Written by Amy Cook, Working Group Head for Faith Formation, The Episcopal Diocese of California
At the beginning of May, the pilot cohort for the Vital + Thriving Churches initiative had its first weekend gathering. On Friday, the clergy met together in a hybrid gathering designed to support their spiritual leadership in this program and to provide a framework for the 18-month cohort process. We opened with prayer and a spiritual practice called “Dwelling in the Word.” In this variation of a Lectio Divina (Divine Reading) practice, a passage of scripture was read twice, and then participants shared what they heard in groups of two. When the large group reconvened, each person shared what they heard their partner say about the passage. Then, we continued with presentations and discussion. The clergy were supportive of one another, honest in their questions and concerns, and energized by the possibilities of learning to thrive as a congregation in our post-pandemic society.
Later that evening, the clergy, along with the lay members of the V+T steering committee from each of the churches involved in the cohort, met online. We began the evening with the practice of Dwelling in the Word, hearing new things coming up as we discussed the same scripture passage. Bishop Marc shared with the whole group about his vision for this work, and a foundation was laid for work of the cohorts.
On Saturday morning, the clergy and lay steering committee members took part in another hybrid training. Once again, we started with the practice of Dwelling in the Word, using the same piece of scripture read on Friday. There was a sort of jolt in me as I suddenly realized the importance of this practice. The cohorts will keep using the same passage throughout all our time together. That passage, Luke 10:1-12, will become imbedded in us – a shared scriptural reference that we will know really well, and that God will use to call us into the work of building God’s Beloved Community. Everyone involved, whether familiar with Lectio Divina or not before this started, will become comfortable sitting with scripture and opening to the Spirit’s calling through the text. And I’m excited to see where God will lead us.
As the day progressed, we learned more about both the challenges and the opportunities facing churches today, and how we all can learn to make adaptive changes in order to thrive as congregations. It became clear that each church will be deeply listening to its members and to their neighborhood through the discovery process as a unique mission and ministry rises to the surface. This is unlike any other congregational development program I have ever seen, and it is backed by 30 years of research into what makes a church thrive. I could see lay leaders and lay people who would never consider themselves a leader leaning in, hopeful for new possibilities, and excited by God’s mission in the world.