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Small conferences, large reach

Virginia training center coaches new church pastors, expands work of church growth

April 5, 2012

LOUISVILLE

At many church conferences, attendees meet inspiring people, generate great ideas and learn new skills. But then they get home, and the daily grind of emails and administrative tasks soon erases the energy they felt at the conference.

A new experiment out of the General Assembly Mission Council’s Office of Church Growth is aiming to change that dynamic. Through smaller conferences, focused coaching, follow-up meetings and action plans, the Training Center for Innovative Church Leadership wants to build momentum for church growth.

“We’re really trying to give people every opportunity to not only hear about the missional church … but actually leave here with things they’re going to do in their own context,” said the Rev. Shannon Kiser, director of the training center. “That’s what we’re trying to do — turn the thinking into acting.”

Housed in Riverside Presbyterian Church in Sterling, Va., the training center got its start about a year ago as a way to expand the work of the Office of Church Growth. The office already has a West Coast office that provides church development training and resources; the Virginia center is a more accessible option for those on the East Coast.

“It really expands our capacity to do the work,” said the Rev. Philip Lotspeich, coordinator for Church Growth.

Although partially funded by the GAMC office, the center is working to find church and presbytery partnerships to sustain it.

The main focus of the training center is its small conferences (20-50 people) that provide focused coaching designed to help new church developments as well as existing congregations going through a time of discernment, Kiser said. The small conferences also help keep costs down.

Past events have included topics such as racial ethnic outreach, going beyond demographics, effective meeting strategies and searching for potential new pastors. Upcoming events will focus on young adult discernment (April 27-28) and evaluating mission and ministry (May 14-15).

“We’re really trying to support, equip, coach, build capacity,” Kiser said.

The center also offers a “Starting Strong” program on an ongoing basis. Designed for pastors of new church developments, the program aims to help new leaders get a strong footing right off the bat. A pastor’s first decisions  can set the DNA for a new congregation, and the program offers coaching on everything from what a NCD pastor’s daily schedule might look like to how to disciple in a new community.

If a NCD pastor is in his or her first three months at a new community, “Get here and we will coach you,” Kiser said.

One such pastor in Tennessee was sent to the center by his presbytery and worked with four coaches for three days, learning about next steps and possible pitfalls.

“There’s great potential for pastors to leave having clarified things,” Kiser said. “Those first three months can be so overwhelming.”

Because the center is still new, feedback from participants is limited. But the feedback it has gotten has been positive and speaks to the power of the center’s guidance and tools, Kiser said. One pastor came to an event with questions about how to save her church and left with an idea about starting a ministry for single mothers.

“That’s a huge shift in 48 hours,” Kiser said. “I’ve seen really amazing movement from the beginning of a conference to the end of the conference.”

To learn more about the center and upcoming events, visit its website.

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