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

June 24, 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