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Presbytery of Greater Atlanta shows its marks of vitality

Eleven congregations participate in two-year Vital Congregations Initiative

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Katie Day, facilitator of VCI in the Presbytery of Atlanta, preaches on Isaiah. (Photos by Beth Waltemath)

In the midst of the Covid pandemic, when the efficacy of new vaccines was still unknown and many churches were not back to worshiping inside, the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, issued an invitation for congregations to join the Vital Congregations Initiative (VCI). The Rev. Katie Day, having accepted her call to Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth, Georgia, during the pandemic, remembers that her congregation was still worshiping in a parking lot and conducting meetings on Zoom.

“There was a Covid vaccine, but we weren’t sure how effective it would be or if people would even take it or if (no longer when) we would get back to normal, and there was a blurb in the presbytery newsletter to build up congregational vitality,” recalled Day, who remembers the juxtaposition of the invitation in the midst of the reality churches were facing. “How was … is God calling us into vitality and life when what we had just gone through and were still going through looked and felt like death?”

Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church was one of 12 congregations to answer “yes” to the invitation — one later dropped out — and Day signed up to be a facilitator for other leaders of participating churches along with Ruling Elder Ken Whitehurst of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.

The Many Hands liturgical arts ministry of North Decatur Presbyterian Church hung posters of the 7 Marks of Vital Congregations around the sanctuary for the Nov. 4 celebration.

On Nov. 4, the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta celebrated the culmination of their two-year process exploring the 7 Marks of Congregational Vitality. The last presbytery meeting of the year was hosted by North Decatur Presbyterian Church as a hybrid meeting of in-person and Zoom participants. The congregation’s Many Hands liturgical arts ministry had hung posters of the 7 Marks of Vital Congregations and created more than 200 paper flowers from recycled and dyed church bulletins for the occasion. Day preached a sermon on Isaiah 43:10-21, resonating with a context in which a people in exile were “living in despair, feeling cut off from their roots and disconnected from their source.”

In her executive presbyter’s report, Brooks-Johnson recognized the churches completing the process and thanked leaders like Day, Whitehurst and the Rev. Jane Hubbard, who led a small group of ruling elders from participating congregations as well as the Rev. Carlton Johnson, a member of the presbytery who also supports the Vital Congregations Initiative in his role at the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“We began with 12 congregations on the journey and finished with 11,” Brooks-Johnson said. “Each congregation has their own story of understanding how God may be inviting them to consider a new way forward or to let go of programs and practices that no longer fit with the mission of the church.”

These stories were shared throughout Saturday’s meeting in the form of testimonies by leaders who participated in the VCI process and the presbytery’s cohorts.

The Rev. Kristy Ray started VCI as the new pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church (the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson is at left).

“We found all the pieces that we were doing well and some that we could do better,” said the Rev. Kristy Ray, who, as a new pastor at Stockbridge Presbyterian Church, appreciated how the Vital Congregations process was a way for the church to figure out who they were and who they wanted to be together. VCI emphasizes prayer, which made the difference for Stockbridge. “Because of prayer, something happened,” said Ray, who recounted that the community was praying at the same time that some people from the outside came to the session of Stockbridge and asked to worship in their sanctuary on Sundays. Now, two other congregations, including a new church development through the PC(USA) called Transformation Covenant Church, worships on-site, and the three congregations share fellowship and service opportunities.

Stated Clerk the Rev. Andy James watches as the Rev. Isaac Toney-Schmitt testifies to VCI’s impact on Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.

The Rev. Isaac Toney-Schmitt of Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia, admits practical motives for joining the initiative. “It came from a desire to do a church-wide survey after the pandemic … and the survey was more cost-effective than the other options.” He appreciated how the process did not lead with a survey but with storytelling that allowed Mount Vernon to delve into its nearly 70-year history. “Because of the intentional, thoughtful storytelling work done prior to that survey, we were able to look at the results of that survey with excitement and hope.” The church updated their church tagline and are beginning a digital rebrand through what they learned about themselves through the VCI process.

While Day and Whitehurst led cohorts of pastors, ruling elders from the participating churches were invited to participate in a small group led by Hubbard, a presbytery staff member. Their group used the framework of the seven marks in the midst of a spiritual direction model using lectio divina and the work of Dr. William Brown on wonder as a sacred sense and invitation to vitality through reconciliation. “We are doing a new thing. And this cohort and walking with these elders in these churches has been a divine privilege,” said Hubbard.

The Rev. Jane Hubbard leads a cohort of ruling elders through the VCI process.

“The purpose of VCI was to keep our congregations engaged in what it means to be the church in an ever-changing and ever-evolving world,” said Brooks-Johnson, who added that the presbytery lifted up congregational vitality along with dismantling structural racism and eradicating poverty as part of its identity as a Matthew 25 presbytery. Brooks-Johnson encouraged the 100 people attending the meeting online and the 60 attending in person to register for the Matthew 25 Summit “here within the bounds of our presbytery” on Jan. 16-18, 2024. Brooks-Johnson also thanked New Life Presbyterian Church in Atlanta for hosting the keystone event.

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