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.
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.
Equipping Leaders for Ministry is a program to mentor 25 local churches over the course of five years. The churches come from Volusia County in central Florida and represent different denominations and demographics. The focus is on small congregations, with a weekly attendance of 150 people or fewer, who have a part-time or bi-vocational pastor. After a pilot program with a single church at the start of its grant, the program gathers teams of pastors and leaders from six churches each academic year to form a learning community for mutual encouragement and education. Each year, the church leadership teams work with consultants from Ministry Architects to understand the unique needs and goals of their own congregations. A study of the community surrounding each church, along with reports and demographic maps of the county, provides important data for mission decisions. The curriculum for the learning communities focuses on four key areas: hospitality, worship, systems, and technology. During the program, each church develops their own blueprint for action and begin to implement plans that align with their mission and goals. The program includes coaching support and follow-up for an additional six months after the cohort ends.
This project explores what it means for urban congregations to thrive in the midst of collective trauma. As ministers increasingly find themselves as first-responders and their churches as safety-nets to trauma, this project equips them to consider this work in light of their congregational mission. This program is organized to assist urban congregations in developing models of trauma-responsive care that are deeply integrated into the mission of their congregations and that draw from the organic resources of congregational life. Fifteen congregations in three major cities -- Boston, Atlanta, and San Diego -- will undertake a process of examining their congregational life through a framework of trauma that integrates psychologically oriented research about trauma with theologically grounded analysis of what it means to live faithfully in the midst of trauma. An educational team composed of theological, clinical, and community chaplaincy educators has joined congregational task forces to form a collaborative learning network that generates theologically robust and innovative responses to trauma. Through various stages of education, mentoring, and on-site conversations, participants design projects that guide their communities in exploring their mission with greater attunement to the trauma impacting churches, both internally and externally.