Renewal fuels attendance

Posted Mar 08, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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by Martin Wright, guest blogger

“This could be amazing! We could totally do this! This could really happen!” I remember well the day in 2001 when I first shared with my wife a newspaper article concerning an innovative new program from Lilly Endowment Incorporated aimed at strengthening the capacities and skills of pastors by offering a funded time of renewal leave. It was the beginning of a grand adventure for me, my family, and the congregation I serve as we began journeying toward renewal together.

Our clergy renewal team worked to create a renewal proposal that would not only benefit me as the pastor, but that would help our congregation to reflect on the benefits of Sabbath keeping and placing a priority on personal renewal. In 2003 we submitted our plan and in 2004, I was privileged to follow the footsteps of C.S. Lewis from his birth place in Ireland and to his extraordinary wardrobe in England.

It was a marvelous expedition that re-fired my imagination, renewed my spirit, and rekindled my passion for ministry. It also had a profound impact on the congregation I serve.

Since a portion of the renewal leave funds may be used to fund congregational events related to leave taking we chose to bring in a host of dynamic speakers who could inspire our congregation during my absence. We also decided to send the church away for a “mini” time of renewal. We offered the whole church a weekend getaway to Spring Mill Inn, near Mitchell, Indiana. The result of which being the church actually grew while I was away on my renewal leave (which I will admit was more than a little humbling). My reunion party was equal parts my stories and theirs—and there was no shortage of amazing stories.

By 2010 many in our congregation were hopeful we might secure funding for a second renewal leave. Success breeds more success and we were fortunate to receive funding for a second renewal leave—this time offering me the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi through the olive groves and vineyards of central Italy. Yet this renewal leave experience proved a bit more challenging for the congregation.; For its part, even before my leave, 2011 found our attendance tailing off for the first time in more than a decade—a trend which continued and intensified during my absence.; I was clearly not the only one in need of a Sabbaths rest and a time of renewal. Yet, despite the downturn in attendance, when I returned in September, an old fashioned revival seemed to spontaneously arrive with me. Each week we marveled at the re-enlivening that enveloped our congregation. So great was the renewed energy that we ended up setting the highest annual attendance of our churches 124 year history! (A trend which has carried over into 2012 as we are now poised to shatter last year’s attendance record.) It is indeed amazing what a time of renewal can do for a congregation and pastor!

Rev. Martin Wright is minister of Ogilville Christian Church in Columbus, IN. He is a past recipient of a Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations grant.

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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