When the Rev. Jon Ferguson was appointed to Stillwater United Methodist Church seven years ago, the congregation appeared healthy.
However, despite the church's prime location and an average attendance of 500, the Dayton, Ohio, congregation was on the brink of bankruptcy. When the district superintendent approached Ferguson about participating in the Missional Church Consultative Initiative - MCCI - the pastor replied, "I'd get down on my hands and knees and beg to be part of it because I know we need it!"
Launched in 2011 by Bishop Bruce Ough, and continued by Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, MCCI is designed for churches that need revitalization. This "very unique training/coaching/resourcing initiative," said the Rev. Sue Nilson Kibbey, who leads the West Ohio Annual Conference Office of Missional Church Development, is by invitation only. Each year, eight to 12 local churches are recommended by their D.S. and invited by the bishop to participate. They have a month of prayerful discernment to decide.
For a congregation to be considered, the church's physical building must be in good shape and located in a potential mission field. Church leaders must recognize that something different needs to happen. And the pastor, Kibbey added, must be "coachable and willing, with zest, grit and heart." The annual conference underwrites the cost.
"Revitalization," Kibbey said, "is a spiritual journey. It takes courage and faith for a church to step forward into the unknown. The process helps a church identify its very next dreams and gain tools and resourcing to make those dreams a reality."
For a year, participating pastors attend monthly training sessions, complete with monthly assignments to take home and implement.Resourcing begins for every church/pastor team with the launch of a Breakthrough Prayer Initiative, adding to the congregation's existing prayer life an ongoing request for God to break through for new hopes, dreams and possibilities.
The pastor, working in partnership with an MCCI implementation team from his or her local church, continues to train and prepare the congregation, until members say they are ready for the next step in the process.
Listening, then discernment
"I bring the MCCI team on site," Kibbey said, "and we spend time listening both to individual leaders, as well as to the congregation collectively, about what they have heard God speak about their very next hopes and dreams in moving forward." The MCCI Team then prepares a report for the church around what themes have emerged regarding the next steps that the congregation consistently named as their next steps. These are written as "prescriptions" in the report.
Then the real work begins: accepting the "prescriptions." The congregation has 30 days to hold "town hall" meetings to discern if this is the direction in which God is leading them. The district superintendent returns to the church, and, in an official church conference, the congregation votes to whether accept the prescriptions. A 75-percent vote is needed.
"There is no standard prescription," Kibbey said. "When the church has affirmed moving forward, we team with the church and the pastor to gather people into work teams with coaches - experienced ministry leaders who already have implemented that very same prescription work successfully and fruitfully in their own setting - to bring the how-to and to advise for a couple of years. These are in-the-trenches ministry practitioners."
Money wasn't the only hurdle for Stillwater United Methodist Church. Located along the convergence of two heavily traveled roads, the church was surrounded by a stable residential area with 61,000 children in a total population of 264,000 people, the majority not a part of a faith community. Although the congregation had a rich history of mission to the community and beyond, it had grown somewhat complacent and inwardly focused.
Stillwater's MCCI prescriptions called for holding a 30-day season of prayer, doing a staff audit, starting a "door-to-core" assimilation process for newcomers and current attendees, improving first impressions for visitors and maximizing evangelism opportunities.
"Because of the nature of our problems," Ferguson said, "the prescriptions were quite challenging. We did a lot of relational groundwork and held two, often-contentious town hall meetings. Our vote was 93 percent positive, which was amazing to me because the work had been so hard. I felt that many people realized that this was our only realistic hope for change."
The coaches, he said, "were incredibly helpful. A key one was in Georgia, and we actually made several trips there to learn from them. The Georgia church was very generous in letting us copy many of its systems and structures, and we adapted many ideas to our own context. Other coaches helped with marketing, facility remodeling and staff structure."
'A fresh perspective'
Another pastor singing the praises of MCCI is the Rev. Justin Williams of Coburn United Methodist Church, Zanesville, Ohio. "Our church had reached a plateau," he said. "We have an excellent facility and location, but we had seen a decline over several years. We were beginning to see a reversal of that trend and were ready to move forward."
MCCI is not a one-size-fits-all approach, he learned. "MCCI listens closely to what the church members and leadership are saying in order to come alongside them and help them work toward the church's dreams and goals," he explained. "As the church does the self-study, they are telling the MCCI team who they are as a church. The church is faced with its current reality. The Breakthrough Prayer Initiative gets everyone praying for the future of the church. It helps place the focus on the mission."
The prescriptions for Coburn United Methodist Church highlighted such areas as leadership, hospitality, family ministries, facilities, worship, mission, print and electronic resources, and website and social media.
The church responded well to most of the prescriptions, Williams said. "Our leadership board has proven to be a wonderful change. We have seen board members take on a new sense of ownership and responsibility to the mission of the church. We have a new, vital family ministry established. We added a new worship service. We have new signs and a new visual identity." Average worship attendance increased from 253 in 2015 to 310 today.
"MCCI gives a fresh perspective to a church," Williams continued. "MCCI is bathed in prayer. The process helps a church dream dreams and consider how to make those dreams a reality. The prescriptions are simply tools to help a congregation accomplish what they have already stated that they want to accomplish.
"While I don't believe MCCI is the answer for every congregation, I am excited about the ways it can revitalize a church when the church allows the Holy Spirit to come in and do something great."