FACT Qualitative Vitality Study: The United Church of Christ
By Rev. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, Ph.D.
Understandings of vitality in the United Church of Christ (UCC) are often as diverse as each of the nearly 5,000 congregations in the denomination. Because of the congregational polity by which we organize ourselves, each church is able to live out its own specific mission and purpose in the ways it prayerfully desires. However, through the interviewing of ten UCC congregational leaders and experts for FACT’s qualitative study on vitality across traditions, some themes emerged particular to the UCC that actualize one of our core values: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.”
- Vitality as “life” and “energy.” Individuals largely described vitality using these two words in some form, according to a word search of the interview transcripts. One church pastor said, “I specifically see the energy, the spirit, excitement, and dedication that people have for coming together in worship, programming, at events.” Another articulated, “The first word that comes to mind is life and living. Vitality is a living organization; and by that, I mean that there is a sense of growth and development, not necessarily numerically like people; but what is happening in that place is a journey toward further development.”
- Vitality as relationship and a sense of community. UCC interviewees talked about the critical role of relationships in the context of vitality—relationship with God, with others as part of the church community, and with those beyond the church. These relationships should be both meaningful and welcoming/inclusive. In the context of church, one leader stated that vitality is “the desire to do life together,” which includes “offering healing around church, especially for those who have been turned away.” Another pastor went deeper: “[Vitality is] relationship with the Holy and Jesus… shifting and changing and moving and growing.” This essential relationship with the divine was described by a third individual simply as “encountering and experiencing God.”
- Vitality as living mission beyond the church community. This theme was most salient for individuals that were interviewed. One pastor said, “We are reaching outside our own walls, being missional and helping folks, not just in our congregation but in the community and outside it, and standing up for justice…being the voice of God and showing that love for all folks.” Another UCC pastor stated, “To be influential agents of grace and mercy in the world, that’s what vitality means for me in a congregation.” It was clear that a congregation needed to extend itself beyond the walls of the church in purposeful ways in order to be vital and transform the world. One UCC pastor simply articulated this as “being the hands and feet of God.”
While none of this is surprising for the United Church of Christ, it was interesting to see the ways in which themes differed not only within the denomination, but also between the UCC and other traditions. For example, in Orthodox Christian traditions, worship was emphasized explicitly by nearly all individuals as being the space in which vitality was lived out in the church. While many UCC individuals also discussed worship, the centrality of worship in vitality was much more pronounced in Orthodox traditions than in the UCC (or perhaps just in different ways). By and large, however, the commonalities overshadowed the differences both within the UCC and among various traditions.