by Kari Aanestad, M.Div. Senior
"When we first started work with this project, I was excited," said Charles "Chick" Lane, director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary. "When I followed up with congregations a few months into the project, I was almost speechless. The creativity that is being turned loose by this project is inspiring."
The project to which Lane is referring is the Vibrant Congregations Project (VCP), a massive three-year undertaking led by key Luther Seminary faculty, staff and students alongside congregational leaders. Funded by a significant donation from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., it features the ministry of 38 exemplary congregations from many denominations across the country.
Currently in its second year, the VCP is exploring the present renewal of congregational life taking place across the country. In hopes of better understanding how churches, seminaries and leaders can best cultivate congregational vibrancy, the VCP identified six crucial dimensions to the renewal of congregational health: stewardship; vocation; biblical fluency; children, youth and family; missional leadership and biblical preaching.
The VCP then identified congregations that are exemplary in one of these six areas and is spending the next few years in exploration with them. These identified congregations are now partnering with leaders at Luther Seminary in exploration of their respective dimensions. This partnership will continue over the course of the next few years.
"I firmly believe that the VCP will yield not only numerous new practices that enhance congregational health and vitality but also challenge seminaries to adapt their curriculum to better train professionals to lead congregations in today's changed and ever-changing world," said David Lose, director of the VCP and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching. "We have already learned so much from our congregational partners that has called into question some of our most basic assumptions and pointed the way to fresh understanding and new practices."
In only the first nine months of learning together, the stewardship group, led by Lane, has already reported tremendous growth of creativity and freedom regarding stewardship in their communities. For instance, after identifying a general anxiety about money amongst its members, Light of the World Lutheran Church in Farmington, Minn., began hosting "fearless feasts," opportunities for small groups to talk openly about their attitudes toward, hopes for and fears about money around a meal.
"This is really counter-cultural in a way," said Deb Stehlin, pastor at Light of the World. "We're taught in America that money is a private matter, but we are learning that there are great costs to isolation. Our work as part of the VCP is helping us discover a life of faith and generosity and an invitation to leave behind a life of fear and scarcity. It has been the best gift ever. We are so lucky to be a part of it."
Augustana Lutheran in West St. Paul is another participant in the stewardship group. After hosting nine classes of Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University, a 13-week curriculum that encourages accountability and discipleship, 19 families reported collectively paying off over $14,000 of debt and saving $16,000 for family emergency funds.
"The seminary has done a great job at helping us build a cohesive team at Augustana and equipping us with amazing tools," said Carla Pfeifer, communications coordinator at Augustana. "We are gaining such invaluable insight into our congregation. It has been a fabulous experience to learn and grow in the company of churches from across the country and in the Twin Cities area."
"Ultimately the VCP takes seriously Luther Seminary's conviction that the exciting missional activity of the church is congregationally based," Lane said. "The sorts of interactions the VCP encourages will really help the seminary continue to more effectively train future leaders. We're going to learn so much about what is working and what is not out there that it will inevitably inform our practice of theological education."
For more information about the Vibrant Congregations Project, please visit www.luthersem.edu/vcp.