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.

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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.  

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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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CCH E-News

We are working to bring you more relevant and up to date information in our newsletter each week.  The most recent edition was sent on Tuesday, August 2.  There is more than one way to subscribe:

  • click on this link, read the latest edition, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe;
  • subscribe by providing the information on the homepage of our website;
  • send us an email;
  • like us on Facebook and let us know you want the E-News.

We want to stay in touch with you and we want to hear from you.  Let us know how we can connect and how we can work with you and your congregation to be who God is calling you to be.

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Healthy Church Blog


This week I read a wonderful blog by Elizabeth Mangham Lott, Ode to an Imperfect Church It could be entitled "Ode to a healthy church." Elizabeth's writing is a gift to the reader and this blog, in particular, made me pause.  When I work with a congregation, I want that congregation to find the space and way of being that is right for them.  To be and do what God is calling them to do.  Not to be perfect, to be and do who they are. Not to be compared with another, to live authentically into who God is inviting them to be.  As I read Elizabeth's blog the words grace and acceptance and real streamed through my mind.

Elizabeth sums up how I feel:   "In my church, I want laughter, great conversation and hot coffee. I want a space to breathe and be still. I want silence and poetry even more than I want a 2,000-word sermon. I want to be surrounded by people who tell the truth about their lives and aren’t scared away when I do the same. I want a church that reflects back to me the best of what my life might be — balanced, honest, imperfect and beautiful."

If we all work at being who God is calling us to be and do what God is calling us to do, the church will be more healthy; and, we will be offering a warm sense of welcome to those who want and need to feel welcome, and maybe a good cup of coffee to go with it.

Posted in: Congregations, Future, Relationships

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Last Year’s Nest

by Jill Crainshaw, Ph.D., Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity

Nest with blue yarn

Note: This post is the first in an Eastertide series being offered by a joint task force composed of members from the Church Growth and Transformation Committee and Committee on Ministry or the Salem Presbytery in North Carolina. This post is a revision of a post Jill Crainshaw previously published on her own blog and at Additional Eastertide posts can be found here .

“Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”     Ezekiel 17: 23

I rescued an empty nest the other day. In the rain. I don’t know why I rescued the nest. No bird lives in it. It was last year’s nest.

I was in my car, pulling out of the driveway to head somewhere, when I saw the nest in the middle of the road in front of my house. Instead of driving by or driving over it, I stopped the car, stepped out into the springtime deluge, and hurried over to it, looking up and down the street for other cars (and for the eyes of curious neighbors) as I went.

The nest was beautiful, perfect in its construction, with a singular strand of sapphire yarn woven into its middle. I picked it up. It was fragile and soggy. And since I was now dripping from the rain and late for where I was headed, I laid the nest at the base of a tree in the sidewalk buffer and dashed back to my car.

Sometimes I think I spend far too much time rescuing last year’s nests. Perhaps we all do. How do we decide, after all, how much energy to give to preserving last year’s architectural delights, and how much to use building for this year and the future?

There is something to be said, I think, for the intricate magnificence of some of last year’s nests. Those nests held and hold precious, life-shaping memories. They nurtured possibilities and provided launching pads for nestlings’ first flights.

The nest reminded me of Christian congregations today. Many churches are struggling to know how to relate last year’s metaphorical nests to the kinds of Gospel dwelling places we want and need to fashion for today’s hopes, dreams, and challenges. What elements of last year’s nests do we want to keep? After all, the gifts of earlier generations are vital to our identities as Christian communities. But we know that we still have work to do share Gospel news with the world around us, and not everything about last year’s nests lend themselves to that unfolding and evolving work. Indeed, we risk overlooking important opportunities for spiritual growth when we hold on with too much caution and fear to nests that are emptying if not already abandoned. How do church leaders and communities embody Gospel ministries in today’s unpredictable and often ambiguous environments?

Some leadership resources call the worlds we inhabit now worlds alive with “adaptive” problems. What are adaptive problems? Different than “technical” problems, which can often be solved by applying known skills or expertise, adaptive problems resist familiar plans and programs. Adaptive problems instead require leaders’ and communities’ most innovative sources of imagining, thinking, and embodying.

Adaptive thinking is at heart Gospel thinking because it requires deep soul-searching, Spirit-sparked creativity, and Christ-centered relationship-building. Adaptive thinking is also “story” thinking. When leaders embody adaptive thinking, they seek out all of the stories of faith communities—success stories and messy stories—in an effort to ensure that new practices are woven together in authentic ways with the unique DNA of particular and peculiar people and places. This story-grounded approach is based on a belief that a significant part of God’s Story today is our diverse communal stories woven together by God’s ever-present, ever-dynamic Spirit.

What does adaptive thinking require of leaders? One of the biggest challenges to adaptive change is fear—fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of moving away from familiar identities. Adaptive leaders stand with communities in these fears as together they name and embrace the frightening prospects of past and future and seek God’s guidance.

I photographed my rescued nest. The next day I decided to take a few more photos of it. But the nest was no longer where I had left it. Perhaps another critter took it. Then I spotted the nest about halfway up the sidewalk toward my house. Perhaps the wind had blown it there.

The next day the nest was even closer to the house. I noticed that it was smaller, too.

That’s when I realized that this year’s birds were using bits and pieces of last year’s nest to build for this spring season.

Verses from an ancient text, Ezekiel 17, came to mind as I reflected on last year’s nest: “Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”

I like the idea of a tree full of every kind of nest.

Doesn’t God invite all of us to nest in God’s tree? Isn’t this invitation the way God sustains the earth and communities of faith? Perhaps this is one of the powerful truths of Eastertide: as God did in the beginning and in the resurrection, God continues to do a new thing in us.

And might it not also be true that a bit of sapphire yarn, and a few choice twigs from last year’s nest, are just what are needed to remind present and future nestlings of the gifts and challenges of the past, and to make the nests we are now building places we can call home?



Virginia O. Bassford. Lord, I Love the Church and We need Help (Adaptive Leadership Series). Abingdon Press, 2012.

 Dottie Escobedo-Frank and Rudy Rasmus. Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge. Abingdon Press, 2012.

Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones. Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

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