One of the current buzzwords in our country is “sustainability.”  Wikipedia defines sustainability as “a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely.” 

One of the concerns of our Haiti mission team was that our efforts to improve the lives of the Haitian people be sustainable.  We want to teach Haitians how to farm and irrigate their lands so that one day they will not need our help.  Last week Metro Ministry hosted a luncheon with Kurt Kimball, the Grand Rapids City Manager, in which he mentioned that one of his priorities is sustainability.  A few nights ago, when I asked a friend what his current passions were, he immediately said “sustainable energy”.

If our planet is going to survive, we must create ecological systems that will last indefinitely.  If our cities are going to thrive, we must create educational and social systems that can be sustained.  If our businesses are going to grow, we must create plans for sustainable development. 

Interestingly, I read a book as we traveled home from Haiti that makes the claim that churches must create sustainability plans as well!  Vital Signs; A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness (2007), by Dan Dick, is one of the most stimulating and revelatory books on congregational life that I have read in years.  Dan Dick is Research Coordinator and Project Manager for the General Board of Discipleship.  Dick visited, researched and analyzed over 700 United Methodist congregations of all sizes in North America over a period of 6 years.  Out of his study, Dick determined that there are two sets of criteria that determine the vitality of congregations: growth and sustainability

In Dick’s words, sustainability is, “the overall stability of a congregation for ongoing mission and ministry”.                                                                                                                                    

While it is impossible to adequately represent the depth and importance of Dick’s findings in regard to each of the 4 types of churches, I offer the following characteristics of vital congregations, which are both growing and sustainable.

  • Vital churches have a compelling vision and a clear identity.
  • Success is equated with spiritual transformation, not numbers.
  • Growth is not a goal but is a by-product of healthy practices.
  • There is mutuality of leadership and a shared vision among clergy, staff and lay persons.
  • The value of the congregation is measured by its impact on the community and the world.
  • All programs and activities are intentional and align with the values and mission of the church.
  • Strategic thinking and spiritual disciplines are core values.
  • Spiritual formation and deep, regular listening are at the center of vital churches. 
  • Content, not fellowship, drives the learning experience.  Faith formation is a process, not a program. 
  • There is a comprehensive plan for education and mission where all people are encouraged to grow, whatever their level of faith development. 
  • There is a balanced integration between outward service and inward faith development.  Vital churches equip people to live faithfully in the world.
  • Vital churches focus on ministry, not self-promotion. 
  • Vital churches are willing to live with fluidity, discomfort and change in order to discern God’s will.
  • Vital churches are grounded in loving, healing, mending, reconciling, mercy, grace, justice and acceptance.
  • Vital congregations are proactive, not reactive.
  • The needs and will of the congregation are placed above the needs of individuals.
  • There are clear and open lines of communication.
  • Vital churches have high expectations but are always going on to perfection.

Not all congregations may be able to experience significant numerical growth.  However, all congregations can become stable and sustainable churches by applying these principles.  I highly recommend that you buy Vital Signs for your leadership team and read it together.  It provides an excellent framework for evaluating the current reality of your church and where you hope to go.  Our newly formed Grand Rapids District Leadership Development Team is reading it as well.  Be sure to take the Congregational Vitality Assessment Survey in the back of the book to discover whether your church is retrogressive, decaying, dystrophic or vital.  Bathe your study in prayer and discernment and see where God leads you!    

Blessings, Laurie

P.S. Thank you to the 265 people who came to Bishop’s Day last Saturday.  We began to sweep away clutter by singing, praying, laughing, learning, dreaming, giving and networking.  We also sold all 7 Haiti brooms and raised $959 toward our $13,000 Haiti Challenge, with more to come!

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