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Thriving Essentials Moving Forward

August 4, 2021

Nearly 60 volunteers from a range of CRCNA congregations were recently part of the initial pilot training for the Thriving Essentials course, funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

Each session lasted for an hour on each of four days and was part of helping to develop a full-scale leadership development program that will roll out in 2022.

After reviewing feedback from participants in the training, organizers will make changes to the program and conduct additional testing in the coming months, said Elaine May, the curriculum developer who facilitated the training in a series of Zoom sessions.

“This is a process we’re undertaking as we develop this program focusing on how congregations and leaders, especially lay leaders, can change as they focus on and engage in God’s mission.”

The Thrive team is now looking for 300 people to sign up for fall pilot training, said May. People interested in volunteering to take part in the project can sign up using this form.

“We’re looking for all types of people — lay leaders, staff, pastors — anyone in the CRC who is willing to give some time and honest feedback to help shape the course,” said May.

Late last year the Christian Reformed Church in North America received a five-year, $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to establish a new course for leadership development and to provide new opportunities for churches to gather and learn from each other.

The aim of Lilly’s national initiative is to strengthen congregations so that they can help people deepen their relationship with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

The CRCNA’s project, titled Thrive, includes two parts — Thriving Essentials and Thriving Practices — through which congregations will have the chance to renew their sense of identity, deepen awareness of their neighborhood contexts, and explore specific dimensions of their local outreach and hospitality.

Thriving Essentials will be the starting point for all ministry leaders. But we’re envisioning followup courses that are specific to ministry roles,” said Tim Postuma, project director.

Important elements to Thriving Essentials will be to encourage congregations to find ways to discern what God’s mission is for their church.

Using a football analogy during a training, May said: “God knows all of the plays and the hearts of all the players and has the game plan. . . . As we engage in this process, we learn and have the capacity to see the work of God in our human situation. We can’t rely solely on our own decision-making capabilities.”

May cited an experience from a previous church she served to highlight this process. The church underwent a series of workshops on immigration.

One person in the congregation became especially interested in this issue and gathered a small group of people to pray about it, hoping to determine what God’s will was in this area for the church.

During this process, May heard from Bethany Christian Services, an adoption and refugee resettlement organization, that they had a family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo living in the neighborhood of May’s church and asked if the church would be willing to sponsor the family over the next year.

After talking about this to members of the group that was praying about immigration, May brought the idea to the church council.

And after a time of discernment, the church opened its doors to the family. “When the family came, they blessed us in so many ways. They became part of our church,” said May. “I see this as an example of responding to God’s mission and how we can be changed when we participate in that mission.”

She also used the story of Peter, the apostle, and how he saw a vision from God, as recounted in Acts 10, and then traveled to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile, where he baptized Cornelius and all who had gathered there.

“Peter took quite a risk entering the house of a Gentile, and yet God had called Peter there,” said May. In making the journey and meeting with Cornelius, Peter was helping to expand the early church to include Gentiles.

“As a church, we are called to be more like Jesus and to give ourselves to God for his purposes,” said May. “The church itself doesn’t have a mission. Rather, God has a mission for the church to accept and to follow.”

A goal of the Thriving Essentials courseis to get people on the same page about some of the most fundamental aspects of church, ministry, and leadership. Because it is hard to plan ministry when people are operating out of different paradigms, this course seeks to develop a shared vocabulary and framework through sessions on four topics: mission, discipleship, discernment, and leadership.

“Each of the four sessions will focus on one ‘big idea’ about ministry,” said May. “This will be about key paradigms for ministry, not a firehose of information.”

At the same time, May said, the team recognizes that four hours of learning isn’t going to change a church — “but we do expect these core concepts to provide a foundation from which to commit to the ongoing work of discipleship, leadership, and mission in the church.”

In the July testing, which included 60 people, participants and curriculum developers learned together, seeking to determine how best to shape the course so that it can be effective in helping church leaders tune in more directly and more frequently to the mission of God.

“I’m eager for more people to experience the material and to help improve it before we roll it out to a larger audience,” said Postuma.

Here is some of the feedback the team received from people who took the pilot training in July:

  • In my new role, I am to support our leadership roles/ministry leaders at church. . . . Often I feel I am not equipped. I feel this course was very helpful and filled my cup at the right time.
  • This was an enjoyable and helpful learning experience.
  • It is exciting that we might help congregations focus on impactful leadership and realize God's purpose through the experience, engagement, and embodiment of his people.
  • Thanks so much! It's a great resource to help churches flourish . . . well, essentially to THRIVE!
  • I thought the facilitation and teaching of each session was really well done. The course ran smoothly and was clear and easy to understand, and I liked the use of polls, chat, and breakouts.
  • I would be interested to present this to our church council to be part of this in the fall.

During the month of August, the Thrive team will make revisions based on the first round of feedback. Then, in September, they plan to involve 300 people to see how the revised sessions will work for a wider range of contexts and participants — urban/rural, younger/older, new/experienced leaders, and staff/volunteers. All of this is in preparation for a full rollout of the Thriving Essentials course in January 2022.

People can sign up here to volunteer to take an early look at the course and provide feedback.

If you sign up and are selected to be part of the pilot testing, organizers will contact you with more details and date options.