Congregational Vitality: The Board Game

In March 2015 North Park Theological Seminary, in cooperation with the Start & Strengthen Churches Congregational Vitality team of the Evangelical Covenant Church, launched a certificate in congregational vitality. The certificate is a collaborative initiative between the seminary and denomination to put the expertise of church and academy in service to current students and pastors.

The 12-credit certificate is comprised of courses in Foundations of Congregational Vitality, Leading Healthy Missional Change, and Strategic Ministry Planning, capped with an elective of choice.

Box Cover

Board game, created by Kendall Churchill

Kendall Churchill (MDiv, NPTS), pastor at Calvary Covenant Church in Evansville, Minnesota, is part of the certificate’s inaugural cohort. For his final project in Foundations in Congregational Vitality, Churchill developed a board game, now being promoted by the denomination. The game allows users to simulate the vitality pathway. According to Churchill,

“A major goal of congregational vitality is helping people understand what vitality is and how it works. I designed a game to help churches explore that concept. As a church begins the vitality pathway, people are given a lot of information to process. My game instructs users in the different types of churches, healthy missional markers, the pathway, and consequences of choices in each type of church. Playing the game helps users better understand the state of their own church and the consequences of upcoming choices.”

Churchill names the congregational vitality courses a “huge asset” in his ministry, giving him tools and confidence for church leadership.

Kendall & Tracy Churchill

Kendall & Tracy Churchill

“[Prior to completing the course] I didn’t feel ready or called to take a leadership role but that class gave me both confidence and a new perspective. Coming to Calvary Covenant as my first call was made much easier. The classes gave me language and perspective to understand church culture. The particular tips from the classes regarding starting in a rural church have been invaluable.”

While his design is intentionally simple, Churchill says users “can expect to find a depth of meaning” as they play the game. “I highly recommend playing it twice – once to understand the game play mechanics and a second to grasp the meanings behind the game play.” Churchill’s wife Tracy, graphic designer for the project, notes that the absence of words on the game board and pieces was also intentional, making the game accessible to non-English speaking congregations.

Find more information on the congregational vitality pathway board game, including ordering instructions here. Learn more about North Park’s Certificate in Congregational Vitality here and here.

Opinion: A Call for Comprehensive Assessment of the Vitality Pathway

In the 1840s, Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the famous Supreme Court justice, was studying medicine in Paris. Mortality rates in European hospitals for women giving birth were at 10–35%. For a thousand years it had been believed that during childbirth toxic substances were released from deep within the mother’s body, causing fever and death. The unchallenged belief of the day was that these women died of “puerperal fever.”

Dr. Holmes theorized that the source of the infections was actually the hands of the physicians themselves. Doctors would come straight from working on cadavers to delivering babies without washing their hands or cleaning their instruments. They brought pathogens from the lab to the clinic. Dr. Holmes’ suggestion that the physicians were themselves causing illness was dismissed. Doctors would not consider the possibility that they were transmitting pathogens to their patients. Only with the work of Louis Pasteur, some twenty years later, would doctors accept their role in transmitting disease and change their procedures in caring for their patients.

This response comes from one who is both hopeful that the Vitality Pathway can assist the church I serve and concerned with the actual effects the program has on all of the churches in which it has been implemented. I was first introduced to the term “latrogenic” by Eugene Peterson. “Latrogenic” (“brought forth by the healer”) refers to a disease contracted in the process of being treated, especially by a doctor. While the ECC’s Vitality Pathway has resulted in renewal for many congregations, the experiences of others suggest it may also result in “latrogenic” complications.

The Vitality Pathway, like everything else devised by human beings, is flawed. Being flawed does not disqualify it from being useful. It does, however, mean we need to approach this program with both hope and care. My concern is that the possibility of “latrogenic” tendencies in the Vitality Pathway is not currently being considered, discussed, or addressed.

The Vitality Pathway begins with the Veritas Seminar and the admonition to “tell the truth.” While the Veritas Seminar intends to tell the truth about congregations, I have been unable to find materials that evaluate, or tell the truth about, the Vitality Pathway itself. Specifically, what is the range of experiences of all of the churches that have begun the Vitality Pathway? It is tempting to highlight those churches that have profited from this program. But what of those situations where the Vitality Pathway has failed to help churches produce the desired results?

In light of the Covenant’s promotion of this pathway as appropriate for all churches in the denomination, the Vitality Pathway has a responsibility to inform prospective churches of the full range of outcomes that have actually resulted from this program. It has the further responsibility of mitigating disruptive and divisive consequences that may result.

Therefore, I would urge the Evangelical Covenant Church to undertake and widely disseminate a comprehensive review of the effects the Vitality Pathway has had on all of the churches in which it has been implemented, including those churches that have dropped out of the program for any reason. If the Vitality Pathway is truly sound, it will withstand the scrutiny of a comprehensive review. We ought to apply the slogan “there is no vitality without reality” to the Vitality Pathway itself.

The majority of the women who gave birth in Paris hospitals in the 1840s would have praised the physicians who cared for them; the voices of the 10–35% who died in the hospital were not heard. This illustrates why it is crucial to go beyond highlighting those who thrive to consider those whose experiences range from problematic to damaging to fatal. The Vitality Pathway assumes that churches that do not benefit from, or are injured during, this program have difficulty solely because “toxic substances have been released from within.” This assumption needs to be interrogated.

Karl B. Larson serves as pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Aurora, Nebraska.

An Interview with John Wenrich

John Wenrich

John Wenrich

John Wenrich serves as the director of Congregational Vitality for the Evangelical Covenant Church and instructor in North Park Theological Seminary‘s certificate in congregational vitality. His article, “The Holy Spirit and Congregational Vitality,” leads our upcoming Quarterly issue. Here John shares his own journey into congregational vitality, how international and seminary teaching have shaped his ministry in North America, and his vision for the Evangelical Covenant Church. (Read the full issue here.)

What led you to the ministry of congregational vitality? What primary factors have contributed to your passion and gifting for guiding congregations toward vitality?

I came into the Covenant as a church planter in 1994. The concepts I learned in church planting prepared me for leading revitalization when I became pastor of First Covenant Church in Portland – a church established in 1887. I experienced firsthand the wind of the Spirit blowing through the valley of dry bones while leading the revitalization of First Covenant. Through the very rewarding experience of pastoring this congregation, God showed me that dying churches can change their trajectory as the Holy Spirit moves and guides. This is why I am passionate about church plants and established churches learning from each other.

As a young boy, I was very close with my grandfather. That significant relationship taught me how to treasure the elderly, listen to their stories and learn from their accumulated wisdom. I remember visiting the oldest living member, Harold Anderson, the very first week “on the job” at First Covenant. I asked him to bless me. I will never forget that experience. Something supernatural happened. God has given me a love for the local church and a passion to see the Gospel burn brightly and warmly in our hearts. I like envisioning, building, and casting a vision of hope.

In your experience, what are the strongest indicators that a congregation should begin the vitality process? Do the indicators look different depending on cultural context or socio-economic circumstances?

There are obvious indicators like flat or declining attendance, decreased giving and a lack of healthy missional leaders. But there are more subtle indicators: apathy, stagnation, a loss of hope, or living in the past. These indicators tend to cross cultures and class.

Yet there is a perception that the pathway is a last resort. Like postponing a doctor’s appointment, some congregations wait until the pain of not changing outweighs the pain of changing. The best time to work on vitality is now. This is true even for healthy missional churches. Our vision is for every church to walk the congregational vitality pathway regardless of their current state of health; we hope vitality becomes the new normal.

Statistics put out by Start and Strengthen Churches suggest that the majority of pastors entering the vitality pathway are white men. How do you interpret this? Is the vitality process culturally-specific? Is there a correlation between white churches and churches in need of vitality? 

It is no secret that the majority of established congregations in the Covenant are white and are led by white male pastors. Statistics refers to this as a distribution sample. This says more about established Covenant churches as a whole than it does about vitality. Most of the multi-ethnic growth in the Covenant is coming through the portal of church planting, not established churches. Continue Reading

1 Question: Gains & Losses on the Vitality Pathway

To generate reflection in anticipation of our upcoming Quarterly issue on congregational vitality, we asked Covenant pastors serving in a variety of congregational contexts, In your experience with the vitality pathway, what were the primary gains for your congregation? The primary losses? We invite you to share your own experience in the comments section.

KJohnston“Wakefield is a predominantly white church in rural northeast Nebraska, averaging about ninety in Sunday attendance. The vitality pathway has given us tools for conversation about our life and health and an awareness that we are not alone in our journey. The biggest challenge has been taking conversations to the next level to discern when and how to bring about real change, while also being realistic about the pace of such change. Our congregation has gained a healthier and happier pastor because of resources and connections the pathway provides. In particular, our involvement in Navigate put me in relationship with a handful of other pastors in similar settings, with a similar passion. After three and a half years, we still gather regularly to encourage and support one another in our ongoing efforts to lead vital churches. As a young pastor, this collegial support has been priceless for me, and I think, by extension, has benefited our church as a whole.” Kelly Johnston, pastor, Wakefield Evangelical Covenant Church, Wakefield, Nebraska

tvs at ipeap - Copy (002)“Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico de Albany Park has an average Sunday attendance of seventy, representing ten different Latino nationalities. Sixteen months in the vitality process have taught our current leadership new concepts and shown them new faces of authority from the denomination interested in the healthiness of our church. As pastor of a once-divided church, I have been revitalized through personal relationships with vitality staff and fellow-pastors on the Navitage. This has enabled me to continue leading church leadership through a major reorganization, focused on the realization of our vision and mission. Developing a behavioral covenant has helped participants understand the danger of conversations that inhibit growth as well as what we need to do to cultivate a healthier climate. The journey has not resulted in any losses in our first-generation, Spanish-speaking congregation. However as we forge along, it is evident that congregational follow-up and subsequent progress depend on the proactiveness and the vitality of a pastor who is both bi-lingual and bi-cultural.” Tomás Sanabria, pastor, Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico de Albany Park, Chicago, Illinois

Chapman“Countryside Covenant Church is a 73 member, 115 year old monoethnic church located on a county highway in rural LaBolt, South Dakota. The vitality pathway has given us language and constructs to understand what type of church we are and what is happening around us. We were able to hold the course of the changes the Holy Spirit led us to when the effects of those changes created tensions within the church. Through the behavioral covenant we gained the ability to speak the truth in love and to recognize that disagreement and conflict are normal and natural. We gained forward thinking, visionary and creative people being drawn to our church. Our greatest loss was people who left the church before they were able to understand or accept why and how their church was changing. Through the Holy Spirit, the vitality pathway has brought this rural congregation a hope and a future.” Mark Chapman, pastor, Countryside Covenant Church, LaBolt, South Dakota

Bea Radakovich (002)“I served as solo pastor for Buffalo Covenant Church, a small (<100), inner-city, multicultural congregation from 2009 to 2012. Chief among the significant gains BCC experienced was the ability to acknowledge our current situation and trajectory as an at-risk congregation. Our work developing and implementing a behavioral covenant was transformative in how we related to one another. Finally, the pathway helped us cast a growing vision for mission to a very needy community. I would mention one significant one: we entered the pathway too late. After a thirty-year decline, the congregation simply did not have the people power, financial muscle, or time to sustain a complete turn-around. It was heartbreaking to see such growth in health and mission and yet to still have to lead the congregation through the process of closing its doors and becoming a Living Legacy congregation. Don’t wait until it’s too late! The earlier a culture of vitality is embraced, the better.” Bea Radakovich, administrative coordinator for Start and Strengthen Churches, Evangelical Covenant Church

s200_hans-erik.nelson“Foothill Covenant Church is a semi-suburban congregation in the heart of Silicon Valley. The vitality pathway has helped us name where we are and where we need to go. It has encouraged us to create a new, healthier ‘normal’ for our interactions with each other. Our renewed health fills us with energy and optimism that God’s Spirit will guide us into the future to become a missional church that embodies the life of Christ and his priorities. We have lost un-health, and some unhealthy elements in our body.” Hans-Erik Nelson, senior pastor, Foothill Covenant Church

Pastor Todd with tree“Community Covenant Church, Eagle River, Alaska, is located in a suburb of Anchorage. The twenty-year-old congregation has a Sunday attendance of approximately five hundred. The vitality pathway has empowered our congregation to participate in a shared journey of becoming a healthy missional church. Several persons, having no previous church involvement, moved from being spectators to participants on vitality teams and continue leading church ministries. Our greatest gain has been our experience of vitality as a movement of the Holy Spirit. This is evidenced through the impact of a dynamic prayer renewal that is sweeping through our church. We are seeing Christ’s hope and healing bring wholeness to those whose lives are being transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit! Our greatest challenge has been helping some members understand that congregational vitality is not a program that offers a quick fix but a Spirit-led journey of personal and corporate renewal that awakens vision and new possibilities. Consequently, there have been a few who have left the church because they desired more immediate results.” Todd Michero, senior pastor, Community Covenant Church, Eagle River, Alaska

What has your congregation gained and lost in pursuit of vitality? What can other communities learn from your experience? Let us know in the comments section (link under title above).

Sneak Peek: CQ 74:1 | Congregational Vitality

Our upcoming Covenant Quarterly issue engages the congregational vitality initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church. In it John Wenrich, director of Congregational Vitality for the ECC, roots vitality efforts in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Covenant pastors Ryan Eikenbary-Barber and Corey Johnsrud share the results of their respective doctoral research assessing the impact of the vitality pathway as a whole and of the Veritas seminar in particular. Here’s a sneak peek.

John Wenrich

John Wenrich

John Wenrich currently serves as director of congregational vitality for the Evangelical Covenant Church. He has recently been nominated executive minister of Start and Strengthen Churches for the ECC.

“A Chinese proverb says, ‘The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.’ Churches often have an easier time telling the truth about Jesus than they do about themselves. Telling the truth about our current reality and trajectory is no less a work of the Spirit than a powerful miracle, sign, or wonder—a lot less glamorous to be sure, but no less significant. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of power and the Spirit of truth. Power and truth must go hand in hand in congregations as they do in the person of the Holy Spirit. Power without truth is dangerous; truth without power is lifeless. Power without truth is abusive and arrogant; truth without power is dry orthodoxy.”

from “The Holy Spirit and Congregational Vitality


Ryan head shot

Ryan Eikenbary-Barber

Ryan Eikenbary-Barber is lead pastor of Bethany Covenant Church in Mount Vernon, Washington. His Doctor of Ministry research at Luther Seminary investigated the impact of the vitality pathway on a single Covenant congregation.

“The vitality pathway helped us navigate our way through new realities. We began to seek the continual conversion that Darrell Guder advocates. Bethlehem employed both servant and transformative leadership styles to help guide the congregation forward. We were inspired by Heifetz’s, Grashow’s, and Linsky’s teachings on adaptive leadership. We sought deep cultural change instead of cosmetic tweaks. We understood congregational change to be a spiritual practice, not just an exercise in human autonomy. Conflict led to change, which ultimately led to growth.”

from “New Life at Bethlehem


Corey Johnsrud

Corey Johnsrud

Corey Johnsrud is pastor of adult ministries at Redwood Covenant Church in Santa Rosa, California. He earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from Luther Seminary, researching the efficacy of the ECC’s Veritas seminar.

“There is a strong tendency in the Covenant ethos that values friendship over mission. That is demonstrated especially when there are hard conversations to be had or difficult directional decisions to be made. We generally seek to preserve friendship over mission. If we are truly to live into the missional ecclesiology that I believe is at the core of our DNA as a denomination, we have to recapture the tension between mission and friendship. If we continue to value relationship over mission we will continue to see our established congregations, for whom the Veritas seminar was developed, languish and decline. Alternatively, if we embrace the wind of the Spirit and the gifts given to the church, we may yet see healthy, missional congregations emerge.”

From “Healthy Missional Churches: An Exploration of the Impact of the Veritas Seminar on Congregations