VCI navigates the road of change
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WMC) -- Last week Naomi Garcia used images from the garden to talk about West Michigan’s Vital Church Initiative (VCI). This week Gary Step, Naomi’s colleague in organizing this significant program in the life of the Annual Conference, uses an automotive metaphor to talk about transformation. “VCI puts coaches and facilitators in place to hold the church accountable and help navigate the road to change,” Gary explains.
In July Gary joined the Connectional Ministries staff in a dual role as the Director of New Church Development and Congregational Transformation. Last week Gary visited the Rev. Bob Farr, Director of the Center for Congregational Excellence in the Missouri Conference. Bob created the program that West Michigan now calls VCI. Gary notes, “Bob said in Missouri there were many churches with a lot of potential that were just stagnant. They had been stalled out for years.”
Inward focus on congregational needs and wants must change to an outward focus on making disciples. “We believe as the churches go through VCI they will learn to hit a moving ‘cultural’ target and will gain a passionate DNA” that fuels the desire to reach those around them, Gary says.
Next VCI Roll Out
This summer the Grand Traverse, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo Districts are gearing up for VCI’s Large Church Path. “District Superintendents have been asking churches to be part of VCI,” Gary notes. Gary has been busy fielding questions raised by those congregations. “First I tell them that it is not just another program but a process to teach them to be life-long learners,” Gary says. “Then I explain that they will gain courage to confront the people, issues and fears that are currently holding them back from being alive in Christ.” Part of the value of VCI, Gary says, is releasing churches “held hostage by leaders, families and even pastors who desperately want to keep the status quo.”
Gary also has addressed questions of cost. “I have shared how the Conference is reallocating time, energy and resources towards VCI because we believe it is transformational. We are asking churches to do the same,” he says. Not all cost is measured in dollars. “I have shared that part of the process is walking alongside the church as it walks through the emotional trauma of transformation.”
D.S. hopes and goals
The Rev. Bill Haggard is the new Superintendent of the Grand Rapids District. Bill experienced VCI as a pastor at Lansing Mt. Hope UMC and is now recruiting churches to make the journey. “I am very excited about the possibilities of the Vital Church Initiative on the Grand Rapids District,” Bill states. “Having experienced last year’s large church pilot on the Lansing District, I know first-hand about the benefits.” Bill cites three key factors of transformation:
1. The team built between lay participants and pastor “can be very energizing.”
2. Commitment to read books each month that put ministry “in the context of our current cultural challenges, is educational.”
3. Continued coaching and benchmarks “help the congregation stay on track and take the steps that will lead them to becoming more and more vital.”
Cabinet colleagues convinced Grand Traverse D.S. Anita Hahn that VCI is a good new direction to take. “I was debating what to offer the Grand Traverse District,” Anita says, “as I listened to D.S.s say, ‘That is a VCI church,’ and ‘that pastor has received VCI training. I believe in the Connection and I believe that VCI is now a common denominator for many and a good way to move from good to great.” Benton Heisler promised that “VCI could come north sooner than projected.” So Anita reports that 14 large churches on the Grand Traverse District are now committed to the process.
“My prayer,” adds Anita, “is that the VCI will be the spark that we need to move all center and to explode for the Kingdom of God!” She recalls that after her first round of church conferences last year, she became aware that “I am among the last generation to ‘successfully’ be disciple by the present culture of the church. If we do not change with purpose now, we are ready to lose another generation.”
Kalamazoo D.S. Neil Davis is currently on renewal leave and unavailable for comment. But one pastor on his district, the Rev. Ron VanLente, has signed on to VCI with enthusiasm. “I attended the unveiling of VCI in September 2011,” Ron says, “and was impressed. Eleven months later Coloma will be joining other clergy and laity to study and form committees.” Ron shared that the congregation has participated in other programs in the past with “mixed results.” But he expressed hope that “VCI will assist us in better clarifying our identity and mission … and enable us to trim away practices and programs that are unnecessarily using our resources.”
It makes a difference
Tamara Williams, superintendent of the Albion District, is one of those cabinet members that provided insight and encouragement to colleague, Anita Hahn, around VCI. “The five churches on the Albion District that participated in the Small Church Pilot,” says Tamara, “have a new sense of hope, borne out of new clarity of purpose.” She remembers that those clergy all entered the process “carrying negative feelings of frustration, helplessness and guilt, stemming from the reality that they knew their churches were in trouble.”
Tamara credits VCI for changing their fear into hope. There was “fear of failing Christ, fear of failing their congregations, fear of having their church close down,” she remembers. “But what they took away from the process was hope. They now know that God isn’t finished with them yet and that Christ is still faithfully calling them to be in ministry just as they are, with just what they have.”
Echoing Gary Step’s conversation with Bob Farr, Tamara concludes, “I believe this is the kind of deeply spiritual hope and purpose that comes to life when an individual or a congregation starts to realize that ‘it’s not about me!’ and that it is about them, those still seeking to be loved, accepted, listened to, respected, and fed, and housed, and clothed, and healed, and saved and brought to new life in Jesus Christ.”
At a tipping point
Gary Step quotes another Missouri partner in the effort, Bishop Robert Schnase, whose book, “The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” is at the heart of the bibliographies for both small and large congregations. Schanse emphasizes, “A Conference or a Superintendent cannot talk a congregation into new life. The congregation has to decide it wants a different future.” And so VCI provides consultation, support and tools but “change cannot come from outside.”
Gary praises God for the 25 churches who may sign up for this next season of VCI. “I believe,” he says, “we are at a critical point in the life of many of our churches.
~Reported by Kay DeMoss, Weekly News Senior Writer