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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Thriving Congregations. Part 1: Challenges to Becoming and Sustaining A Thriving Congregation

NOTE: Columbia seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning has launched its Lilly-funded Thriving Congregations program, “reKindle: A Congregational Development Initiative.” Selected congregations will be awarded grants of up to $15,000 to execute a thriving congregation initiative in their ministry context. Applications are due by April 30, 2021. For details click HERE


We surveyed and interviewed over twenty pastors to solicit their insights on the challenges to becoming and sustaining a thriving congregation.

All have been in ministry for at least two decades, so they have experienced firsthand several waves of change.

All have successfully helped their congregations navigate those waves and adapt to changing realities from their immediate contexts and broader cultural and societal challenges.


If we were to identify one overarching theme it is the changing context of congregational life and ministry.

As one Methodist pastor put it, “We’re in a liminal period whose experience has been intensified by the COVID-19 virus. It is a highlighted circadian rhythm of “Life – Death – Resurrection.” We’re waking up and finding we’re deep in Holy Saturday.”


Another pastor, now over twenty years into his tenure in his congregation summed it up this way: “The challenging shifts include: 1) a “consumer” orientation. Our entire culture is now engaged almost entirely via the cost/benefit lens, including churches; 2) Anti-institutionalism, not new, but perhaps stoked by growing fervor for the sexy, novel, and innovative initiatives (especially among younger generations); 3) Societal regression, a rapid increase in the characteristics of anxious systems (blame displacement, quick-fix mentality, polarization, etc.); 4) Instant everything, convenience and choice preeminent values (fed by the likes of Amazon and Netflix). Thriving Churches will be required to address all of these.”


Taken as a whole, the pastors’ responses clustered in four areas of challenge:


Internal Communal/Congregational Challenges











External Cultural and Social Challenges













Leadership Challenges









Theology and Mission




Collectively, their observations echo Walter Brueggemann’s critique: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” (Brueggemann, A Way Other than Our Own (Westminster John Knox, 2016) pp. 2-3)).


Are these challenges familiar to you? Members of the reKindle cohort will explore these challenges. Consider applying for the reKindle program and grant.


Part 2: Characteristics of a Thriving Congregation coming soon.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).


Dr. G. & Friends