Whole Church Initiative seeks to help churches be healthy again

January 09, 2015

By Charmaine Robledo, Director of Communications, Mountain Sky Area of The United Methodist Church

What can Alcoholics Anonymous teach about church vitality? For a start, the A.A. program offers guiding principles that, according to its website, if put into practice can allow participants "to become happily and usefully whole." The sense of wholeness and practice is similar to the ideas behind the Whole Church Initiative, a new program created by the Rev. Jeremy Scott to address church vitality in the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain annual conferences.

"We looked at techniques and what is successful," said Scott, who started as the Mountain Sky Area Vital Congregations Developer last July. Referencing A.A. and its models, Scott said, "We build in facets of that. We work with the church in a constructive, not confrontive, way."

He added the work entails having churches be "honest where they are and help them understand you are what you are for a reason."

Indeed, the difficult realization that churches are facing decline in attendance and disciple-making is evident in reports released last year for the Mountain Sky Area. For the Rocky Mountain Conference, a conference-appointed team presented data that showed a drop in worship attendance, going from nearly 34,000 in 2004 to now hovering above 29,000 in 2013. For the Yellowstone Conference, leadership noted that "since 1974, attendance has declined 33 percent and is projected to decline by 50 percent within the next ten years."

For Scott, here is how the Whole Church Initiative, or WCI for short, fits in: Intervention, but with little judgment. He describes the process as a peer setting with teams of committed people within the church -- both clergy and lay -- to learn and work together. In addition, the WCI also groups three to four churches to train and coach together. Currently, the United Methodist churches that are involved in the WCI are Billings Grace, Cody, Powell and Worland.

"I think it's going great," said the Rev. Steve Brown of Worland UMC, about the WCI. "The team is involved. We're intentional about greeting, visiting ... stepping up to the plate."

Brown added that Worland UMC is heavily active in certifying lay servants within the church. One of their big targets is outreach in the community, particularly to young families. He said the WCI has "perked up their spirits and added a big spark." Before WCI, worship attendance was averaging between 30 to 40 people. Now it's averaging 60 people every Sunday.

Are we focused on spiritual formation? Do we have a process for disciple-making? What about home mission? These are the questions that WCI challenges us to ask." - The Rev. Karen McRae, Cody United Methodist Church in Wyoming

Cody UMC is taking a different approach with their WCI method. The Rev. Karen McRae said they are still in the early stages, even though the church has been involved since September.

"We're still in a state of listening and learning," McRae said. To broaden their discussion, she said the team at Cody UMC is asking themselves: "Are we focused on spiritual formation? Do we have a process of disciple-making? What about home mission?"

"These are important questions that WCI challenges us to ask," she said.

Scott understands that not all churches will have a plan right away. The point of WCI is "intentional coaching," which Scott believes sets the Whole Church Initiative apart from other congregational development programs. Similar to what the A.A. provides in a sponsor, churches in the WCI are held accountable through a covenanting process in which the church affirms its responsibility positively, and avoids what Scott calls "the classic church behavior of fear, doubt and uncertainty."

This isn't about quick fixes. ... There were some expectations that this will solve all our problems, but that's not the point." - The Rev. Sarah Beck, Billings Grace United Methodist Church in Montana

In this first go-around, Scott said the outcomes for WCI are really "unquantifiable." What he's looking for are the "stories they tell and things that happen in churches ... instances where God is showing up."

The Rev. Sarah Beck, of Billings Grace UMC, agrees.

"This isn't about quick fixes," she said. "We're really doing some deep listening. There were some expectations that this will solve all our problems, but that's not the point."

Beck continued, "The idea is to say, 'build from your strengths, that's where the change comes from.'"

"For the most part, I feel part of WCI has freed me up to really be a pastor," said the Rev. Jim Barth, of Powell UMC, adding the church is now trying to change its service times to attract new people. "This might sound strange, but to try new things and fail has been great. We're moving around our entire worship and what new possibilities that will open up."

Rev. Jeremy Scott leads workshops for the Whole Church Initiative around the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain annual conferences. For more information about the WCI, go to wholechurchinitiative.org or email jeremy@yacumc.org.