Four Months into the Vitality Initiative for Congregations – What Have we Learned so Far?

– An update from Deacon Timothy Siburg; Director for Mission, Innovation and Stewardship

We find ourselves this week in our Advent journey between the third and fourth Sundays. We’re in this liminal space of wonder. A space of silence and surprise. A space of listening, anticipation, hope, and pondering. A space where God’s presence, Emmanuel is real, but we can’t quite grasp all of what it might mean. It seems like a great space too to describe what we are learning as the first cohort of the Vitality Initiative for Congregations.

The first cohort of the Vitality Initiative for Congregations has been hard at work- discerning, learning, listening, and researching now for nearly four months. Together, this group of teams from eight congregations across the synod have been journeying through the first phase of the two year process. These congregations are all different sizes, from different communities and contexts- from as far west as Sidney in the southern part of the Panhandle eastward to Seward, Lincoln, Omaha, Ralston and Bellevue. Together they have been pondering and digging into the question, “Who are we?” Listening in their community to better understand who they are, their story of the past and present, and to imagine who it is that God is inviting them to be now into the future.

The Vitality Initiative is an experiment made up of many experiments. Through it, each congregation is learning, and the synod as a whole is learning. There are no easy answers. If there were, work and experimentation such as this would not be necessary. Together, these congregations are pondering big questions and the cohort is holding space to sit, wrestle, and wonder with them. Through this process, learning is happening that will inform and shape the participating congregations now and into the future, and that will inform and hopefully help lead the synod forward too.

Through this process so far- hopes, dreams, and reflections have surfaced. New and old stories have been heard, listened to, and shared. Questions are being pondered. Faith communities are opening up to imaginative possibilities and to a place of wonder about what it is that God might be up to and inviting.

Collectively insights gained so far include:

  • The way things used to be, before the pandemic, no longer explains the way things are. New ideas are needed, and a willingness to try new things.
  • Each congregation that is participating in this cohort has a rich story of God’s presence and promise, and of showing up with and as part of their larger community.
  • The congregation’s teams participating in this effort are active and highly engaged, and deeply invested in the process and hoped for outcomes for their congregation.
  • The teams from these congregations are actively updating and engaging their congregations in listening and story sharing, in preparation to articulate who their congregation is by the end of January 2022.
  • Through spiritual practices and faithful conversations, it is very clear that God is active and up to something in each of these faith communities and in this synod. It’s exciting and inspiring to see and witness this creative activity.

As the first phase focused internally within the congregations about identity concludes, the vitality initiative’s journey will move to its second, more external phase, pondering “who are our neighbors?” These answers will be different for each congregation because of each of their unique contexts. But together as a cohort, listening and learning will continue that will shape these congregations. That will lead then to the third phase focused on putting the learning into practice and to listen and discern about what God might be up to and inviting the congregation be a part of next. Finally, the congregation teams will be set loose to put their idea(s) into practice through a 6-month period of experimentation. That’s what lies ahead.

In the meantime, colleagues and people of God, we ask for your continued prayers for these congregations in their journey and for the work of this cohort. We ask for your prayers as we all walk together in this process, and we look forward to inviting you all into our shared learning as our journey continues through this initiative.

To conclude this update, here is an Advent litany prepared for the eight congregations of this cohort for the Fourth Sunday of Advent by Bishop Maas. It seems like a fitting place to end and continue in our work and prayers together:

God of silences, God of surprises, come to us as you came to Mary to remind us daily that we too are filled with your presence, the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Help us to live in the fullness of what it is

To be favored.

Accept our prayers and praises as you accepted Mary’s song; let us too rejoice in your marvelous and miraculous news of a world turned upside down, in which the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. Help us to live in the fullness of what it is

To be favored.

Let us join with Elizabeth in blessing her cousin Mary, as one who is for us the model of selfless, faithful obedience to your will. Make us know the honor it is to be invited to bear your Son to the world. Help us to live in the fullness of what it is

To be favored.

 Join us to the work of our congregation’s Vitality Initiative Team so that we may share their discoveries, know our congregation’s story, and look forward with them in hope to the future you have in store for us. Help us to live in the fullness of what it is

To be favored. 

Number us among the saints like Elizabeth and Mary who receive good news not with fear but with faith, that with them we might open ourselves to your will and be partners in proclaiming the Kingdom of your Son, whose coming we await and whose birth we soon celebrate. Help us to live in the fullness of what it is

To be favored.

All of this we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel.