The Christian Education Department of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) will initiate congregational learning labs that will help congregations harvest from their tradition, observe their ministry context and reflect on their gifts and challenges, pivot in order to respond to the ministry call before them, and enliven their witness and service in the world. With a particular eye toward the effects of gentrification in urban centers and youth exodus in rural settings, the project will use these H.O.P.E. Congregational Learning Labs to incubate and innovate so that their learnings can be shared more broadly across the denomination. The department will develop resources to support these local learning processes and will harvest and highlight the learnings through its publications (print and digital) and its gatherings (in-person and virtual). The project assumes design thinking and hybridity in methodology, as well as storytelling and contextualized Christian practices that are a part of African Methodism that aim toward a liberative theological understanding and faithful action for justice, peace, human flourishing, and salvation of all creation.
Black congregations came into being to bear the gospel message of God’s kindom -- the reign of love and justice -- to the needs of healing and uplift for Black lives. In ethical and theological terms, justice is a divine moral imperative to do what is right in a manner that is fair and impartial. ABC stands in a unique position to help Tennessee congregations explore theological and ministry praxis for implementing strategies relevant for prophetic mission and social justice ministry. To this end, ABC is engaging congregations of varying denominations and sizes in Congregational Empowerment Zone (CEZ) cohorts from the four major urban areas of the state of Tennessee: Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville. ABC supports these congregations battling the intersecting evils of social crisis and justice-adjacent issues by facilitating their sociological and theological reflection and engagement on strategies for effective mission and ministry decision-making through learning communities for pastoral development, congregational study linking theology to lived reality, and peer learning. The common definitions for “thrive” or “thriving” are to grow vigorously, develop well, advance, or flourish with intentionality toward a purpose or mission. Adding theological content to the definition of “thriving,” this congregational initiative hopes to invigorate and breathe new life into the ecclesial practice of Black churches in three foci for spiritual and social empowerment: 1) Theological Imagination -- re-engaging all forms of oppression and dominant interpretations of reality through a congregation’s exercise of critical consciousness and human agency; 2) Ministry Praxis -- reorienting reflection and action upon forms of prophetic communal care to transform the ways in which congregations address social domains of injustice; and 3) Adaptive Leadership -- Re-visioning toward emancipatory models of non-hierarchical, gender equitable, and intergenerational leadership to humanize systems through profound love for people and the community. These areas of empowerment represent the Gospel’s portrayal of the teachings, moral uplift, and ministry of Jesus to those looked upon and treated by a spiritually ailing society as “the least of these.” ABC expects at the end of this process that congregations’ understandings of spirituality as social witness will stretch and empower participants to name the realities impacting marginalized and oppressed communities and imagine and engage unitive possibilities to transform them.
Augsburg University is about 1.5 miles north of the epicenter of the uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. A thriving congregation in the Twin Cities from this day on must be actively engaged in dismantling white supremacy and leading in racial justice. The Christensen Center for Vocation (CCV) at Augsburg University creates systems that generate opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to experience vocational discernment through partnerships with local faith communities for the common good. The Thriving Congregations Initiative grant will enable Augsburg's CCV to expand and solidify the future of this work with congregations and the university community. We have been doing this work for three years with an expanding ecumenical network of ELCA, PCUSA, UMC, and ECUSA congregations located in urban, suburban, and exurban neighborhoods. We will walk with our partners through two consecutive two-year learning communities consisting of leadership teams from 12 congregations. Our hope is to develop an ecumenical network of 24 congregations over five years who are becoming more deeply engaged in the proclamation of Christ's good news in transformative ways in their contexts.
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary's Houses of Hope program serves small town and rural congregations. Its mission explicitly includes service to the church in ways beyond theological degrees. The congregations the program addresses are places where hope is often at a low ebb, but where the potential for congregations to influence transformation toward hope is significant. The program focuses on Christian practices of forgiveness and gratitude that open to and nourish hope. A digital Houses of Hope Learning Center serves congregations across the country, while Houses of Hope Learning Cohorts deeply engage congregations in Oklahoma and Texas.
The Catalyst Initiative, a program of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, inspires and empowers local churches to thrive in mission and ministry by partnering with their communities in life-changing ways. The Baltimore-Washington Conference connects 603 diverse churches in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the panhandle of West Virginia. Its mission is to inspire and equip these local faith communities to develop disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world so that more “transformed lives transform lives.” The Catalyst Initiative is designed to complement that mission and vision. Propelled by a shared foundational doctrine to live out a love of God and a love of neighbor, it enables leaders from 100 churches to receive and extend grace in ways that create wellness, justice, hope, and vitality. Reflecting the racial and economic diversity of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the initiative includes thriving congregations, united by a desire for spiritual growth, an eagerness for change, and a mandate to serve their community and world. Using a cohort model, the Catalyst Initiative provides participating congregations with resources, including: powerful diagnostic and self-reflection tools to understand the church and community they serve; a combination of digital and in-person training sessions that call on best practices for church growth, innovation, and community development; mentoring and peer-learning opportunities; and creative evaluation measurements to ensure that sound theory results in effective action. This initiative enables churches to claim a holy imagination, discover interesting ways of expressing their faith that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, shape new discipleship systems, and develop achievable metrics for measuring impact. As participants continue to meet, they will pioneer new ideas about how they operate in a post-pandemic world, discern ways their congregations can be relevant to new generations, and build enthusiasm and contextual paths for growth in ministry and discipleship, all while remaining rooted in the best of Methodism.
Belmont University is the largest ecumenical Christian university in the state of Tennessee and is located in the heart of Nashville. As a member of this vibrant city, Belmont longs to be at the forefront of strengthening the work of local congregations in their efforts to thrive in the contextual settings in which they are found. For many, the definition of a “thriving congregation” is tied to the simplistic metrics of rising attendance figures and budgetary growth. Belmont, however, believes that there are far better ways of measuring the characteristics of a thriving congregation. A thriving congregation is one that believes it contributes something meaningful to both the Kingdom and the community. A thriving congregation offers hope to its members and hope to its world. Thriving congregations have a clarity of missional identity and respond to community changes while offering authentic Good News through prophetic proclamation, acts of service, community engagement, reconciliation initiatives, and welcoming practices. Using appreciative inquiry, congregational assessments, leadership development opportunities, retreats, and church consulting, the Belmont leadership team is engaging 18 local congregations in the core of Nashville over the next five years to develop thriving characteristics for each church.