Vital Signs

Reality is our friend.”  When a clergy colleague made that statement a few weeks ago, I could not get it out of my mind.  One of our most difficult challenges as human beings is to acknowledge reality, to admit that we’ll never fulfill our lifelong dream, our child won’t become the next president of the United States, and we’ll never be appointed to that prestigious congregation. 

It’s the same in the church.  How painful it can be to acknowledge that our local church is declining, that the way we’ve always done things isn’t working, and that if our church doesn’t change, it will die.  It’s a lot easier to deny reality than to embrace it as a friend and guide. 

When we’re sick, we need a diagnosis before we know how to treat our illness.   Even if we are healthy, we have to work hard to maintain and enhance our health.  That’s exactly why I have asked pastors and church leaders in the Grand Rapids District to read Dan Dick’s book Vital SignsVital Signs provides a fresh way of looking at congregational health by naming our reality, providing a helpful assessment tool for taking our congregation’s temperature, and then offering a pathway to vitality.  Reality can be our friend if we are willing to claim it.  

In meetings with pastors and Staff Parish Relations Committees this fall, we’ve discussed the health of our district churches according to Dan Dick’s categories:

Decaying: declining growth and unstable
Retrogressive: declining growth but stable
Dystrophic: growing but unstable
Vital: growing and stable

The conversation has been amazing!  Here are responses from pastors:

  • “An eye-opening book.  Wow!  This book should be taught in seminary.”  This pastor is holding a weekly Wednesday evening adult class with 40 people.  Every week they are looking at one of the 15 criteria Dan Dick uses for analyzing the 4 types of churches.  Then they discuss specific ways in which they can move toward a more sustainable church in that particular area.
  • “I initially saw this as just one more book to read.  I can’t believe how helpful it is.”  This pastor is now convening a group of leaders to discuss Vital Signs
  • “This is the first time an instrument of change has been introduced in this church without a negative backlash.”
  • “Although we suspected we were in decline, we received a loud wake-up call with the assessment that we are a decaying congregation.  By having many church members read the book, I expect that this process will have a ripple effect through the whole congregation and build a spiritual foundation for an intensive time of prayer, study reflection and planning during Lent.”   
  • “This promises to be the best value in congregational training in quite some time.”
  • “If Vital Signs, weren’t so well written it might be offensive!  This may be one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.”

Lay persons are also finding the book compelling. 

  • “With a decaying church, there’s no place to go but up.”
  • “The book is not prescriptive and does not tell you what to do but describes how different types of churches function and offers a pathway.”
  • “We’re definitely dystrophic.  We’re growing but unstable and don’t yet have the necessary infrastructure.”
  • “When our leaders shared with the church that we are decaying, one person responded, ‘How dare you call us decaying?  We’ve been this way for 50 years!’  My response was, ‘You’re right.  Precisely what ministry have we done in those 50 years?’”
  • “I looked at the signs of decay and said, ‘That’s us.’  With this book we can now identify the danger signs and know how to respond and change.”
  • “We’re moving from decaying to retrogressive and are trying to find our niche.”

Reality can be our greatest friend if we are willing to become who God created our congregations to be.  What is our reality so far in the Grand Rapids District?  Here is a breakdown of how the pastors of the 39 churches I’ve met with so far this fall see the current state of their church.

  • Decaying                                 21
  • Dystrophic                                3
  • Retrogressive                            8
  • Vital                                          7

Many of the pastors acknowledge that their congregations in flux, however, either moving toward or away from vitality.  In some cases, SPRC members perceive their churches as more healthy than their pastor does.  The 700 churches which Dan Dick surveyed broke down this way:  50% decaying; 33% dystrophic; 7% retro; 10% vital. 

While these percentages may seem depressing, I see great hope, for there is a pathway to vitality for virtually all of our district churches.  In creating vital, healthy, sustainable churches, we need to pay special attention to the following areas: 

  • Focus on changing lives and making disciples rather than numbers
  • Balance inward and outward focus: move outside the church!
  • Have a clear identity and vision and a strategic plan
  • Pursue spiritual growth as a foundation for intentional lifelong learning
  • Develop ways to measure and evaluate the impact of the congregation
  • Establish standards with accountability
  • Empower and equip lay persons for ministry and leadership
  • Create transparency

I talked with Dan Dick last week.  He knows that many of us have read the book and is eager to spend the day with us on November 8!  He’s interviewed 400 more churches since Vital Signs was published and will give us practical tools to move toward greater congregational health.  He will also share the 4 non-negotiables of vitality, true in 100% of vital churches.   

Have you signed up yet on line or by mail?  The registration flyer is an external attachment to this email.  I think we’re going to max out Genesis UMC, so register now!

Blessings, Laurie

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