Study Finds Common Themes in Congregations Reaching Toward Vitality

NASHVILLE, Tenn. March 11, 2013 /Discipleship Ministries/ – A new study about how a group of United Methodist congregations successfully dealt with change says three key elements were almost always present: a pastor not afraid to lead, laity who will partner as a team with the pastor and a God-led purpose or vision.

Clergy and laity in leadership positions at 158 congregations, representing almost all of the denomination’s 59 U.S. annual conferences, were interviewed for the Toward Vitality Research Project, said Kim Shockley, the project’s team leader. The churches were identified by episcopal leaders and district superintendents as being among the U.S. congregations that are reaching toward vitality.

Successful change is most likely to occur if the vision or mission of the strong pastor and willing lay leaders partnership is developed from a “process of discernment and prayer that helps a congregation understand where God wants them to go,” Shockley said.

“If those three things are in place, then the outcomes seem to be a healthy, vital congregation that is growing, that is reaching new people because they have a sense of purpose about what they are,” she said.

Shockley likened the three elements of change to the three strands of cord described in Ecclesiastes 4:12: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” 

The project was funded and supported by Discipleship Ministries, General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), United Methodist Communications (UMCom) and General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) of The United Methodist Church.

“This research project, which identifies several themes used by a group of United Methodist Churches in the United States when dealing with change, is very informative,” said Karen Greenwaldt, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries. “These congregations take their own context into consideration when deciding how to handle the changes necessary to work toward vitality.”

A. Moses Rathan Kumar, General Secretary at GCFA said the Toward Vitality project “gives us an important and useful insight into what is happening to churches in the process of transformation.”

“We believe collaborative research is a necessary part of any denomination-wide effort toward increasing the number of highly vital congregations in The United Methodist Church,” Kumar said.

The Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of UMCom, said a consistent theme throughout the research is communication.

“Congregations who experienced renewal, regardless of the difficulties involved, made considerable effort to encourage conversation within the church about the vision for renewal,” Hollon said. “This resulted in a broad base of support because the need for change and the support for changing were transparent and mutually shared.”

Erin M. Hawkins, General Secretary of GCORR, said an “essential piece of congregational vitality is the ability of a congregation to reflect the world around it. That cannot be done without reaching more people, younger people and more diverse people.”

Local congregational leaders who had experienced a wide variety of changes were interviewed for the study. Some dealt with facility relocation, such as congregations that lost their buildings due to fire or flood or were strategically relocated as a result of community demographic shifts. Still other changes involved church mergers or the addition of new services, ministries or worship sites. All of the changes dramatically altered the dynamics of the individual congregations. The complete report:

In addition to Shockley of Castle Pines, Colo., the project team included the Rev. Tom Barlow of Denver; the Rev. Theresa Thames of Washington, D.C.; Liliana Peña Rangel of Garland, Texas; the Rev. Beth Estock of Portland, Ore., and Mark McCormack of Nashville.

The researchers sought to learn about how the congregations dealt with obstacles to change.

“I think that one of the most valuable pieces of this process is understanding how to overcome obstacles from on-the-ground churches that have done it,” Shockley said. “There were some specifics to individual cases. But for the most part, the obstacles – no matter what they were – were overcome by very good communication practices:  Good listening, opportunities for discussion and keeping a mature level of leadership that wasn't distracted by other people's fears. That is done by sharing leadership power between clergy and laity.”

The project’s final report says the role of the clergy in these transformational ministries focused on communication, empowering staff and laity, conflict resolution and helping to create and maintain a new understanding of “church.”

A key element in the revitalized ministries that were occurring in many of the congregations specifically involved “clergy sharing leadership power, with the intent of empowering laity to serve in new and authentic ways,” the study says. “This was a very real, fundamental change to the way these churches understood the purpose of church in relation to the world. The tasks of ministry done previously by the clergy (as proxies, perhaps, for the people of the church) became tasks that laity were invited to do themselves.”

During periods of change, successful laypeople “knew what was expected of their leadership and were willing to do their best in the situations,” according to the study.

“This often meant that they were capable of holding the tension of the change process by keeping other church members informed, consistently interpreting, communicating and casting the vision of the body for their peers,” the study says.

Shockley will present findings from the study in a free webinar, “Moving Your Church Toward Vitality,” at 6:30 p.m. CDT on Thursday, March 14. For more information and to register, go to

Categories: Press Center, 2013 News