The Initiative for Healthy Vital Churches


 A moment of confession: I’ve worked in the church too long to get overly excited about new conference programs or emphases.  My somewhat jaded observation is that over the years these things have come and gone without making much of a difference – at least over the long run. NEVERTHELESS, I also have to confess that I am very enthusiastic and hopeful about the conference leadership’s new focus on growing healthy, vital churches!  I’ll tell you why I think it just may be different this time.

To begin, the conference can no longer do the same things in the same ways and expect different (better) results!  New times call for new thinking.  Unlike many of our conference efforts in the past, the new conference initiative aimed at vitalizing our existing churches is not a packaged, one-size-fits-all program complete with budget, committee, calendared events, etc.  Rather, it’s an adaptable, voluntary, progressive and proven process that effectively develops local church leadership and prescribes specific and unique issues a local church must address in order to become more healthy and vital.  In our conference, we’re calling the process the Healthy Vital Church Initiative (HVCI) and are already beginning to experiment with it in three groups of pastors spread out across the conference.  To put it as simply as possible, the HVCI process aims for nothing less than the transformation of stuck, stagnant or declining congregations; improving their health, increasing their vitality, and developing their effectiveness in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Not all of our churches need this, but many of them do!

Our HVCI process is borrowed from the Missouri Annual Conference, which has been developing over the last three years or so their indigenous process from its grassroots beginnings. It’s still evolving.  Their conference has many more churches than ours (over 800) and more large congregations, but there is some strong evidence that their healthy church initiative is making a huge difference both to the local churches that have experienced it and to the annual conference in general.  Local church vital sign statistics have improved, clergy morale is better, annual conference “relevance” and support have increased, world-transforming disciples are being made, a common language and confidence have emerged, and more.  I see no reason why these things can’t happen here, too!

Our HVCI process will continually evolve and adapt as well, starting right away with the reduction of one Assistant to the Bishop in July! But it’s safe to say that it will have some essential features.  One of them, for example, will be continuous learning groups for pastors and their local church lay leadership. Although participation in the Healthy Vital Church Initiative is voluntary, the hope is that ultimately every pastor in our conference will experience a Pastor Leadership Development (PLD) group. PLD groups will be offered in different forms over time. The plan is to provide 8-session PLD’s (a 4 hour class once a month) just for pastors, with the option of their lay leadership participating in a parallel but separate Lay Leadership Development (LLD) group. Or, pastors and lay leaders may meet together in a Church Leadership Development (CLD) group. This will be true for smaller churches, which will meet for 6-sessions using a curriculum designed specially for the small church.  These leadership development groups will be “high-commitment” groups, meaning that everyone will be expected to attend, read the assigned books, and develop action plans to carry out each month.  The pastors will also receive supportive coaching calls throughout the experience.  There are too many details to explain in this blog, but as soon as I am able I’ll post an outline of the 8-session and the 6-session leadership development course on the new conference website.

It’s clear to me that pastors and lay leadership will gain a lot merely by participating in the PLD’s, LLD’s and CLD’s.  But these leader group experiences are considered to be only the first phase of the HVCI process.  Where transformation really happens for the local church is in an experience called “The Church Consultation,” in which a trained team engages a local church over a weekend and after a thorough assessment, presents from 3 to 5 “prescriptions” for the church to adopt or reject.  Those churches that adopt the prescriptions will be in for some hard work, but will also enter into new levels of health and vitality. 

Since this is so important to the overall process, I’ll share more about the Church Consultation in my next blog.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Ideas?

Scott Harkness
Scott Harkness is a pastor in Roseburg, Oregon. He is a reserve delegate to the 2012 Western Jurisdiction Conference and will be attending General Conference as an additional reserve delegate and observer. Previously Scott has served the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference as Director of Connectional Ministries and Assistant to the Bishop.