Vital Congregations: NCJ's Adaptive Challenge


AKRON, Ohio – If The United Methodist Church is to become a movement again, it must redirect the flow of attention, energy and resources to increasing the number of vital congregations effective in the disciple-making process and the episcopal leadership in the North Central Jurisdiction is committed to leading in that direction.

Bishops Bruce Ough of the West Ohio Conference and Bishop Gregory V. Palmer of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference shared the stage for the Episcopal Address and shared a number of best practices already being employed by churches around the North Central Jurisdiction.
“The adaptive challenge to create more vital congregations in the US and in the NCJ was the essential centerpiece of the Call to Action report before General Conference and remains the essential challenge after General Conference,” Palmer said.
Utilizing statistical data gathered by the Towers Watson Report for the Call to Action initiative, the North Central Jurisdiction showed only 11.58 percent of NCJ churches as “vital.” It ranges from 8 percent in Wisconsin to 14.7 percent in West Ohio. The Illinois Great Rivers Conference total was 10.7 percent.
Among jurisdictions, the highest vitality was in the Western Jurisdiction with 20.02 percent, South Central at 19.15 percent; Southeastern Jurisdiction at 15.84 percent; North Central at 11.58 percent and Northeastern at 10.96 percent.
And yet specific goals have been set by North Central Jurisdictional conferences to reach by the year 2015:
  • 639,445 disciples worshipping weekly
  • 122,652 new disciples
  • 69,640 small groups
  • 92,020 disciples serving in mission
  • $639,542,393 in mission giving
“There is only one forgivable sin and that is low aim,” Palmer said. “Mission that is risk-taking and not just attractional drives everything. We must create a risk-taking missional culture in our jurisdiction. Risk-taking mission occurs when we choose to defy the odds. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take, so take the shot."
Ough shared several practices that are currently leading to signs of vitality.
  • Vitality emerges when congregations reach out to children and youth. Xenia UMC in the Kaskaskia River District of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference was held up as an example of a congregation that began a Wednesday night Bible School program that grew into a year-round weekly children’s ministry. And when additional space was needed, the church chose building a ministry center for the community’s children instead of keeping money in the bank.
  • Vitality emerges in new faith communities. In the Northern Illinois Conference, Harvest 2020, a conference-wide initiative is underway with a goal of 100 new churches by the year 202. A total of 30 will have been started by year’s end using creative ways without bricks and mortar.
  • Vitality emerges when congregations respond to the needs and opportunities in their communities. In Brookings, S.D., First UMC built a Community Life Center to provide a place for activities for families and children in the community. As the center and church has become the center of the community, numbers and vitality have grown.
  • Vitality emerges when congregations pray for the Holy Spirit to lead them. Gaines UMC in West Ohio is using prayer to transform their church through an outwardly focused ministry, using prayer walks throughout the community as the church moves outside the walls.
  • Vitality exists when lay leaders are fully engaged in the leadership, mission and ministry of the church. In Indiana, a Fruitful Congregation Journey consultative process is being employed to develop lay leaders for fruitful congregations.
  • Vitality exists when clergy leaders are passionate and skilled at leading congregations and ministries. Crucible, a two-year clergy leadership initiative in West Ohio is providing training for clergy in necessary skills for personal and ministry growth and prosperity as a way to revitalize spiritual leadership in the conference. 
"Risk aversion is the number 1 killer of innovation," Palmer said. ‎"We ought to lean into some things large enough that we might fail. If we know we won't fail, it isn't risk-taking mission. No Risk. No Vitality."
Ough added that leadership is essential. "It's leadership, leadership, leadership," he said. “Passionate, skilled clergy and lay leadership is the key to vital congregations. We must create a culture of call and systems for developing effective leadership in every annual conference. Leadership has faith, fire and fruit. No Leadership. No Vitality."
Evangelism arising from both personal and social holiness is essential. “There is a synergy between personal and social holiness that must find its expression in relationship with others,” Ough said. “We must reclaim our evangelical heritage and create a culture where we are prepared to go where the people are and to share our "God stories" of personal and community/world transformation. Do you know of anyone who is asking, 'Am I too late to get to know Jesus?' Without Evangelism, there is No Vitality."
Palmer noted that much of creating vitality is a question of will. Quoting this year’s annual conference speaker Jorge Acevedo who said his church prayed, “Lord, send us the people nobody wants, Palmer said oftentimes the prayer needs to be, "Lord make me want the people to be in relationship with me."
Ough added, “Vitality always begins on our knees attentive to God. We must create a culture that embraces that transformation in Christ through prayer, Bible study and life in community.”