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Pastors hopeful for church’s future

Overheard at Vital Congregations facilitator training: ‘Church and denomination are in good hands’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Coloring books on the Seven Marks were sent out to Vital Congregations facilitator training participants. (Screen shot)

LOUISVILLE — After the first day of the Vital Congregations virtual facilitator training last week, the Rev. Neil Ricketts spoke with elders at the church he serves.

“I told them that we — our church — and denomination are in good hands,” he said. “How we had heard from God and were implementing a plan for a healthy vital church.”

Ricketts, pastor at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Apopka, Florida, was one of more than 40 people being trained to help facilitate the two-year Vital Congregations Initiative in their respective presbyteries.

The initiative helps congregations build authentic relationships of faith as they work together on Seven Marks of Congregation Vitality. As congregations assess both their strengths and areas that need work, they begin to discern what God’s Spirit is calling them to do — and faithfully join Christ in the new thing, or change, that’s taking place.

Ricketts said the seven marks are core values for healthy congregations. As he heard more about how Vital Congregations is tied to the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation for  churches to strengthen congregational vitality and reduce racism and poverty, he got even more hopeful about the future of the PC(USA).

“We can address these issues that are troubling the world and our country. We’ve studied the Word and heard from the Spirit,” he said. “God loves justice.”

The Rev. Carla Jones Brown, pastor and head of staff at Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, was impressed with how well the online facilitator training went. She especially liked getting into small groups — and doing a case study of a church around one of the seven marks.

“It made you feel like you weren’t lost on the screen all day,” she said. “It was so practical and nice to have different geographical perspectives on how one might lead them — and what questions they’d ask.”

The Rev. Tamara Leonard Lara of Nuevo Camino at Beth-El in the Presbytery of Tampa Bay appreciated that the facilitator training lifted up voices traditionally not listened to and recognized the diversity of gifts in a faithful community. Nuevo Camino, a new worshiping community in Wimauma, Florida, is made up of migrant agricultural workers and immigrants who have a deep need to access materials in Spanish and English to support leadership training for all church members.

“The VC process is providing me helpful tools to use,” she said. “I am hopeful about leaders within my presbytery meeting together to share what we are learning within our own congregations and ministry sites.”

The Rev. Kymberley Clemons-Jones, a pastor in the Presbytery of Long Island, said the Vital Congregations training gave her insight in how to engage adult learners. (Contributed photo)

The Rev. Kymberley Clemons-Jones, pastor of Valley Stream Presbyterian Church in Valley Stream, New York, said she feels better equipped after the two-day training to engage congregations in taking a deep look at themselves  as the church, discerning God’s plan for their lives as a community of faith.

Hearing what it takes to engage the adult learner from Dr. Phyllis Sanders was extremely helpful for Clemons-Jones — especially when the Vital Congregations coordinator for Trinity Presbytery said that “adult learners want to use what they hear.”

“That was eye-opening for me,” Clemons-Jones said. “In all my years of teaching I never learned specifically how to teach adults.”

She too finds herself hopeful of what the VC process will help churches accomplish. She said the many resources provided and the thorough and supportive staff leave her feeling like she can work at her best, knowing she can contact them with any additional questions or ideas.

As Brown participated in Zoom worship during the training, she said she realized how much she missed worshiping — without having to lead it.  As she facilitates VC training in her presbytery, she plans to provide pastors with the same opportunity that she received — to be in worship together without the responsibilities of leadership.

“We didn’t do this over the two days of training, but I just love that Vital Congregations sends out coloring books around the seven marks,” she said. “To just play with different colors helps my brain out — to be open, to let the Spirit in and try to not control.”

The Rev. Neil Ricketts, a pastor in central Florida, said he has a new sense of hope for his church and the denomination after going through the Vital Congregations facilitator training. (Contributed photo)

Ricketts said that Vital Congregations is addressing the denomination’s membership decline by getting back to the values of the early church: discipleship, evangelism and outreach, and the raising up of Christ-centered disciples.

“I can’t think of anything more valuable to give my life to,” he said.

The Vital Congregations coordinator, the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, said VC staff could not have asked for the virtual training to go any better than it did. Grateful for the leadership of their special guests, coaches and Vital Congregations staff, she said each worked hard to train the facilitators for their role in the VC process.

“Each facilitator brought their own unique strengths and voices to the training,” she said. “God has called each of them, and we’re grateful. We look forward to the ministry of becoming a more vital church together in Jesus Christ.”

Listed below are the presbyteries that participated in the facilitator training, part of the second wave of the Vital Congregations Initiative:
Central Florida


Long Island

Los Ranchos


New Brunswick


San Joaquin

Santa Fe

Southwest Puerto Rico

Tampa Bay

Western Kentucky

 Additionally, a few new facilitators from the first wave of Vital Congregations presbyteries participated in the training.

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

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