that is visible in the campus community, then it's not on the students' radar and is irrelevant in many ways,” Jeter said.

Certification will be helpful because campus ministers face challenges and struggles that can sometimes be completely different from those faced by a local church pastor, Jeter added. It also provides a professional credential that annual conferences and Boards of Higher Education and Campus Ministry and local campus ministry boards will be able to use to select trained candidates who are passionate and invested in this ministry.

This certification will also be a chance to lift up the "best practices" in campus ministry as well as the opportunity to explore new trends, models, and methods. “Having an opportunity to share and learn from colleagues in our ministry area is crucial to the retention of campus ministers, to the spiritual health of our campus ministers, and to the overall strength of our United Methodist campus ministries,” Jeter said.

James A. Noseworthy, vice president for Administration and External Programming at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, said collegiate ministry is essential ministry of the church.

“During the college years, students often take a ‘sabbatical’ from traditional congregations. It also is a time when the students are reflecting on critical issues of faith and vocation. Our ministry with and among students is a witness to God’s presence and the love of Christ,” Noseworthy said, adding that ministry on campus engages students and faculty as they consider great and challenging ideas, ethical quandaries, and vocational options, and as they discover their vocation in God’s family.

More than 20 Garrett-Evangelical graduates are involved in full-time collegiate ministry, Noseworthy said, and four faculty members served as college chaplains or campus ministers. “We continue to equip clergy to understand young adult faith development and collegiate life though academic courses, continuing education, and internships,” he said.

He said Garrett will begin offering classes this fall for this certification, which further equips clergy and laity for successful collegiate ministry.

The Rev. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, chair of GBHEM’s Division of Higher Education and dean of the Theological School at Drew University, said many clergy who end up in campus ministry have never had training or taken any classes about ministry with young adults.

“The certification process will prepare those who think they have an interest in college ministry to gain the skills they need to do it well,” Kuan said. He said the courses will also be helpful to other denominations.

Kuan said he is in conversation with faculty now and hopes to launch collegiate ministry certification in spring of 2013.

Learn more about certification and see the new Collegiate Ministry information sheet (PDF)

*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

UMC Logo Garrett-Evangelical, a seminary related to
The United Methodist Church, welcomes
students from a wide range of faith traditions.