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Presbytery of Milwaukee helps congregations’ vitality to shine

November gathering celebrates the gifted areas of each of the presbytery’s 41 churches

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service 

The Rev. Anne Langhole and the Rev. Lisa Lynne Kirkpatrick preside over communion at the November meeting of the Presbytery of Milwaukee, which celebrated the completion of the Vital Congregations Initiative. (Contributed photo)

Last month, the Presbytery of Milwaukee celebrated the completion of a two-year focus on Congregational Vitality during its final standing meeting of 2023.

The presbytery, which meets four times each year, structured its meetings over a two-year period to highlight and investigate one of the Seven Marks as described in the Vital Congregations Initiative.

In between meetings, congregations were encouraged through grants, prompts, and videos provided by the presbytery to go deeper into how the congregations might show these marks. The Presbytery of Milwaukee took a similar approach to the three foci of the Matthew 25 Movement, spending a year discussing systemic poverty during presbytery meetings and another year learning about structural racism and efforts to dismantle it among congregations. For the third Matthew 25 foci — building congregational vitality — the presbytery’s council turned to the materials of the Vital Congregations Initiative and dedicated two years of its gatherings and resource development to cover the topics of caring relationships, lifelong discipleship, outward incarnational focus, empowered servant leadership, ecclesial health, Spirit-inspired worship, and intentional authentic evangelism.

Those attending the Presbytery of Milwaukee’s November gathering celebrated communion to mark the completion of the Vital Congregations Initiative. (Contributed photo)

The approach to the Vital Congregations Initiative has been untraditional according to the Rev. Ann Gibbs, Associate for Ministry Vitality for the Presbytery of Milwaukee, who says that instead of recruiting individual congregations to sign onto the initiative and to walk through the program together in leadership cohorts, the presbytery’s council “decided to do what was a two-year ‘vital marks’ initiative throughout the presbytery,” in the hopes that people would gain a better understanding of what the different marks mean and “different ways to engage them.”

To learn about the marks of Ecclesial Health and Empowered Servant Leadership, the presbytery hosted the Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger, who’s authored several books on ministry in times of challenge and change. Afterwards, some congregations applied for grant funds through the presbytery’s Commission on Congregational Vitality to host a book study on one of Bolsinger’s books. Congregations can apply to for grants on any of the marks and are encouraged to go deeper on each one.

To highlight the possibilities of each mark in various contexts, Gibbs interviews leaders from various churches on the theme of one of the marks and posts those videos to the presbytery’s YouTube channel and website as a resource and inspiration for others. “I’ve been really intentional,” said Gibbs of her video series, “I’ve not gone back to one congregation for a second mark story yet.” Yet, Gibbs has had no issues finding ways each of the 41 congregations in the presbytery embody vitality. “My goal is that always the person and the congregation shines and what they are working on comes across well,” Gibbs said in describing the 7-to-20-minute videos that populate the webpage dedicated to Congregational Vitality Resources. The page is easy to search as videos are organized by each of the seven marks and accessed by clicking on its colorful icon.

Nicole McCarty opens the November meeting of the Presbytery of Milwaukee by singing “Jesus, Teach Us to Be Neighbors.” (Contributed photo)

In a video on Empowered Servant Leadership entitled “Empowering not Fussy,” three members of the First Presbyterian Church of Richfield, Wisconsin, describe how their congregation of under 40 members alternates between worship with a sermon and communion and a Bible Study lead over Zoom by lay leaders. The format addresses the difficulties the church has had in securing pastoral leadership for Sunday worship and offers accessible ways to gather during harsh winters or when the spread of viruses is on the rise.

The Rev. Michelle Henrichs, pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Muskego, Wisconsin, described how participatory worship makes “more room for the spirit to move in a worship service,” in a video on Spirit-Inspired Worship. Henrichs described a study that rank for several weeks on different “God language.” The study, which involved creative liturgy and at-home reflection helped “people own what their own God language was,” according to Henrichs, who described how “when people own their gifts and style, people are more willing to participate,” because the focus is on “what you are able to share as opposed to how well you might do something.”

The Rev. Tony Oltmann presents on the 7 Marks of Vital Congregations during workshops held at the Presbytery of Milwaukee’s gathering last month. (Contributed photo)

“Milwaukee Presbytery did VCI in a non-traditional way. They really made it their own in a really good way,” said Rev. Tony Oltmann, associate for the Vital Congregations Initiative. Oltmann preached during the November presbytery meeting. “Their graduation is a celebration of all things VCI. It’s been a whole day of celebrating VCI and looking forward to what comes next.”

Now that the two years are complete, Gibbs believes all congregations in the Presbytery of Milwaukee have a better grasp of the seven vital marks and hopes that some churches will choose to go deeper. She said that developing the practical resources for each mark was important. Even more important was raising awareness among all the congregations about how others are pursuing a vision of congregational vitality.

“Here are people living into dreams that they have for their congregation or recognizing that they already do excel in this area. They might have something to offer a congregation that doesn’t, and learn from one that does have the ability,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs believes that partnerships will develop between congregations because of the approach that the presbytery has taken. “Our goal in opening it up not just to those congregations that sign on, but all of the congregations will hopefully develop those relationships where they’re in some way all engaging vitality.”

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