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Three presbyteries finish up Vital Congregations initiative pilot program


Church leaders give PC(USA)’s revitalization process solid reviews

February 21, 2020

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Boles has seen the PC(USA)’s Vital Congregations Initiative help pastors and churches in San Jose Presbytery pay attention to what God is already doing in their churches and neighborhoods. (Photo courtesy of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California)

Three presbyteries — Trinity, Newark and San Jose — have finished up a pilot program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Vital Congregations initiative’s two-year revitalization process.

The Presbyterian Mission Agency initiative led by Vital Congregations coordinator the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill prayerfully walks with pastors and congregations through intentional efforts of revitalization by focusing on these 7 Marks of Congregational Vitality: lifelong discipleship formation; intentional, authentic evangelism; outward incarnational focus; empower servant leadership; spirit-inspired worship; caring relationships; and ecclesial health.

In the Presbytery of San Jose, the 10 congregations in the VC pilot have a few months left in the revitalization process. For the presbytery’s VC coordinator, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Boles, it’s been a delight seeing 15 pastors representing 13 churches meeting in monthly cohort groups.

“It feels like gold, because relationships are being strengthened and ideas are being shared,” she said. “It has created such good energy in both the presbytery and its churches.”

At Trinity Presbytery in South Carolina, 10 of the presbytery’s 61 churches went through the pilot VC initiative. The first launch was so successful that they held an orientation in October for another 10 churches interested in going through the second wave of the revitalization process. At that gathering, pastors of the churches who had gone through the initiative became table facilitators, sharing both their successes and struggles in going through the intentional revitalization efforts.

According to Trinity VC coordinator Dr. Phyllis Sanders, the pastors who have already been through the pilot program will continue to meet quarterly in their cohort groups to discuss ways that they’re continuing to live out the seven marks of congregational vitality.

“Otherwise it becomes a one-shot deal, like a project, rather than a continuing process of transformation, ” said Trinity’s general presbyter, the Rev. Danny C. Murphy.

For Boles, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California, the richness of the VC process is what makes it so meaningful to participating churches. After the first year, the initiative encourages churches to celebrate their history — which Covenant did, taking files from 70 years of life together and laying them out in a missional timeline.

“It was so much fun and so positive for the congregation,” she said. “We left it up for a month.”

For other churches in the presbytery Boles heard from, both celebrating their history and also being encouraged to do a prayer walk in their neighborhood helped create a new sense of purpose and meaning.

One of the final steps during the second year of the initiative is taking the U.S. Congregational Life Survey to help each congregation assess how they’re doing in each of the marks.

Sanders has seen how helpful this is in helping churches continue to explore their strengths while working on areas that need attention. For example, McGregor Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, has been working on “intentional, authentic evangelism,” which was its lowest-scoring mark.

“And now they’re beginning to restructure what they do around all the marks,” Sanders said.

At Newark Presbytery the Rev. Dr. Barbara Smith, transitional director of presbytery ministries, says going through the VC pilot initiative was “a win for them.” When the churches started the revitalization process, she admits that the presbytery wasn’t in a good place. But because of the pastor cohort group they are doing much better.

“Which in our context is just as valuable as what has happened in the other pilot presbyteries,” she said.

Boles said one thing the Vital Congregations revitalization process does is raise awareness of what God is already doing — and for congregations to enter into that.

“It’s raised all of our awareness,” she said. “Members of our presbytery who aren’t in the pastor cohort groups are learning about the things we’re talking about — and you begin to see the ripple effects.”

Threadgill is grateful for the faithful work done by the three pilot presbyteries on behalf of the PC(USA) and the initiative.

“I want to acknowledge the significance of their pioneer work for the denomination,” she said. “By boldly doing their work, through the Spirit’s power, they are bringing about transformation and revitalization within their congregations today. This is a great celebration to us all.”

Paul Seebeck, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Vital Congregations Initiative Pilot Program

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Margo Szabunia, Office of the General Assembly
Joe Tackett, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Gracious God, you have blessed us to be a blessing to others. In seeking to care for others, we care for ourselves. In seeking to feed the hungry, we feed ourselves. In seeking to share our blessings, we are reconciled to become the church you created us to be. Open our hearts that we may respond always in the love of Christ. Amen.

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