It’s time for action, but what action?

The latest research from the ongoing, multi-year, Hartford Institute study on American congregational life (FACT, 2015) confirms what most people involved in the life of a church already know. Most American congregations find themselves in a challenging situation: continued declines in Sunday worship attendance, declining revenue from giving, fewer growing congregations, a lack of spiritual vitality, and a drop in the number of congregations with full-time clergy, just to name a few of the bad-news findings. The good news is that the challenges facing congregations often drive them to action. The question is, “what action?”

Congregations often feel stumped by what’s happening and unsure what to do in order to address what seems like a complex aggregation of challenges. When faced with so many issues at once--money, facilities, attendance, engagement, volunteerism, etc., the tendency is often to look for a big, complex, high-level “solution.” These can take many forms, but may include replacing the pastoral staff, structural reorganization, changing worship times or format or style, instituting new programs and ministries, renovating facilities, or even changing the physical location of the church. While in some individual cases, one or many of these actions might be helpful, they can also easily fail to have the hoped-for impact. Why?

In many cases, what is needed is not so much a single, complex, high-level action plan, as a deep, honest look in the mirror. Maybe what’s needed is not so much answering the “what should we do” question, but instead answering the questions of “why and how we do what we do.” Many congregations think they are “warm and friendly,” but they really aren’t. Many think they don’t need to demonstrate overt hospitality to people they don’t know, but they do. Many assume the congregation will thrive if they have a great staff do “do” the ministry, but it won’t. People still come to congregations needing the same things they have always needed--love and relationship--with God and with God’s people. And how God’s people act makes all the difference in whether or not they experience these things.

For congregations with long histories, it’s easy to lose track of the congregation’s deeper mission and vision. Living in the shadow of the institutional church (even a small one), it’s easy to forget how important it is to simply be the people of God--kind, loving, welcoming, nurturing, and forgiving. The institutional church was built upon these deeply valued, personal and interpersonal qualities, and if a congregation wants to thrive again, reclaiming these qualities is a great starting point.


Roozen, D. A. (2016). FACT 2015 Thriving & Surviving - American-Congregations-2015.pdf. Retrieved February 3, 2017, from

Written by Rev. Christopher R. Gambill, Ph.D.

Posted in: Congregations, Future

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End of 2016

As we move toward the end of 2016, we have been reflecting on our work over the past year and diligently working on the training and event schedule for 2017.  We want to hear from you what you experienced and what will be helpful for you in the coming year.  (Survey)

In the past year, The Center for Congregational Health offered three tiers of Interim Ministry training: 1--a three-day course focused on the role of the interim minister as they work with a congregation during a transition between pastors. 2--a five day course, plus approximately six months of fieldwork following the classroom work that allows participants to practice and hone newly acquired skills.  3--a three-day course that prepares intentional interim ministers to serve as transition facilitators.  We offered our church consultant training, The Art of Consulting with Faith Communities. Two times we offered the Vital Mergers workshop with our colleague Dirk Elliott sharing about his work of helping congregations to join with others to increase the presence and missional impact on communities.  In addition to those events we participated in several denominational gatherings leading workshops and talking with individuals about the possibilities within their own congregations. Also, we have continued to offer our consulting and coaching services to many congregations, denominational leaders, clergy and lay leaders, and our staff have been faculty for various programs beyond the day-to-day work that the Center for Congregational Health does, including teaching at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, partnering to build a D.Min program tract with Interdenominational Theological Center (Atlanta), and serving as faculty and advisors for the CBF Fellows program, for clergy serving in their first call beyond seminary/divinity school.

As we look toward 2017, we are planning to increase our offerings to help clergy and laity function in healthier congregations/organizations and we believe that you and your congregation can and do make a difference in the communities where you are.  We will be adding back to our training list a coach training that will offer assistance/guidance for any leader to use coaching skills as well as a more advanced coach training for those who wish to build more intentional and professional coaching relationships.  We will work to offer resources and events that help clergy to function in a healthy manner--caring for self and ministering to others, and to find appropriate professional support as you seek to navigate change in church and society and lead others through the changing landscape of life and congregations.

Over the next few weeks we will be sharing new dates and opportunities with you.  We hope you will check our website often and join us as a partner in the work that we are called to do.

Posted in: Coaching, Congregations, Consulting, Interim Ministry, Leadership

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Do you need a church consultant?

by Rev. Chris Gambill, Ph.D.

Fall is one of the seasons when the Center for Congregational Health staff typically sees an uptick in calls inquiring about church consulting. While it is often congregational conflict that prompts a call, there are many other situations where a church consultant can be helpful. Since using a church consultant is still a new idea for lots of congregations, here are some of the questions you might ask in determining whether or not a church consultant could be helpful to you.

Are you “stuck?”

Do you feel “stuck” as a congregation and unsure how to get moving forward? If your congregation is 40 or more years old, then it is highly likely it is experiencing a gradual decline in participation, giving, etc. There may not be any actual “problem” anyone can name, but the congregation may still feel unable to make progress. A church consultant can help the congregation identify the barriers holding it back, and the assets God has given the congregation that can help it move forward and flourish.

Puzzled by a new challenge?

Is there an issue or challenge you are facing that is out of your range of experience or skill to address? Congregations face unique challenges today. In many cases, there is no clear precedent to guide them to a workable solution. Center consultants have deep and wide-ranging skill sets that they can use to help congregations explore the “strange new world” of mission and ministry in 2016 and beyond.

Need an outside perspective?

Do you need an outside perspective of someone who has no vested interest other than the health and vitality of your congregation? It’s easy for congregation members to become so familiar with their situation that it’s hard to be objective. Is your congregational “cup” half-empty, or half-full? Should you be concerned about your future health and vitality? Or are you doing well and being faithful stewards of God’s gifts? It can be helpful to have a new set of eyes and ears to provide feedback and help you see things that you might otherwise overlook or miss altogether in your journey toward congregational health.

Have a problem that just won’t go away?

Does your congregation have a nagging or recurring problem that just doesn’t seem to ever go away? Have you tried to solve a problem previously but were unsuccessful? A church consultant can’t solve a problem for you, but they are skilled at addressing a problem with you. Center consultants excel at creating processes and safe spaces where congregations can work together to solve problems, discern God’s call, and make good decisions.

Feeling unmotivated?

Do you need motivation or accountability outside your system to help you move forward? Church consulting is not free—and it turns out that this is one of the best things about using a consultant. In the Center’s nearly 25 years of experience, we have learned that congregations willing to invest time, energy and money (not necessarily a lot of it!) into working with a consultant, are much more likely to become invested in working to see the positive outcomes of the work.

In congregations, God gives the gift of community and mutual support to undergird the work of mission and ministry. Just as surely as congregation members need each other, congregations themselves also need the love and support of others in order to flourish. Church consultants are one of the key resources God has given the modern Church to help it thrive. Don’t hesitate to contact us by phone or email if you’d like to explore how a church consultant might be helpful to your congregation.

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November 9, 2016

by Beth Kennett

Today, the Church—and any community that encourages belonging, love and acceptance—has an opportunity to boldly step into the present and lead the way into the future. Today, I embrace this idea more strongly than other days. Today, our nation, with ripples throughout the world, exists in a state of significant divide. Regardless of how one voted, or didn’t, yesterday—today we see numbers of division. While those numbers represent our country’s political state, the division has gone far beyond our political candidates and the politics of governing and has infused into many aspects of daily life, and even church life. As faith communities we are called to love and build a relationship with God our Creator and to build communities to share faith, hope, peace and love with others. Today, may we be the Church and bridge the divide. Today, may we be the Church and share God’s love with others. Today, may we be the Church and build community in and with all of creation.

Through the Center for Congregational Health, we frequently help congregations to think about and live into being a healthy church. Healthy congregations frequently exhibit 5 characteristics—they have a clear sense of identity, they know who they are, where they are and what their purpose is; they seek to build a strong sense of community where people feel connected and matter; healthy congregations work at communicating who they are and what they do, both internally and externally so that members and others can decide how and when to engage; healthy congregations understand that all members will not always agree and at times there will be conflict, they create plans and processes for when there is conflict so they can manage and work with it in a manner that is healthy and not detrimental; and healthy congregations know that change is always happening and they seek ways to respond faithfully to change, ways that engage the community to grow and practice who they are and who God calls them to be.

A healthy church can be an example for society on how to move through challenges and division. A healthy church can be a respite from the chaos and hurt that happens in our world. A healthy church can be a place where people find love, acceptance and belonging. A healthy church can be the leader in bringing hope and peace to a divided nation.

My prayer today is that you have a healthy church to connect with and that your healthy church will be a leader for others in loving people and healing divide. Amen.

Posted in: Congregations

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Vital Merger: Joining Church Families Together

By Dirk Elliott

DownRiver Church celebrated its first worship service as a new church start on July 7, 2013, with 186 people in attendance.  DownRiver is a Vital Merger of four churches in the Detroit area.  In December, 2012, each of these four churches voted, with over a seventy percent majority, to become a new church together.   On July 7, 2013, Carlisle UM Church also celebrated their first worship service as a new church.  Carlisle UMC is a Vital Merger of three churches.  They celebrated their first worship service together at the grandstand of the Carlisle Fairgrounds.  Over 600 people attended their first worship service in their newly remodeled and updated facility on July 14.

These two examples of Vital Mergers provide a model of merging churches in a way that produces a healthy new church.  As a Vital Merger, they made commitments to each other to:

  • Sell all church buildings and relocate to a new location
  • Worship in a neutral location from the day of the official merger
  • Reset the new congregation’s focus on the mission field and begin new ministries to reach the new mission field
  • Receive a pastor that has been assessed and trained as a church planter
  • Choose a name that is not a part of the name of any of the merging churches

Sometimes, people hear the word “merger," with anxiety because it implies uncertain change. Some people view the idea of a merger as a hostile takeover with winners and losers. Others immediately see issues involving loss of identity. Any kind of merger requires foundational change that on the surface, tends to feel impersonal. Still others may point to a merger that did nothing but more of the same.

It is true that some church mergers have failed to create health, growth, and vital ministry.  What makes the difference? The answer often lies in the process used to vision, transition, blend cultures, and form healthy leadership-teams.

Church mergers take various forms. Traditionally, the most common form has been two or more churches deciding to consolidate their resources by moving into the best facility they already own and retaining only one pastor. These mergers rarely bear the fruitful ministry anticipated by the merging churches.  While there may be occasional exceptions, often the resulting congregation from this traditional form of merger will eventually lose participation and decrease in attendance to the size of the larger church before the merger. So instead of 1+3=4, you get 1+3+ much drama = 3.  Often, the lack of fruitfulness and growth in traditional mergers stems from its primary motivation: the need to survive rather than the need to further its mission.

Research of traditional mergers from 2000 to 2015 reveals that traditional mergers have not brought the significant growth that the merging churches had anticipated. A study of thirty-three mergers during this time showed that twenty eight churches never achieved the worship attendance of the combined worship of the merging churches. In fact, twenty-two of the merged churches lost the equivalent of the attendance of the smaller church within one year.  Traditional mergers seldom result in the growth or health of churches.

In response to the poor results of traditional mergers, while addressing the fact that many churches can no longer be viable as a single-church parish, a new model of merger is needed to decrease potential conflict and increase healthy growth. The Vital Merger model was developed over a ten-year period, working with the pastors and lay leaders of several mergers.

Instead of consolidating resources, the Vital Merger strategy creates a new church—a healthy, growing, new-church-start with a fresh focus on the mission field and new ways of doing ministry. Using a Biblical metaphor, the traditional merger is attempting to pour new wine into old wineskins. The Vital Merger, on the other hand, creates new wine that is poured into a new wineskin.  Vital Mergers create new churches that are stronger, healthier, and more fruitful than any of the individual churches were before the merger.  Attendance is greater than the combination of the merging churches, finances are healthier, and more people are involved in mission and ministry.  

Vital Mergers have worked with churches in urban, suburban and rural areas.  Small churches have merged together, as well as mid-sized and large churches.  The churches need to commit to work together as partners, agreeing to the five basic commitments, and have a willingness to be in ministry together.

Want to learn more about vital mergers?

Dirk has successfully led congregations in vital mergers all across the United States. He will personally lead a Vital Merger workshop on December 1, 2016 at First Baptist Church, Decatur, GA from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm.  The workshop is sponsored by the Center for Congregational Health. You can register for the workshop by clicking here.

Dirk’s book, Vital Merger: A New Church Start Approach that Joins Church Families Together, will be available for purchase at the workshop. You can also pick up a copy at  Vital Merger is a practical handbook that outlines the key elements necessary for a Vital Merger and provides instructions for exploring, beginning, and walking through the Vital Merger process.  The advice, examples, and stories are taken from actual churches that have merged—including processes and practices that have and have not worked well. The stories from these churches inform and infuse the process with authentic insight and witness.

Posted in: Congregations, Consulting, Future, Leadership, Ministers

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Appreciative Inquiry–What is it?

Definitions of Appreciative Inquiry as shared on Appreciative Inquiry Commons at  

Appreciative Inquiry is the cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them. It involves systematic discover of what gives a system ‘life’ when it is most effective and capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to heighten positive potential. It mobilizes inquiry through crafting an “unconditional positive question’ often involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.”

Cooperrider, D.L. & Whitney, D., “Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change.” In P. Holman & T. Devane (eds.), The Change Handbook, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., pages 245-263.

“[Appreciative Inquiry] deliberately seeks to discover people’s exceptionality – their unique gifts, strengths, and qualities. It actively searches and recognizes people for their specialties – their essential contributions and achievements. And it is based on principles of equality of voice – everyone is asked to speak about their vision of the true, the good, and the possible. Appreciative Inquiry builds momentum and success because it believes in people. It really is an invitation to a positive revolution. Its goal is to discover in all human beings the exceptional and the essential. Its goal is to create organizations that are in full voice!”

Cooperrider, D.L. et. al. (Eds) , Lessons from the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry, Thin Book Publishing, 2001, page 12.

“Appreciative Inquiry is a form of organizational study that selectively seeks to highlight what are referred to as “life-giving forces” (LGF’s) of the organization’s existence. These are “ – the unique structure and processes of (an) organization that makes its very existence possible. LGF’s may be ideas, beliefs, or values around which the organizing activity takes place.”

Srivastva, S., et al. Wonder and Affirmation, (undated from Lessons of the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry, page 42.)

“AI is an exciting way to embrace organizational change. Its assumption is simple: Every organization has something that works right – things that give it life when it is most alive, effective, successful, and connected in healthy ways to its stakeholders and communities. AI begins by identifying what is positive and connecting to it in ways that heighten energy and vision for change.” “…AI recognizes that every organization is an open system that depends on its human capital to bring its vision and purpose to life.” “… The outcome of an AI initiative is a long-term positive change in the organization.” “… AI is important because it works to bring the whole organization together to build upon its positive core. AI encourages people to work together to promote a better understanding of the human system, the heartbeat of the organization.”

Cooperrider, David L; Whitney, Diana; and Stavros, Jacqueline M., Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: The First in a Series of AI Workbooks for Leaders of Change, Lakeshore Communications, 2003, Pages XVII – XIX.

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Appreciative Approach to Congregational Work

by Beth Kennett

An approach to working with congregations or groups of any kind is to use an appreciative approach, asking for and encouraging the group, and individuals, to focus on and appreciate what works.  Several books and processes have been created to help organizations do this positive work.  In November, we are partnering with the Clergy Leadership Institute to bring you a four day training to introduce Appreciative Coaching, and two workshops on forgiveness and letting go of resentment--one for those who work with individuals to let go and one for individuals who are ready to let go.

An appreciative approach to congregational work helps congregations to acknowledge the best of who they are and the best of their past, to discern and determine where and how God is inviting them into the future.

There are some basic assumptions in appreciative work, (the following are taken from the Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Copyright, 1996 by Sue Hammond):

  1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. The experience of reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple experiences of reality.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past with them.
  6. If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.

Two Additional Assumptions (articulated by Rob Voyle)

  1. At any given moment people are doing the best they know how to do in that context at that time.
  2. The deepest longing of the human heart is for acceptance The only change outcomes that will be sustainable are those that result from greater self-acceptance.

Join us in November to work with this positive approach and learn how to use this concept to help your congregation and/or organization to embrace the best of who they are as they determine next steps for the future.

Posted in: Congregations, Future, Leadership

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Thursday Morning Conversation, Oct. 6, 10 am–What to do when your church is experiencing conflict  

Join us for a conversation at 10 am, October 6.   Call information: 641.715.3300, access code 165517#

The Center for Congregational Health has had a lot of calls about church conflict lately, almost daily over the past month.  Why is this? What is going on?  I have a theory, it is October! People are getting settled into a routine after the chaos of summer, and they are still pulled in too many directions; congregations are doing budget planning, recruiting volunteers, and everyone is tired.  Our staff will discuss some options for addressing, moving through and managing conflict in your congregation.  

Posted in: Congregations

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What does the “Next” Church look like?

Over the past week, I have been involved in several conversations about the church of the future, or the “next” church.  People usually approach this conversation from one of two perspectives—either, fear and concern for the future of the Church, especially the perspective that the church is dying and their will be no church; or excitement that the institutional church, as we have known it, will die and we can create something brand new.

I believe there are more options and perspectives than those two. What about the churches who are responding to God’s invitation to meet people where they are and minister, sharing God’s love with others? What about the churches who are creating safe spaces for all of God’s children? What about the churches who are discerning their faith journey, working together to determine who God is calling them to be? These churches are being the church of now and are growing into who they will be in the future.

From the Center for Congregational Health, we are working with many congregations who are on this journey, determining who God is calling them to be now and next. These churches are living with a vibrancy and vitality that is boosting their sense of community, clarifying their identity in the present and opening the pathways for change and ministry in the future. This is exciting work to see congregations be who God is calling them to be. What we definitely know is that congregations and faith communities have the opportunity to respond to God’s call in new and creative ways.

Posted in: Congregations, Future

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Training opportunities

The conventional approach to problem-solving in business or church is to discover the root cause of a problem and to fix it. Appreciative Inquiry takes a radically different approach: Discover the root of cause of success and improve it. Problems are acknowledged in the process, but why spend so much energy on what’s not working when you can be spending creative and innovative energy on what is working?

The Center for Congregational Health is partnering with The Clergy Leadership Institute and Larry Glover-Wetherington, Coach and Intentional Interim pastor, to offer a webinar on the Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry, and another webinar on Mutual Ministry Valuation, an alternative approach to ministry evaluation.  For more information and to register for these events, click on the following links--

For more information and to register:  Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry

For more information and to register: Mutual Ministry Valuation


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