Vestry Retreat Guide to Church Vitality

‘Tis the season’-–not just THAT season but the season for new Vestry members to go off on retreat to commune together as a leadership team about their hopes and fears, goals and challenges, short-term and long term plans.

We hope every Vestry will put church vitality and growth on their Vestry Retreat agenda. 

Why?

Church decline is a chronic, debilitating disease sapping the strength of the Body of Christ in our midst.  It is curable, but it requires vision, persistence and endurance.

To help frame the Vestry Retreat discussion, what follows are some ideas to guide your discussion:

2012 is a year for working in the vineyard doing God’s work to get the church growing again.  So far 30 congregations have responded to Bishop Marc’s call to action.  Is your’s one of them?

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Bishop Marc’s Call for Congregational Vitality

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ in the Diocese of California,

In our Congregational Vitality webinar on September 13, I asked you to consider making a continuing commitment to work together to develop growth strategies for the Episcopal Church in our diocese. This is not new work, but has been bubbling up since well before I arrived. From the diocesan profile that called for a new bishop in 2005, to our collective Beloved Community Visioning process, the people of this diocese have continuously placed a high value on congregational vitality, and your bishop and diocesan staff hold this as our central mission in the work we do everyday.

This Advent, your diocesan staff and I will provide new tools for teams from your congregations to continue this work in collaborative ways. It is my sincere hope that you will assemble your best and brightest to join us as we embark on this mutual learning beginning December 8.

I am writing now to ask you to take this next step with us. By clicking the link below, you will be taken to a web page to register your congregation’s team. These teams will be asked to join us monthly at locations around the diocese, either in person or online. The teams will be asked to do work between the meetings, providing case studies of vibrant ministries that they encounter in their own congregational settings. They will also be invited to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit, as we respond together to God’s call to mission.

Your diocesan staff is looking forward to this time of new collaboration and new growth.

Faithfully,

Bishop Marc
Congregational Vitality Team commitment form

Parable of the Wicked Tenants: What are the Lessons for the Church Growth Program?

The Great Commission
The Great Commission via Wikipedia

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.  Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another and stoned another.  Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  Finally, he sent his son to them saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “this is the heir; come let’s kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you ever read the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected

Has become the cornerstone;

This was the Lord’s doing,

And it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it all.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they realized that he was speaking about them.  They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

Have you ever noticed how of often the lessons appointed each Sunday has a message for you that you don’t realize until you are sitting there in the pews and it hits you between the eyes?  This happens to me often and it happened again today when I least expected it.  The gospel reading warns us to be faithful to God.  OK, I’m doing my best to be faithful, what’s the problem?

As the homilist interprets the Gospel reading from Matthew I realize that the message is that God’s redeeming grace is enduring but that to receive it we must live the lives of redeemed people.  That is—our weekly corporate worship is not designed so that we can just go through the motions of being part of the Body of Christ, we are expected to actually follow the way of Christ!  YIKES!  That means we can’t just coast we have to work for our share of the product of the vineyard, not be complacent but go out there and work the vineyard like you mean it! Right between my eyes, OK, Jesus I get it. 

Is the church growth program Jesus’ call to us to respond to the long slow decline in church attendance, membership and pledging?  Is Jesus telling not only the Episcopal Church but all the mainline religions that we are wicked slaves forgetting whose we are and taking advantage of an absentee vineyard owner?  Otherwise why would we be so neglecting of the church to let it run out of gas and into the ditch?  

Every major denomination has the same problem and is struggling to find the same answer—how do we keep the inheritance?  The people in the pews are voting with their feet and the message is clear—we don’t feel the institutional church is meeting our needs nor helping us find Jesus in our lives so we are searching for new ways to ‘do church’ that will meet our hunger to be part of the body of Christ.

After twenty years of steady decline, something amazing happened in the Diocese of California Up from the pews the faithful began to ask what are we going to do to get the church growing again?  The Holy Spirit must have been cheering because in a relatively short period of weeks that questioning and prayer, confession and hope for renewal had worked its way from the pews to the Bishop of California.

When Bishop Marc came to the August meeting of the Executive Council he told us he felt it was time to place our faith in God’s call to the faithful and to ask the collective wisdom of the laity to go to work in the vineyard to get the church growing again.  He was neither conditional nor tentative, he asked the Executive Council to take charge of this church growth program initiative and run with it. 

We are a little more than one month into the church growth program and the Pharisees are after us.  The church growth program empowers the laity to try new ways to do church.  It invites us to question programs that don’t work as planned, that do not get desired results.  It encourages us to take initiative on our own without waiting for permission.  But change is hard in the church just as it is in other parts of our lives.

Church Growth Program causes trouble by asking hard questions.  It gives us permission to challenge conventional thinking.  That was apparent to me at the Contra Costa Deanery meeting as I described the upcoming workshops of the membership growth team.  When I said the November meeting would discuss the issues of East Contra Costa County I got hit between the eyes by the concerns of several of the congregations in that area that the real agenda of the Diocese was to consolidate them into one bigger congregation, but that they felt the needs of the area were too diverse, the geographic too distributed and the communities of interest too different to work together.  Really?

Change is threatening and so is the church growth program, just like the Pharisees felt threatened by the preaching of Jesus and the disciples.   But if the church growth program is the laity’s attempt to be the Body of Christ and do the work we are called to do by the Great Commission, questioning is going to happen.

  • Empower the Laity. The change envisioned in the church growth program shifts the responsibility for improving attendance, membership and pledging from the Diocesan staff and clergy to the laity.
  • Set Measurable Results for Growth. The church growth program encourages a new focus of Diocesan congregational development to work on our best opportunities to grow the church rather than its current mission effectiveness focus on our least effective ones.  We do a poor job of measuring results and facing realities that we can no longer afford to keep supporting programs, missions and congregations that are not sustainable.
  • Encourage Collaborative Ministries. The church growth program embraces collaborative efforts to work with struggling congregations to try new ideas to help the congregation pursue its best opportunities to thrive without subsidies.
  • Invest in Growth instead of Subsidizing Failure. The church growth program promises to shift the spending priorities of the Diocese from top down Diocesan programs to bottoms up support for congregational efforts to grow by matching the investment and time commitments congregations are willing to make in a mission or ministry program with matching support from the Diocese on a competitive basis across the Diocese.

I do not know what the right answer is for the East Contra Costa County area is.  But I do know this, the Diocese of California has a big opportunity in the changing demographics and growth patterns emerging over the last ten years that are now being documented in the 2010 Census.  The rapid growth and now stalled economy of East CoCo has given us a new diversity of multicultural richness layered into the underlying fabric of the community.  The Episcopal missions and parishes in Contra Costa County working together are well positioned to respond to those needs with the help of the Diocese.  But alone none of them is able to deal with the size, complexity and diversity of the need.  Some congregations are thriving, others are struggling but few work together in any meaningful way to do the work of the church in this area.

Out of the Pews and Congregation Silos into the Vineyard

Our challenge is to bring together the missions and congregations serving the Contra Costa County deanery area to explore ways they can work together to do God’s work in this part of the vineyard and to define the Diocesan support needs to make it happen.  The difference in the approach to this program with and without the church growth program makes this a perfect laboratory for experimentation with new ways to do church in this part of the vineyard.

The traditional congregational development and misson effectiveness approach is to wait for the Diocese to decide what to do.  The church growth program approach turns that strategy on its head and calls upon the lay leaders of the area to come together, work together, develop a plan to ‘plant a vineyard, put a fence around it, dig a wine press and build a watchtower’ as Matthew described it in the parable—that is to develop a plan and invest in doing God’s work then tend it faithfully until the vines take root and bear fruit and offer it to God, the owner of all of our vineyards.

Do you see the power of this different approach?

The traditional approach to church growth through congregational development and mission effectiveness is to sit in the pews and wait for the Bishop, Diocesan Staff and clergy to tell us what to do.  The truth of our church decline problem should be telling us —-this is not working!

Why?

Jesus is calling us to get up from the safety of our pew to work in the vineyard.  Jesus wants us to work up a sweat by doing the work He gave us to do.  The ‘build it and they will come’ approach to church planting has not worked for a long time.  The buildings of the church are NOT the church.  The church lives in the hearts of the faithful whose lives are touched and transformed by the unconditional love of Christ in our lives and across our community.

To grow the church we must not be afraid to throw open the doors —and our hearts to those who love God and seek Christ and be working in the vineyard where these new seekers and faithful live, work, struggle and pray.  We are wicked tenants because we have failed to follow that call and church decline is part of “putting those wretches to a miserable death” and warning us that God will “lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”  if we don’t get up and get out of the pews and do some honest and holy work in the vineyard he has been calling us to do.

The challenge for the Church Growth Program will be to survive the action planning phase and speak to the hearts of the lay leaders across the congregations to roll up their sleeves and do God’s work in the vineyard.  But the absentee owner promises to come for his produce.  What will he want?

Jesus wants the vineyard to thrive and produce good fruit

He want the laborers in the vineyard to see the Kingdom as one of abundance not a zero sum game where when the landowner gets more the laborers in the vineyard get less. 

God’s economy is NOT a zero sum game and neither is the church growth program.  But it does require honestly facing up to the issues in getting the church growing again.  It does call us to throw open the doors and welcome the faithful from many nationalities, many cultures and languages who love God and seek Christ.  It does call us to stop doing things that no longer work, do not help the church grow or empower us to be the body of Christ.

The consequence of not facing the church growth issues is also clear—-by 2022 the Diocese of California will shrink to a point that it becomes largely irrelevant  from the steady -3.3% decline each year in attendance, membership and pledge units from business as usual.

That is the lesson from the vineyard—be faithful to God, listen to Jesus call to us to make disciples of all nations, and to know that as we do that work in the vineyard, Jesus will be with us until the end of the ages.

Visualize The Great Commission

Growing the church again after years of steady decline in membership, attendance and pledge support is a challenge facing every mainline denomination.  For the Episcopal Church in the United States the decline has averaged -3.3% per year in the key metrics.  For the Diocese of California, the implications of this are profound.

At that current rate of decline, DioCal will have one-half the pledge units (<5000) in 2022 than it had  in 2000.  Similar decline in membership and average Sunday attendance means the Episcopal Church faces an existential threat to its relevance let alone vitality.

The reasons for decline are varied ranging from changing demographics, changes in family religious traditions as secularization pushes faith out of the public square, our schools and other places.  And there are the self-inflicted wounds of churches who still believe they have a monopoly on people’s religious faith experiences.  Then there are the endless conflicts of church politics, religious strife and other bad press that make church seem less inviting, less safe, less home.

A message of renewal not despair

The church has a big problem, but the Holy Spirit is calling us to put aside these burdens and follow our own Great Commission to go out there and make disciples of all the nations—starting with our neighbors. This is not a message we hear very much in the Episcopal Church because we have not had a theological tradition of being evangelists.  Instead our congregations are often silos that shelter us from an outside world we fear rather than unite us with a wider community we should embrace. The fact of church decline is testimony that this strategy is not working.  We now recognize church decline as the #1 problem facing the church today.

Over the past several months, we have been working in the vineyard trying to assess this problem of church decline right here in the Diocese of California and listening for God call about what we can do to fix this problem.

This is what we are hearing in the Church Growth Program:

  1. Help me discover Jesus in my life and support me on my personal faith journey.
  2. Help me give my kids a good faith foundation that will guide their lives.
  3. Give me options to pray, worship and serve others on my terms, in my time available.
  4. Help me be in community with others who share my faith and welcome me as I am.
  5. Spare me from church politics and the hassles that get in the way of my faith journey.

These simple yet powerful messages are the hope of the church.  They symbolize the deep spiritual faith of people who love God and seek Christ but often see church practices as out of touch and in the way of true community.

The Good News is still good news and people still want to hear it. The graphic above is a new way of visualizing church the way we are—-in community with each other.  This is a simple —and far from complete representation of two growth opportunities for the Diocese of California waiting for us to discover ways to meet them.  In East Contra Costa and Southern Alameda amazing changes are taking place.  The rapid growth of new communities in the last boom market followed by the rapid halt to that growth in the current recession and slow recovery is transforming the Diocese of California demographically, geographically, and economically.  Yet the Episcopal Church has a fragmented and weak presence in these new centers for Diocesan growth.

How will we respond?

That is the big question and the big answer to our church growth problem.  God has laid before us a canvas rich in multicultural and ethnic diversity.  The current economic hardships see people hungry for a community of faith where they can find hope, renewal, support and love when they need it most.  The question for the church is—are we going to sit in our congregational silos and wait for all these people to find us—or are we going to reach out and invite them to be part of our communities of faith?

Growing the church is about growing community—and being in communities that thrive on faith.  It is Jesus calling us to live into our own Great Commission as disciples invites others to join us.  To do God’s work we have to put aside some of the old ways of the church that divide us, separate us from our mission in the vineyard and remember that we are sisters and brothers of the body of Christ.

Membership Growth Team Workshops

DOUGHERTY VALLEY COLLABORATION MINISTRY PROJECT.  On October 15th at St. Clare’s Episcopal Church in Pleasanton, the membership growth team workshop will focus on the Dougherty Valley growth opportunities for church growth brainstorming with St. Clare’s, St. Bartholomew’s and St. Timothy’s members about new ways to ‘do church’ and build community to be the Body of Christ in truth as well as in name.  Join us 9am to noon.

EAST CONTRA COSTA COUNTY GROWTH INITIATIVE. On November 12th at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church Brentwood, the membership growth team workshop will focus on the growth and community issues and opportunities in East Contra Costa County we hope that we will also have members perspectives from St. George’s Antioch, St John’s Clayton, and St. Michael and All Angels that bound this growing area and others interested in serving its needs. We will also have a presentation from Rev. Aris Rivera, Vicar of St. Alban’s on his work using the Shaping the Parish program.   Join us 9am to noon.

CHURCH2GO: NEW TECHNOLOGY OPPORTUNITIES FOR CHURCH. On December 10th at Holy Innocents, San Francisco the Membership Growth Team workshop will focus on social networking, communications and other new technologies that can be used to bring the community of faith together in new ways.  From adaptive uses of customer relationship software such as St. Mary the Virgin’s use of salesforce.com to facilitate stewardship, we plan to have a church geek experience to whet appetites and send you home with new ideas for doing church in interesting and exciting new virtual ways. Join us from 9am to noon.

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The Parable of the Open Mic

As I was writing up the notes from our first Membership Growth Team workshop where we discussed the issues of the long slow decline in church membership, attendance and support, I kept coming back to the story of the Open Microphone program going on at St. Luke’s San Francisco.

The Rev Dana Corsello told the story so passionately describing the courage of her congregation to stick with a program that attracts people ‘not like us’ for a nontraditional way of doing outreach (DON”T USE THAT TERM, PLEASE!!!)  That was one of the admonitions from the person who is the glue that holds that program together with its own community of faithful.

Our Spiritual Tension in Growth

The problem of church decline is not just one facing the Episcopal Church but for every mainline denomination. I kept coming back to that ‘spiritual tension’ between doing things we know—that no longer work, and doing things we don’t know and may not even like—that might work.

The Parable of the Open Mic is one of the powerful themes from our Membership Growth Workshop because it forces us to confront the Pharisees in our midst that are holding back the church from growing to meet the needs of those it is supposed to serve today.

In our discussions we also asked ourselves why was this decline happening and what could we do to turn the situation around and get growing again.  The why is this happening question is a tough one.  Among the reasons people give for not being part of the church include:

  • I feel like I am going through the motions of the ritual but I still don’t have Jesus in my life.
  • The hierarchy and rules of the church are not relevant to my life.
  • I am seeking spirituality in my life that the church does not fulfill for me.
  • The church is more about politics and not about faith.
  • I can still believe in God and pray without getting up Sunday morning to go to church.
  • The people in church are not like me.

The common denominator in all these sentiments is that the church as we have come to know it does not always satisfy the hunger in our hearts for a more personal connection to Jesus, or make us feel that God loves us because we feel uncomfortable in the place he calls his house of worship, or ignite that passion that makes us feel embraced by unconditional love.

The truth is Jesus does not live in church and was turned off by the rules of the temple and the elders of the time, but instead of staying in bed and feeling sorry for himself  He got up and went out to create places in the hearts of each person he touched, or healed or broke bread with that transformed their lives.  He taught us that our faith not only sets us free but enables us to see that the “technically correct but completely useless” situations of our lives don’t have to be that way.

Sometimes today the church is off putting because we go through the motions and rituals of faith being “technically correct” but then go out and do the same “completely useless” things that brought us to the Table for renewal in the first place.

The church growth challenge is not about the church, it is about each of us. The church fails in its mission if it does not help each of us discover Jesus in our lives and see the wonder and miracles that happen around us each day.  To get the church growing again it must be able to ‘connect with people’ in ways beyond the ritual and ceremony.

Faith is not something we do on Sunday morning, faithful is something we are every day.  Practicing our faith is that ‘rhythm of life’ experience that reassures us that we are not walking alone no matter where we are or what we are doing.

The lesson of the first membership growth workshop is  to help people find Jesus in their lives on their own terms, in their own ways and in community with others seeking to discover Him too.  Otherwise we’re just practicing spiritual correctness and it will be “completely useless” and completely obvious to everyone.

Membership Growth Team Agenda-September 17th

The Rafael Film Center
San Rafael, California

Membership Growth Team Workshop #1
September 17, 2011

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, San Rafael

ALL ARE WELCOME!  This is the first of four monthly meetings of the Membership Growth Team.  Our fast paced action planning process is designed to frame the attendance and membership growth issues, gather ideas that work from across the congregations, and explore new ideas for church growth.

9:00am

Welcome by The Rev Christopher Martin, Rector, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, San Rafael, California
Introductions around the room

9:15am

What is the Church Growth Program? (Gary Hunt)
Setting the Stage for Change Presentation
• Three Action Planning Teams: Membership Growth, Revenue Growth, DioCal Ops
• Membership Growth Action Planning Process:

  • Focus attention on the need for growth and renewal
  • Gather Ideas that work from Congregations
  • Provide a spiritual foundation for church growth

9:45am      Break

10:00am

Framing the Issues of Growth and Decline

  • BREAKOUT #1: Census 2010: Living into our new demographic realities?
  • BRAINSTORM: Identifying ideas and options for getting back to growth
  • BREAK OUT #2: Creating a Safety Net and Transitions for Struggling Congregations
  • BREAK OUT #3: Defining the needs of Congregations to Get Growing Again
  • BREAK OUT #4: Big Hairy Bold and Audacious goals and ideas for growth!

Noon-1:00pm

LUNCH on our own downtown San Rafael

1:00pm

Reporting Back to Frame the Issues

  • Options for Getting Back to Growth and Implications from Census 2010
  • How do we help struggling congregations make the transition?
  • How do we shift DioCal resources to congregations for growth initiatives?
  • Big Hairy Bold Audacious Goals?

2:00pm   Adjourn

Upcoming Meetings:

October 15th St Clare’s, Pleasanton
Three Saints Collaboration: St Bartholomew, St. Clare, St. Timothy collaboration to growth the church by serving the Dougherty Valley.

November 12th St Alban’s, Brentwood
East Contra County: How does the Episcopal Church respond to the explosive growth, changing demographics, negative impacts of recession and the resource constrained capacity of small congregations (St. Albans-Brentwood, St. George’s Antioch, St. Michael and All Angels Concord, St. John’s Clayton) to meet the needs of the faithful.

December 10th or 17th TBD
Church2Go: Growth Models for Beloved Community. How does the church address the social and other ministry needs of diverse, widely distributed, multicultural communities in changing regional demographics. Imagining new ways to do area ministry in a collaborative, multilocational way.

Church Decline or Growth: Pick One!

I want to tell you several sad stories of church decline and one about hope.

The Episcopal Church has been losing members each year since 1988.  At our average annual decline rate of -3.3% per year, the Diocese of California will have 50% fewer members, pledge units and average Sunday attendance in 2022 than it did in 2000. The Diocese of California’s experience mirrors the national church.

But the Episcopal Church is not the only mainline protestant denomination with declining membership.  It is a disease as common as the common cold.

The next sad story I want to tell you is from the Southern Baptists and the message was quit denying reality and wake up, people!  The story in the Baptist Press by Ed Stetzer is from a guy who has written extensively on church planting.  The article is sad because as Stetzer puts it:

“We don’t change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change. May the truth break our hearts, drive us to our knees and compel us into the mission.”

In the United Methodist Church it is the same sad story told by Jay Vorhees, a pastor in a declining United Methodist congregation. He says each day he prays for a kind of Lazarus miracle in which the Holy Spirit breathes new life into a failed body.  He says he tries to tell his congregation the truth but often they don’t want to hear it.

We can’t change the past, but God gave us free will so we can change tomorrow for ourselves and for the church if we respond to God’s call to us. That is what we are trying to do in the Diocese of California with our Church Growth Program.

Join the Church Growth Program

Bishop Marc Andrus asked for lay leadership help across the Diocese of California to get the church growing again.  The Executive Council at its August 2011 meeting adopted the Church Growth Program as a “Congregations Up!” strategy to transform the Diocese to focus squarely on the following goals:

  1. Grow Church Membership and Average Sunday Attendance
  2. Grow Church Revenue by attracting new members, new pledges and endowment
  3. Focus Diocesan operations on Support for Congregational Growth.

Three teams have been created to develop an action plan in each area over the next 120 days.  You can read about those teams and how you can get involved at the Church Growth Program website at http:/churchgrowthprogram.com. You can also follow our progress online at the link above and I ask you to pray for us as we do our work.

I promised you a happy story to balance out the sad ones I began with:

A paper written by a young Presbyterian pastor on social media policies and his own experience when his congregation told him it would not buy him a smart phone tells a story of hope:

“When I graduated from a Presbyterian seminary and took my first position as a part-time pastor in a small rural church, I expected my days of heavy social media use would soon end. Before I arrived, the congregation rejected my request for a smart-phone, and when I moved into my office I found a stack of ancient cassette tapes on my desk. Surely my days of networking on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs were over. Surely I would soon experience the loneliness many rural pastors feel, disconnected from their colleagues due to geography and lack of communication. But, to my surprise and joy, I was dead wrong.

Within a few months, I found a supportive and very helpful community on Twitter with which I interacted daily. I explored Facebook groups and chatted online with ministry colleagues. My blog became a valuable ministry tool for conversation and collaboration. Even a status update on Facebook could bring comments of support and encouragement. I also found, to my surprise, that my congregation even had a Facebook page of its own that I could update and use to connect to those in our community.

As I continued my practice of blogging on the church, ministry, and contemporary issues, as well as posting sermons I preached, I found that members of my congregation enjoyed reading my blog — and especially consulting the sermons they heard on Sunday mornings. Though they would rarely comment on posts online, many have told me in person that they peruse my website often. In person, we discuss my blog posts or the comment of another read online.”

Do you feel the difference in tone and the sense of hope and optimism rather than pessimism in the voice of Pastor Adam Copeland?

Maybe he was just young and not yet grounded in the ways of the established church.  Maybe he didn’t realize he was not supposed to adapt the technology and social media habits he learned in college to his work as a pastor.   But a funny thing happened in a small rural congregation resistant to change—-he connected with the people in the pews in ways they could scarcely have imagined.  He got to know them, and they him.  They bonded and worked together and prayed together—isn’t that what church is supposed to be about?

The technology did not change the church.  It changed the attitudes of the people about the value and meaning and potential of the church for their lives.  They felt connected to the church in ways they had not experienced before—and that makes all the difference.

Gary L Hunt, Convener, Executive Council Membership Growth Team