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June 30, 2014, 9:40 AM

Feeding Church Vitality

For those of you who missed this year’s annual congregational meeting on Sunday, June 22, and didn’t pick up the Annual Report, I am reprinting most of my annual report here, to bring you up to speed on some important work we have been involved in.  All year, we have been involved with twelve other UCC churches in our region in a Church Vitality initiative.  We started last spring with a two-day workshop led by UCC pastor and consultant, Paul Nickerson; which was attended by teams from all the participating churches.  All year, there have been bi-monthly skype-call coaching sessions for groups of the pastors, alternating with bi-monthly lay team  coaching conference-calls.


In our increasingly secular culture, in which the fastest growing faith affiliation is “none;” traditional churches like ours, who continue to function the way we did back in the 1950s are declining in membership.  Many, unable to support even their basic ministries, are closing their doors and selling their buildings.  Like most, our church has been experiencing a gradual decline that started back in the 60s.  The churches that are vital and growing are churches that are building new relationships in and with the communities that they serve.  

Growing churches are very intentional about inviting non-members to participate in everything they do. 


Back in the “50s,” churches grew by “attraction.”  Back then, “if you built it, they would come.”  Newcomers to the area would be looking for a faith community to belong to—and if a church offered the right programs, activities, and social connections, new people simply found their way to the church and showed up at the door on a Sunday. 

Now, with a smaller and smaller percentage of the population having grown up in a church, and so many other ways to spend a Sunday, fewer and fewer are actively looking for a church.  The churches that are vital nowadays, grow by “invitation” rather than “attraction.” 

Members of growing churches are intentional about using all their programs and activities as ways to build new relationships beyond the current membership, and they always invite “unchurched” friends and acquaintances to participate with them.  Some of the ways we have tried to facilitate invitations include changing our “dinner groups” to be one couple “short” so that they can invite one non-member couple to join them each time they gather for dinner. And we will be offering free tickets to our harvest dinner for members to invite non-member guests to come with them.


Pastors of growing churches spend a lot of their time out of the office and in the community, building relationships with non-members rather than spending all their time focused inward on the current membership. One of the simplest ways that many of the pastors find to spend more time out of the office, networking in the community, is by moving their office to a local coffee shop.  This year, I have tried to spend one morning or afternoon each week down at Marty’s Café in the Depot.  I take my lap top down so that I can write and check emails when I am not visiting with folks who have stopped in for coffee.   I have also joined the Garden Club, and Rotary, attend Washington Business Association events, and practice with a group of Rumsey moms on the rowing machines, and will resume my rowing lessons this summer, and hope to join a community chorus, or a Washington Art Association class in the fall.

Getting the pastor out of the office and into the community requires reallocating 20% of the pastor’s time and increasing lay responsibility for things that don’t require the specialized skills of the pastor.  We are still working on that.  The Deacons are in the process of organizing the congregational care so that the Pastor will only be visiting the sick and dealing with crises in people’s lives, while the Deacons keep in touch with the rest.   We are also working on delegating some of the youth ministry tasks so that most of the administration, communication and preparation for youth group meetings and events is handled by lay people.  There are other administrative issues that cross my desk and don’t need to and we are working on weeding them out. 


This year, there have been several Sundays when over 20 children and youth came forward for the young people’s message, and my new confirmation class started this year with thirteen 7th and 8th graders.  The youth group that I started a few years ago, currently has 16 members in grades 6-10.  We are establishing a task force to work over the summer to restructure our Christian Education program to meet the changing needs.   The new families that have been attending, however, are part of that minority in our society who already had some church affiliation or grew up in a church; so we are still mostly relying on “attraction” and not yet reaching out to “unchurched” or “disaffected” people through invitation.  This is a slow process of educating our congregation and changing our habits in order to reverse the downward trends in attendance and membership.


On January 11th, five additional leaders attended the “More Members Tune-Up” workshop in Southbury with our Vitality Team.   Paul Nickerson brought new folks up to speed on what it means to be an invitational church and struggles and successes were shared among the churches in attendance.  This process feels like turning an aircraft carrier around.  We have to slow the momentum of our old way of doing things in order to turn and gain momentum in a new direction.  It goes slowly because we have to keep our regular programs going while shifting our focus to people who are not yet participating in them.   Because it is slow work, there is a tendency to let the old momentum continue to carry us in the direction that is no longer working.  The whole Vitality Team and Church Council embraced the idea of a second year of pastoral and team coaching with Paul Nickerson.  We will have unlimited email and phone access to Paul to ask questions and advice as well as quarterly pastor and team group coaching, with assignments to complete in advance.  Watch for more information as the new church year progresses and we hope you will find opportunities to reach out, too, for the vitality of our church.

See you on Sunday!

Pastor Cheryl

PS….  Wherever you are this summer—don’t forget to save some water for Recovenanting Sunday on September 7,  aka “Mixing of the Waters”!


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