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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Presbytery of Milwaukee helps congregations’ vitality to shine


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

February 2, 2024

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

In November, 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.

Nicole McCarty opens the November meeting of the Presbytery of Milwaukee by singing “Jesus, Teach Us to Be Neighbors.” (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 has authored several books on ministry in times of challenge and change. Afterward, 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. 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 seven-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.

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)

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.

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.”

Beth Waltemath, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Friday, February 2, 2024, the Presentation of the Lord (Year B)

Today’s Focus: Presbytery of Milwaukee and congregational vitality

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Susan Barnett, Coordinator, Research Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
David Barnhart, Associate, Story Ministry & Documentary Filmmaker, Compassion, Peace & Justice, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Guide, nurture, and sustain, O God, all those whom you call into your ministry and service. May they, in whatever calling of yours they follow, find in you the direction to lead your people faithfully in and to your will and purpose for their individual and communal lives. Amen.