Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry Webinar

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. Rob Voyle is the principal trainer because we are tapping into his course. He has already developed the content and recordings. As Tutorial Facilitator, Larry Glover-Wetherington  will be facilitating a weekly teleconference call with the class. Dr. Rob Voyle’s content is refreshing as it presents an Appreciative Inquiry approach to ministry that integrates spirituality and theology.

For info on the course and registration  go to:


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Lenten Journey–Pray and Reflect

By Beth Kennett

Over the past few weeks, I have been in settings that have been preparing me for my Lenten journey—teaching a class on Ministry Leadership and Coaching Skills, participating in a Coach Training Program, working alongside of a congregational renewal process, helping a church think about the next pastor, and preparing for a workshop on Vital Mergers. Each of these places and processes has a strong component of prayer and discernment. My reminder and realization is that when we take the time to reflect, pray, and seek God’s direction we are much more likely to discover it—God’s direction, that is.

For individuals, taking the time to pause, meditate, and to be in touch with our authentic selves, helps us to determine the healthiest paths on which to journey; helps us to discover and discern where God is inviting and leading us. For congregations it is the same! Congregations must take the time to simply be together, to pray, to reflect, to seek where God is inviting and leading. In the busy-ness (and possibly the business) of congregational life, we often forget to be seekers, we forget to be faithful people on a journey of discovery and we fall into the habit of being church.

Congregations considering change—whether it is a merge, a renewal process, new leadership, or a new model of doing work—must do so through a process of discernment, a process of prayer, reflection and conversation. Healthy change does not happen overnight. Healthy change happens when we are faithful to our Creator and to who we are created to be.

As you engage your Lenten journey—as an individual and as a faith community—take the time to be in touch with who you are, create and honor the space to pray and reflect on being authentically who God is inviting you to be.

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Vital Merger: A New Church Start Approach that Joins 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 March 10, 2016 in Winston-Salem, NC. The workshop will be held at First Baptist Church, 501 West Fifth Street 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.

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More Looking

by Les Robinson

Recently, Chris Gambill, Director of the Center, wrote a blog (A new year, a new look at congregations) about the Faith Communities Today 2015 national survey of American congregations. He was referring to their most recent survey. Since 2000, this group has worked with the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership and Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research, to study congregational life in the U.S. Every five years, they conduct a major study and then report on and update their findings in the in-between years.

In addition to the stats Chris reported, there also was interesting, if not enlightening, information about the financial health of congregations. As most of us painfully remember, our country suffered a financial recession that began in 2008. The truth is, the percentage of American congregations who were experiencing some or serious financial difficulty had grown well before the recession. However, the full impact of the recession peaked shortly after 2008 as its negative effect trickled down and out throughout the economy.

At first, congregations were able to stay at the forefront of helping individuals who had suffered great losses, especially those who were laid off from work or whose jobs were eliminated. But, as more members of these faith communities began to experience cutbacks and downsizing in their personal lives, congregations also had to pull back. In 2008, two-thirds of congregations reported some decline in income because of the recession, and almost 1 in 5 reported a serious drop in revenue. Congregations began dipping into savings or investments, postponing capital projects, and reducing mission and benevolence giving as ways of dealing with their financial shortfalls.

This latest report indicates that with the broader economic recovery, the sense of financial distress among American congregations has eased somewhat. This seems especially significant because with declining worship attendance and the increase in smaller congregations, there were a lot of pressures for further financial strain.

Of course, financial stress is bad enough in and of itself. However, it can become the catalyst for other negative things. For instance, those congregations that were negatively impacted by the recession experienced an increased level of conflict within the faith community itself.

Another telling fact is the drop in congregations with full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders. Staff layoffs and delays in filling positions were among the least chosen options at the beginning of the recession. Nevertheless, in 2010, 71.4% of congregations had full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders; today, only 62.2% of congregations have full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders.

The looming question in the midst of this latest data is, “Is the increased sense of financial stability found in the 2015 survey due more to staff downsizing than to a return to pre-recession fiscal heights?” With the median budget dropping from $150,000 in 2010 to $125,000 in 2015, it appears that the reduced financial distress level in congregations is because they have become more comfortable doing with less, including professional staff.

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

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A new year, a new look at congregations

By Chris Gambill

Faith Communities Today has just released its introductory report from the Faith Communities Today 2015 (FACT 2015) national survey of American congregations. This is their most recent survey that originally began in 2000. The entire FACT survey series includes responses from over 32,000 randomly selected congregations from all denominations and faith traditions. I believe it is one of the very best snapshots of American congregational life available. It’s full of fascinating information and more than a few, “Wow I didn’t know that!” insights. Here’s one to whet your appetite.


The report leads off with a section entitled, “For congregations, size matters.” The first breath-catching data point shows that the number of smaller congregations (less than 100 in worship attendance) has risen dramatically in the last five years--from 49.1 percent of congregations to 57.9 percent. This means that for the first time (at least since 2000) well over half of all American congregations have less than 100 in worship on weekends. While having more smaller congregations is not necessarily bad, what is disturbing is that in addition, median worship attendance has fallen from 129 in 2005, to only 80 in 2015. The final data gut-punch in this section shows that these same smaller congregations (100 or fewer attendees in worship) are only half as likely to be “highly spiritually vital” (reflecting a specific set of measures they used).


So what does this all mean? In simplest terms, there are a growing number of smaller congregations, with likely declining in attendance overall, and struggling more than larger congregations to foster the kind of spiritual climate they want and need to thrive.


The big question this raises for me is “Who will help them?” Being a smaller congregation usually means there are fewer financial and other resources. Judicatories and denominations are, for the most part, also shrinking and have less capacity to help. Despite the shrinking resource pool, the Center for Congregational Health will continue to serve all churches. This has always been a core component of our mission and we work hard to find ways to make our services available to all congregations--regardless of their size or resources.  


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The power of a glass half-full

By Chris Gambill

It turns out that whether you view your filled-to-half-capacity glass as half-full or half-empty is much more than just a rhetorical question. It says a lot about how you tend to interpret situations and may indicate a tendency toward pessimism or optimism. A tendency toward optimism can have a significant, positive impact on your health, resilience, success at work, and in other areas of life. I believe it can also significantly impact your faith community. As another year concludes, how do you see the “glass” of your faith community? When you think about your congregation’s future, do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty?

Most established, traditional congregations--no matter what denomination--are experiencing significant challenges. Attendance is typically dropping and giving is declining. Most congregations are increasingly older with fewer young adults and children sitting in the pews. By most of the ways we measure success or effectiveness, most congregations would say they have in some measures (if not several), declined. Congregation members often hold widely varying interpretations of this situation and the prospects for the future. If they tend toward the pessimistic, they may only be able to see what they have lost. They look at the congregation and see the empty seats on Sunday morning. They look at the budget and see how much giving has declined. They look at the gray heads in the congregation and feel sadness that the pews are not full of younger adults and children. For them, the congregational “glass” looks half-empty.

But there is another way to interpret the same situation. I sometimes ask congregations tending toward the glass half-empty interpretation, to try and pretend they are just getting started. I ask, “If someone were to give you a great location for a church, a building with little or no debt, in a neighborhood that is growing, and a core group of people who genuinely love God and each other, could you grow a church with those resources?” From this point of view, the congregational “glass” is half-full, not half-empty. And, with some faith, hope, and love, it can quite possibly be a thriving congregation again. But, probably not if no one believes it can happen. The congregation desperately needs people who believe in what can be, not just in what they see at the moment.

The case for being positive, optimistic and hopeful about the future of a congregation can be made not just from a scientific point of view, but a theological one as well. As I am writing this, it is the Christian season of Advent. It’s a time of expectation, anticipation and waiting. Advent itself is not a time of joy--it’s a time to anticipate and prepare to experience the joy of Christmas and the coming of the Christ child. My friend, Dr. Mary Foskett, Kahle Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University, recently taught a series on Advent at our church. She reminded us that Jesus was born into a world that probably felt dark and hopeless to most ordinary people. The Jewish people were under the dominance of a foreign government and most people struggled to obtain the basic necessities of life. God’s promises to them seemed unfulfilled and probably unobtainable. Yet, into this glass-half-empty world came a baby and suddenly, the world and the future changed forever.

If any group of people in the world ought to have reasons for hope--reasons to be optimistic and to believe in what can be--it ought to be God’s people. The biblical story and our own lived experience of faith has surely taught us that there is reason to believe God can do a new thing--even with (especially with!) a congregation.

How you view your congregation’s “glass”--half-full or half-empty matters--a lot. If the dominant story is one of loss and decline and there is little real hope for the future, then that’s likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If instead, a congregation is dominated by the belief that there can be a future where the congregation thrives, then that can happen. Congregation members have to believe that God can do a new thing among them and that they actually practice the faith, hope and love that is the foundation of any healthy congregation. If their congregational “glass” is half-full, then there is the strong possibility (no guarantees in the life of faith!) that the congregation can continue to be a transformative presence for their community. The power of faith, optimism and hope is made manifest in the glass half-full.


Learn more about optimism:

Forgeard, M. J. C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Seeing the glass half full: A review of the causes and consequences of optimism. Pratiques Psychologiques, 18(2), 107–120.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Reprint edition). New York: Vintage.

Smith, E. E. (2013, March 1). The Benefits of Optimism Are Real. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

The Benefits of Optimism. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from

The Mind and Body Benefits of Optimism. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from

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The Who, What, How, and Why of Congregational Consulting

By Rev. Christopher R. Gambill, PhD

One of the original drivers for the founding of the Center for Congregational Health in the early 1990s was the emerging need for congregational consultants. Congregational consulting quickly became a core part of the ministry of the Center and has remained so for the entire 20 plus years we have existed. During that time, we have worked with hundreds of individuals and groups all across the US and beyond. And, we have trained quite a few consultants!

It might seem a bit counterintuitive for an organization that provides congregational consulting to train new consultants. In the business world, this would be akin to training your competitors. The Center has always tried to operate from a mindset of abundance. Since there are easily more than 300,000 Christian congregations and another 12,000 non-Christian ones in the USA, we believe there is plenty of work to be done. More, not fewer, congregational consultants are needed--but not just anyone can do it well.


Who makes a good congregational consultant? It would be easy to create a long list of attributes that would describe an effective consultant, but in our experience there are a few that seem to matter more than others. The first might seem obvious, but it still needs to be said--a congregational consultant should love congregations. Congregational consulting should not be construed as a career pathway for someone who is jaded or cynical about congregations, or who is feeling burned-out, rusted-out, or emotionally or spiritually injured by congregational life. Congregational consulting demands individuals who still love and believe in the power and possibility of congregational life and want to see congregations thrive.

Effective congregational consultants also need to have good boundaries. Congregational work is often emotionally charged and if you do care about congregations (and you should!) then there is always the temptation for the consultant to “own” the congregation’s challenges as their own. A consultant’s capacity to be helpful often hinges on their objectivity and their ability to speak the truth in love. Getting caught up in the process or struggles of the congregation can make a consultant part of the problem instead of the solution.

Congregational consultants also need emotional intelligence (EI). There isn’t time or space here to describe all that means, but at it’s core, EI is the capacity to perceive emotions, utilize them to facilitate thinking, understand emotions, and to manage emotions well. Each of us has some emotional intelligence and we can develop our capacity to to utilize it with the right training and support.

Finally, congregational consultants need significant experience in congregational life. One of the biggest challenges in congregational consulting is establishing trust between the consultant and the client. Our experience has taught us that congregations and leaders are more willing and able to trust consultants who have spent time “in the trenches” of a local church. Consultants need to understand the day-to-day challenges of both leading and being a member of a congregation.


Peter Block’s definition of a consultant still seems to best capture and describe what a consultant is: “. . .a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization, but who has no direct power to make changes or implement programs.” The key word here is “influence.” Congregational consultants, through their temporary, outsider role as a trusted helper, can positively and constructively influence a congregation to become healthier and stronger. One of the challenges of becoming a consultant is this role shift from “manager,” “implementer,” or leader,” to “influencer.”

Effective consultants are able to leverage their outsider role to bring a fresh perspective to a situation that an insider often cannot see. Because they are not the “manager” or a congregational leader, they have the emotional space to speak the truth that an insider would often be hard pressed to verbalize. The best consultant is not an expert who can tell you “how to” fix something, but a trusted partner in ministry who knows how to create spaces in which God’s Spirit can be discerned and the collective wisdom of the congregation can emerge.


The way in which Center consultants work is one of the things that sets us apart from many other consultants and kinds of consulting. As I mentioned above, we believe the most effective congregational consultants aren’t “experts” who tell others how to lead or manage their congregational challenges. In our experience, the best consulting comes from creating great processes that empower leaders and congregations to make good choices and decisions.

Implied in this approach to consulting is a basic trust in the capacity of congregations to solve problems and overcome challenges. The real “experts” are not the consultants, but congregations themselves and their leaders. This means congregational consultants need to know how to create transparent, participative processes that empower the congregation to make good choices. We have often referred to the Center’s approach as “radically congregational.” What’s truly radical is believing that a good process can empower a congregation to discern God’s leading and make a good decision.


There is one final question that needs addressing. Why have congregational consulting? The “why,” for us is actually pretty simple. We want to change the world! We want to be part of transforming this world to reflect God’s sacred intentions. We think healthy, thriving congregations are a key to making this happen. Congregational consulting helps congregations become the agents of transformation and change the world desperately needs. Interested?


If you think you might be interested in becoming a congregational consultant, the Center’s next consultant training event is coming up October 19-23 in Thomasville, NC. There are still some spots available for this session. You can learn more about the training by clicking here or visiting our website at and clicking on “Learning Opportunities” then “Consultant Training.”

Posted in: Congregations, Consulting

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Irrelevant? Really?

I have a wooden desk. Actually it was an unfinished table that I stained and then put a piece of glass on top of in order to protect it from scratches and pen marks and such. It has held up nicely 25+ years, so it turned out to be a pretty good investment – although at the time, $60.00 sounded like a lot of money.

Shortly after I moved the desk to my office and placed it in the appropriate space, my wife gave me a panoramic photo of a sunrise at the beach. I slipped the photo under the glass to remind me that the sun will rise every day, no matter how poorly or well I do what I do. Later, she gave me another photo – it is a picture of a sign that reads, “I’m not interested in competing with anyone. I hope we all make it.” I also have slipped that photo under the glass, right next to the sunrise. This seems like a pretty healthy way to not only begin, but to live out each day.

I must admit that the sunrise is easier to see and connect with than the sign. After all, we live in an extremely competitive society. Everything becomes a contest, and of course everyone wants to be the winner.

So several weeks ago it was very difficult for me to read an article written for a national publication about a new start up ministry. It was an interview, and the startup founder makes the following comment in reference to the Center’s work with interim ministry (and its connection to Wake Forest Baptist Health): “The old traditional training events for intentional interim work will remain as an offering of the medical center. The (new start up) will be working to identify and develop a new and more relevant approach to interim work that acknowledges the new realities of the congregational landscape.”

This suggests that the “old traditional training” is irrelevant.

Irrelevant? Really?

Since 1992, the Center has worked with hundreds of congregations and thousands of clergy and lay leaders, across 29 faith groups, in 44states, directly in four foreign countries, indirectly in two other foreign countries, and have partnered with the primary national and international organizations that work with interim ministry. Equally as important, the Center initiated a research project in 2004, using an independent consultant, to gather data about the effectiveness of interim ministry in these widely diverse congregations and settings. At the conclusion of the project, we decided to build on this research and make it a longitudinal study. Each year, leaders in faith communities who engaged the intentional interim ministry process are asked a series of questions. All are important, but perhaps the 3 most important/telling questions and the 9-year cumulative results (which now include several hundred congregations and several thousand lay leader responses) are:

  1. Would you recommend the Intentional Interim Ministry process to another congregation? 90% answered “yes” – this is up from the initial results of 87%.
  2. From my perspective, the overall health of the congregation significantly improved during the interim period. 93% agreed with that statement – this is up from the initial results of 88%.
  3. From my perspective, the overall health of the congregation continues to improve since the end of the interim period. 92% agreed with that statement – this is up from the initial results of 85%.

Irrelevant? Really?

I am serious about wanting all of us “to make it.” I think it is important, however, that we make it on our own track records, performance, and reputation, not by trying to make someone else's work look poor or ineffective.

Okay, I promise, I will look at, and take seriously, my two photos again in the morning!

Les Robinson is in his 19th year as manager of interim ministry resources for the Center.

Posted in: Competition, Interim Ministry, Relevance

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