New Ministry Resources Cultivate Congregational Health

By Rick Wolcott*

“A key foundational strategy for discipleship is congregational health.  Healthy churches make healthy disciples.  Healthy disciples make healthy disciples.  Healthy disciples transform the world.”

These recent words spoken by Bishop Tracy S. Malone echo her Annual Conference Episcopal Address message that congregational health is a priority of the East Ohio Conference this quadrennium.

“The overall health of the church, and the overall vitality and effectiveness of ministry, largely depends on how pastors and churches handle conflict, disagreements and relationships,” Malone told 50 clergy and laity during their August training session on the principles of the Rule of Christ.

Rev. Arlene Christopherson
Rev. Arlene Christopherson, session leader

“Rule of Christ was designed by the late Rev. Terry N. Gladstone, a Deacon in the Michigan Area, as a way of applying Jesus’ teachings from Matthew 18 to the life and relationships in the local church,” said the Rev. Arlene Christopherson, who led the session.

Christopherson is the assistant to the bishop and the director of Connectional Ministries in the Northern Illinois Conference, where she has been instrumental in teaching the Rule of Christ to clergy and laity.  Each of the past three years, those she has trained have passed that training onto churches that have had pastoral changes.

“We’ve trained the staff parish committee and the pastor in the Rule of Christ and we’ve given them tools for deeper, more meaningful conversations that will help all facets of the church practice better communication skills, and we’ve encouraged the church to make this process their process,” she said.

The six-step Rule of Christ is a new resource in the East Ohio Conference:

  • Step 1 – Look at Yourself (Matthew 18:8-9)
    Jesus tells us to take time to examine our role in a conflict.
  • Step 2 – One-on-One (Matthew 18:15)
    Resolve the conflict.
  • Step 3 – Get Some Objective Help (Matthew 18:16)
    Others can help the parties see possibilities.
  • Step 4 – Take it to the Church (Matthew 18:17a)
    Use the resources of the church.
  • Step 5 – Shake the Dust (Matthew 18:17b)
    Some issues cannot be resolved.
  • Step 6 – God is There (Matthew 18:20)
    God has promised to be with us in the midst of our problems.

Bishop Malone speaks to Rule of Christ participants

“The Rule of Christ is a proven Biblical process, and a tool, for helping pastors and churches build healthy ministry together and healthy relationships,” Malone said.  “The ultimate goal is to have every one of our 718 churches trained and receive this tool, but we’re going to start in our launching of the Rule of Christ this fall in East Ohio with churches that have received pastoral changes this year.”

The pastor and the staff parish chair of each church that had a pastoral change in July will receive a letter from the episcopal office that introduces the Rule of Christ process, identifies the church’s trainer, and sets expectations for arranging the training session.  Throughout the training process, trainers are under the supervision of the district superintendent of the church to which they have been assigned.

“The goal of this work, of this ministry, of this tool, of this resource is to increase and to cultivate congregational health,” Malone said.

Discussing the Rule of Christ process
Discussing the Rule of Christ process

A week after the Rule of Christ training, an additional group of clergy and laity received Critical Response training, another tool for improving congregational health mentioned by Malone during her Episcopal Address.

“Critical response is having an intentional process, a deliberate process, for how we come alongside clergy and their families, and congregations when a critical incident has taken place,” she stated to those in the training session.

“We hope that you will never be deployed but it makes perfectly good sense that your conference would have a plan in place for what you will do upon response to a traumatic event,” said trainer Becky Posey Williams, who is senior director of Sexual Ethics and Advocacy for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW).

Bishop Malone participates in the training of clergy and laity at roundtable
Bishop Malone participates in the training of clergy and laity

The bishop explained that the first step for any critical incident is that she pulls together members of her deliberate process team to assess the situation and determine the next steps.  The deliberate process team consists of the bishop, the superintendent of the district where the critical incident took place, and other conference directors and local church leaders, depending upon the situation.  If a decision is made to deploy a critical response team, that team would be under the supervision of the bishop and the district superintendent.

Training East Ohio Conference clergy and laity in Critical Response and Rule of Christ provides two new resources for improving congregational health, which can lead to more effective discipleship.

“Too often the ministry is stymied, and the mission of the church is thwarted, because of differences, because of conflict, and because of misunderstanding.  I just really believe that what is key, what is foundational, and what is strategic to the growth and vitality of our churches, if we are going to truly live into and fulfill the mission of the Church, is if we lead our congregations to be healthy,” Malone said.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.