The Vital Church Initiative has energized discipleship at Midland: Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Conference
The Rev. Michael Sawicki, pastor of Midland: Aldersgate United Methodist Church signs off an email with, “Because we are called.” That phrase pretty well sums up how the Vital Church Initiative (VCI) turned the congregation around.
Michael has pastored Aldersgate since 2013. About the same time, he became involved in the organization of REACH Summits sponsored by the New Church Development Team of The Michigan Area and, therefore, understood the promise of VCI. “I hoped the congregation would go through VCI,” he recalls. “So, I talked it up. Eight or ten laypersons attended the Summit in 2015 and came back excited. That was a great catalyst.”
Back home in Midland, a team of 12 experienced VCI training together. The energy and enthusiasm generated in that small group caught on in the congregation. “The key for any kind of change,” Michael says, “is to generate positive momentum.”
“My heart is for reaching people for Christ,” Michael shares. “I breathe evangelism.” That attitude proved infectious. His passion for people to experience the grace of Christ and the life transformation that grace brings has helped motivate others “The key role of a pastor,” he says, “Is to define what a win looks like.” He then adds, “It’s not just me-and-Jesus. We win when people come to Christ and discover why they exist. That principle plays into all the efforts we’ve done through VCI.”
Since March of 2017 the church has been working on their prescriptions (ministry plan). “We know our weaknesses now,” Michael states, “and the prescriptions give us a defined strategy for implementing changes toward achieving our goals.” While recognized as a church generous in mission giving, Aldersgate needed to move from supporting ministry to doing ministry. “We now put our boots on the ground and get our hands dirty,” Michael observes.
VCI helped move the church from transactional to relational ministry. Michael describes the different approaches. “We can give children back packs and let them be on their way. But do we know them? Do we know their names or their fears or their worries?” Another example. “Our church, along with others, put together and gave away Thanksgiving baskets to 400 families in the area. We gave them food, patted them on the back and said, ‘See you next year.’ They were glad to get it and we felt good.” That’s changed.
Since VCI, Aldersgate has become intentional about ministries being relational opportunities. They stopped seeing the annual Easter Egg hunt as just a candy give-away. Family fun night expanded when the church built an outdoor pavilion on their property near an apartment complex. “We did it to create a connection point,” Michael reports.
This fall the process of redefining and repurposing ministries will continue. Michael is excited about the start-up of a Financial Peace University. “It’s an opportunity for members but is targeted to involve the community around us,” Michael explains. “People are struggling, and this gives them a tool to find freedom from financial debt and the burdens they are bearing.” Another outward-looking development is the hiring of a Director of Congregational Care, who is creating a system of hospitality for both guests and members.
“It’s not just me-and-Jesus. We win when people come to Christ and discover why they exist.” ~ Pastor Michael Sawicki
The pastor asserts that moving from transactional to relational ministry requires a one-to-one discipleship model focused on knowing Christ and living purposefully. “What does a disciple look like? What does a disciple do?” Michael asks. Every person is responsible for mentoring and developing leadership by “walking through the scripture with others so they discover who Jesus is as a personal God who accompanies them every day.” He remembers the joy the congregation felt on Christmas Eve when a teen, a friend of a youth group member, was baptized. “He didn’t grow up in the church. The boy came to Christ because his friend shared his faith and led him to Christ. That creates energy and hope.”
Pastor Sawicki credits VCI with giving Midland: Aldersgate a new sense of direction. “It was most helpful for the congregation to hear an outside voice articulate clear steps. We also have a written document to review and revise.” He goes on to say, “That written plan is how we define a win and how we evaluate our steps, successes and struggles.”
While a pastor may already “know all this,” Michael says the key is mutual agreement to a plan on the part of a VCI team and congregation. “Every church can say, ‘Now you are leaving into the mission field.’ But a written plan calls for every program to have an outward focus and an alignment with your mission,” he explains. “A written plan asks, ‘Does this fit?’ and reminds us of what we are called to do.”
Michael cautions churches against thinking VCI is a checklist. “It is not ‘Do these five things and you will grow,” he reflects. “VCI is a systematic and systemic approach to a cultural shift. Its aim is the creation of a healthy environment for growth.” For Aldersgate and the other 113 Michigan congregations involved in VCI, facilities, hospitality, worship, and a discipleship process are aspects contributing to culture shift. But Michael claims that “our biggest shift has been from a ‘we-can’t-do-this’ to a ‘we-can-do-this’ perspective. Now Aldersgate is in a reality shift full of possibility thinking. People are seeing possibilities of ministry instead of being stuck in what we can’t do.”
Clear communication has been crucial. “We were shifting everything at a core level. So, we provided a clear understanding of where we were going and why we were going there and what it would look like when we got there,” the pastor explains. Coffee conversations, chats with the pastor, sermons, small groups, newsletter … kept people in the loop. “When people don’t know what’s happening they become afraid and imagine the worst,” he says. “But hopefulness creates energy.”
What would he say to a church thinking about starting VCI? Michael gives the church’s secretary the last word. Julie MacLauchlan says, “Do it! Why wait? It’s worth all the work and the stress! It lights a fire under you!” He concurs. “VCI is a lot of work but the benefits are beautiful. Aldersgate resembles a sports team on a winning streak.”
This fall there will begin to be new opportunities for clergy and laity across Michigan to engage with VCI. The Rev. Gary Step, Associate Director of Congregational Vibrancy for The Michigan Conference, reports that the Vital Church Initiative is expanding to make it accessible to more churches.
The traditional path will continue. And out of their six years of experience with the program, VCI leadership has discerned common patterns in the prescriptions and what’s worked; workshops will be available in those critical areas. “VCI and Beyond” will fully launch in January 2019.
“We went through 20 VCI consultations in the spring of 2018,” Gary comments. “All 20 churches voted to move on to Phase 3 and are ready to embrace a ministry plan aimed at cultural shift. VCI is transitioning very strong,” he concluded.
Watch MIconnect for more stories of VCI congregations and for details about VCI and Beyond.