Does training congregations lead to transformation?
A retrospective study
In 2016 a retrospective study investigated the longer term impacts of a congregational renewal intervention done with seven congregations that participated for two years in Oregon (2013-2015). The object of this strategy was to renew and transform participating congregations and leaders while engaging their context to have a positive impact. A 2015 comprehensive ministry review documented the overall project’s impact. This report focuses on renewal and transformation within individual congregations. In addition to re-taking the Congregational Vitality Survey, leaders from congregations were interviewed in 2016 using a new reflection tool designed to measure the outcomes associated with renewal efforts.
All but one congregation showed multiple signs of renewal/transformation three years after the intervention began. The degree of renewal appeared to be related to the initial vitality of the congregation and how deeply they engaged core practices of spiritual discernment (biblical work and prayer), listening, experimenting and reflecting. While there were signs of renewal in congregation’s relationships with God, each other and the world, there was no evidence of systematic increases in worship attendance, mission support or financial sustainability in response to that renewal.
If the primary goal of these interventions is to help congregations become more missional (improved connections with God, each other and the world), then this appears to be a promising approach. However, if another goal is to help congregations become more sustainable both now and into the future, an additional intervention appears to be needed.
Presently the ELCA is supporting 11 other synods in renewal strategies similar to the Oregon model. Findings from this study suggest:
1. Finding ways to maximize congregation-wide participation in core practices is critical.
2. Synods may want to adapt interventions and/or expectations based on the initial vitality of the congregations. Those that are less vital appear to move more slowly and may need more focus on internal relationships and trust building. However, it is not necessarily recommended that congregations be grouped by vitality. This study found that more vital congregations were able to support less vital congregations and that experience seemed to help both grow in new ways.
3. Issues of sustainability may need to be addressed more intentionally and directly.