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Trinity Presbytery embraces Vital Congregations initiative

South Carolina churches find support for revitalization efforts

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Phyllis Sanders (left) leads pastors in the Vital Congregations Revitalization Initiative in Trinity Presbytery on ‘Ride Alongs’ (right) where they visit each other’s churches — some for the first time. (Photo provided by Danny Murphy)

LOUISVILLE — When Phyllis Sanders saw a recent article in South Carolina’s newspaper, The State, titled Losing Faith, she considered it a godsend.

Within a week, she hosted her first workshop as Trinity Presbytery’s new Vital Congregations coordinator. An article about the decline of churches gave her what she needed to help congregations better understand why the presbytery is participating in a two-year Vital Congregations Revitalization Initiative pilot program. Sponsored by the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the initiative is designed to help churches live more fully into faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Ten of Trinity’s 62 churches have been studying together the 7 Marks of Congregational Vitality, which are central to the revitalization initiative.

Leaders from each congregation have gathered for eight months in pastor cohort groups — an “incredibly positive” experience according to Trinity’s general presbyter Danny Murphy.

At one of those gatherings, two pastors who had been in the Presbytery for 20 years were sitting by each other. Lacking familiarity with a long-time associate, one turned to the other and asked, “Are you a pastor or elder?” Now they’re friends and supportive colleagues.

Pastors in the cohort groups are also visiting one another’s churches — some for the first time — where they learn the congregation’s history and share the challenges they face as they engage in revitalization opportunities.

“These pastors are forming healthy relationships,” said Murphy. “They now know they could call each other at 3 a.m. if they needed to do so.”

Because of increased interest, Trinity Presbytery is forming a waiting list for other churches who now want to participate in the revitalization initiative. To help lead that effort Murphy hired Sanders as its Vital Congregations coordinator.

“I realized early on that in order to provide the best chance for success we needed someone dedicated to this initiative,” he said. “We need Phyllis to spend time with those who are part of the initial pilot and with those who want to be a part of this in the future.”

When pastors asked Trinity to help them interpret the revitalization initiative to additional members of their congregations Sanders, along with the Rev. Dr. Chris Denny, a trained Vital Congregation facilitator, held an awareness workshop to help them focus on congregational vitality.

As a national and international educator, Sanders is also a qualified commissioned lay pastor for the presbytery. She says if someone had told her she would be working part-time with pastors and cohorts, she would’ve said, “What? Me?”

But her motto has been, “one never knows where God will land you, if you allow the Holy Spirit to lead you.” So, when the Vital Congregations position was offered to her she didn’t have to even think about it because she was ready for churches to grow and become what they’re meant to be.

“Sometimes, we as church members are the last to change even though everything is changing,” said Sanders. “I’m ready for churches to become what they’re meant to be as places of love for those who need Jesus.”

One of the first activities Sanders did at her initial awareness gathering — after they had divided into groups to discuss the Losing Faith article — was to have people mingle. As they were getting to know each other she said, “find a person in here 30 years old or younger.”

There wasn’t anyone there in that category.

Then, Sanders talked to those gathered at the awareness workshop about what revitalization is. She spoke of renewal, about what it means to be a spiritual leader, and that being a pastor is not about positional power, but the power of “the almighty God.”

“I remember when there were weekly prayer meetings in our churches where we would fervently pray for our needs and the community’s needs,” she said. “We need to get back to that to find spiritual and creative solutions for the difficult challenges facing us.”

Sanders believes this kind of prayer, which helps build authentic relationships, would help churches get outside their walls and find ways to get the community inside their walls.

Which is why she is pleased with the progress of the pastors and congregations participating in the pilot revitalization initiative. Seven Oaks Presbyterian Church in Columbia, led by the Rev. Jana Creighton, has developed maps of their neighborhood and is now exploring how it can best develop relationships with the people who live around the church.

“The pastors in the cohort are building trust by sharing openly and honestly with each other,” she said.

“This is helping us become places of love — of witness and service to Jesus Christ — who can change and transform us and our communities.”

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The office of Vital Congregations, is part of the PC(USA) Theology, Formation and Evangelism ministry. To download a basic information packet for presbyteries interested in going through the revitalization process, click here.


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