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First Congregational UCC, Battle Creek, Michigan

Vitality Discernment

Sign up for Vitality Discernment Small Groups by click here.

Download the Vitality Discernment Booklet

In the summer of 2015, First Congregational Church set out on a journey to become a community of discernment. During this process (called ReVision), we were all invited to read Diane Butler Bass’ book, “Christianity for the Rest of Us.” Bass identified 10 sources of vitality that she found as she visited mainline protestant churches like ours all across the country. While most congregations are in decline, there are churches that are thriving and her re-search focused on identifying the sources of their vitality.

This summer, FCCBC will continue this journey by using the 10 Signposts of Vitality as a starting point for discernment. June 4th will mark a kick off celebration of discernment with a OneBody service and meal. You will have an opportunity to sign up for a discernment small group. At the end of the summer, we will have another OneBody Sunday to present the major themes that have come to light through discernment. This information will be used to form a church mission and values. The mission and values will be used in future decision making in the church.

These are the 10 Signposts of Vitality noted by Butler-Bass:

  1. Hospitality: We strive to host inviting, sacred space for fellowship, relationship building and personal growth.
  2. Healing: We seek to provide opportunities for redemptive healing within ourselves, our relationships and the world.
  3. Worship is anything we think, say, do or feel that supports us in intentional focus on God. It is both an individual and community experience of God’s presence.
  4. Discernment is a community effort. In listening with our hearts, minds and spirits, we can collectively discern God’s will for our lives and our faith community.
  5. Diversity: We seek to embody difference faithfully as we place value on a diversity of voices and experiences in worship, leadership and community.
  6. Contemplation is a spiritual practice that can take many individual or communal forms. Contemplative faith practices ground us in our bodies, awaken our spirits and align our thinking.
  7. Testimony: In both giving testimony and bearing witness to testimony, we find deeper understanding of one another, faith and God.
  8. Faith, equality and justice are intertwined. Our own liberation hinges upon the liberation of all people. In seeking justice, we are active participants in our own redemption.
  9. Reflection supports us in framing our theological thinking through critical discernment of Scripture, faith tradition and church history.
  10. Beauty enables us to touch the Divine in ways that engage our bodies, soul, heart and minds.

A note from Pastor Tom Ott:

In the summer of 2015, First Congregational Church set out on a journey to become a community of discernment*. During this process (called ReVision), we were all invited to read Diane Butler Bass’ book, “Christianity for the Rest of Us.” Bass identified 10 sources of vitality that she found as she visited mainline protestant churches like ours all across the country. While most congregations are in decline, there are churches that are thriving and her re-search focused on identifying the sources of their vitality. The author noticed that vital churches are churches that make decisions by discernment rather than parliamentary practices like Roberts Rules of Order.

So what is discernment and why is it so important to being a vital congregation?

Discernment is decision making that is rooted in prayer. It isn’t simply a perfunctory prayer that is offered at the be-ginning of a meeting. It is a commitment to move into decision making by holding the question: what is God’s will for this? Obviously, answering that question isn’t as simple as following a straight forward 12 step process, but there are some lessons we have learned about being a discerning community through our experiences with ReVision:

  • Discernment for us is a communal exercise. Obviously there are decisions we each discern personally for ourselves, but being a discerning community means everyone has to be invited to participate. We aren’t a community that entrusts our staff or our council with the work of discernment. We believe we get closest to discerning God’s will for our church by involving everyone in the process.
  • We’ve learned that listening is more important than speaking in discernment. In our three months of small group conversations during ReVision, we discovered that the insights and perspectives shared by the other members of our groups helped us see and know things that we couldn’t know on our own.
  • We learned that patience is more important than expediency in discernment. We took three months of small group conversations, a meeting to discuss ideas, another three months to develop the ideas and another meeting to present proposed ideas. Half a year was spent without doing anything! No projects were launched, no new activities initiated. For six months we sat with the question, “What is God’s will for our faith community?”
  • We’ve learned that consensus is more important than a majority in discernment. There are no winners and losers when we make decisions through discernment. There is simply a recognition that a decision is ready to be made, that “way has opened” (to use the language of the Quaker tradition), that we feel confident that what we have decided is pleasing to God. That doesn’t mean that decisions made through discernment will always prove to be successful, or that the outcomes will leave everyone feeling good. We aren’t blessed with the gift of omniscience. All we can do is choose the next right thing to do. Living faithfully is kind of like walking through the woods at night with a flashlight. We can’t see the final destination, but can see the next right step to take.
  • Discernment is messy and inefficient. It can be frustrating holding on to uncertainty in an age when our culture values decisiveness. It can take a long time and requires a willingness to delay making decisions until consensus has been reached. But discernment is one of the distinguishing marks of a vital congregation.

Being faithful requires our willingness to hold the question, “What is God’s will for this?” I hope that this Vitality Discernment Process will continue to teach us how to engage the spiritual practice of discernment so that it becomes the norm for how we make decisions in our personal lives and in the life of our faith community.–Pastor Tom Ott


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