Finding vitality and resilience in the wilderness

Only days left to register for the online Vital Congregations gathering

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Pastors Phil Brown (far left) and Brian Coulter (middle) with the Vital Congregations team, from left, Kathryn Threadgill, Monique Rhodes and Carlton Johnson, at last year’s VC gathering. (Photo courtesy of Vital Congregations)

LOUISVILLE — The registration deadline is Monday for the 2020 Vital Congregations annual gathering, being held via Zoom August 18-20.

The gathering is for church and presbytery leaders who have completed, are in the midst of completing or are interested in going through the Vital Congregations initiative. The VC process helps congregations discern what God’s Spirit is calling them to do next as they work through the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality.

Originally scheduled in April in Austin, Texas, the online gathering will feature:

For the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, one of the most exciting things about the gathering is that even though content for the online gathering was condensed, everything organizers had planned to do during the spring gathering in Austin will still be a part of this month’s event.

As coordinator of the Office of Vital Congregations, she said that “just like our churches, our VC team is having to adapt and change.”

Even though things don’t look like they were originally envisioned, the Rev. Carlton Johnson, associate for Vital Congregations, said team members are experiencing God’s grace — the grace that comes from seeing people willing to experience their events online.

“Because it’s actually working and literally still happening, God’s grace is present,” Johnson said.

Dr. William P. Brown

For Brown, who is leading Bible study, that grace comes in unexpected places throughout Scripture. He plans on taking those attending the online gathering on a journey into the wilderness with the Israelites in Exodus and Numbers, which describes a people who spent 40 years wandering in the desert. Brown said he believes wilderness is the best biblical image to describe the twin pandemics with which we’re currently living, COVID-19 and racial injustice.

“The polarities that are played out so dramatically in these wilderness stories are being played out today in the church and in American society,” he said.

The wilderness, of course, poses great and extreme challenges. But even in the pain there are miracles. There’s disease and healing, and instruction coupled with the wandering people’s unwillingness to follow it. The best word to describe that rejection of instruction, Brown said, is intransigence.

And while the wilderness is full of testing and disobedience, Brown said it’s where leadership is cultivated in what he described as “a crucible of conflict.”

“Virtues of patience and openness to God’s leading and creativity come in the wilderness,” he said.

The Israelites’ greatest technological achievement, the tabernacle, occurs in the wilderness. Brown said the challenge for us — just as it was for the Israelites — is how to find vitality in the midst of life during a pandemic.

Dr. Tod Bolsinger

By mid-March, Bolsinger, the keynoter, had been forced to cancel 15 in-person speaking engagements. Since then he’s had 40 webinars, which he never dreamed would happen when Covid-19 first hit.

“The biggest challenge leaders face is not the external challenge, but the internal resistance to it,” Bolsinger said.

When church leaders had to move their Easter services online, they told Bolsinger it was the hardest thing they’d ever had to think about. He said leaders have learned that while there are advantages to being face-to-face, digital spaces can create opportunities for deeper learning.

During his two sessions with the VC gathering, Bolsinger said he plans to confront that internal resistance to the great external challenges leaders face — and then help them form resilience to face that resistance.

Monique Rhodes, mission specialist for Vital Congregations, said the VC team is looking forward to connecting with those who have been through, are in the process of, or just beginning the Vital Congregations work.

“We’re all being asked to pivot, at both the local and national level, so it will be good to discuss the changes we’re dealing with,” she said, “and how we can support in the long haul our congregations that had needs before COVID-19. They may look very different.”

Threadgill describes the online VC gathering as a space where people can walk together through this transformative time, learning what church is going to look like — and then moving into a yet-unknown future together.

 Register for the 2020 Vital Congregations gathering here.  

 Vital Congregations is part of Theology, Formation & Evangelism Ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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