Tending Our Soil Thriving Congregations Initiative: What We’ve Learned So Far

by | May 11, 2023

The Tending Our Soil Thriving Congregations Initiative takes congregations through a 3-year process in listening, discernment and studying. Each congregation refreshes their mission and vision then defines strategic goals designed to increase the vitality of their church. The work is done by congregational teams supported by monthly coaching, teaching through four Learning Labs per year, community learning in congregational cohorts, and tools such as vitality surveys and demographic study. The initiative is in its second year of five. Twelve congregations are finishing their second year, ten more their first and five more are about to start this fall. The initiative is made possible by a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment.

We expect that by the end of the grant period, a significant number of congregations will have increased their health and vitality, and that they will be equipped with the tools needed to adapt and pivot to the changing environments around them, and, from this work, have an increased capacity to focus more fully on being followers of Jesus Christ.

In the first year, congregational cohorts wrestle with important questions to help them refresh their mission and vision. Who are we? How are we doing? Who are our neighbors? To answer these questions, parishes work with some of the following tools and resources: the seven Vital Signs of Parish Health, MissionInsite demographic data, the Readiness 360 survey for Congregational Vitality, the Path of Discipleship, 90-day micro strategies, and Invite-Welcome-Connect.

In year two, the cohorts build on what they learned, informed by the various assessments and their new knowledge of their communities to craft strategic goals. During this year, speakers for the Learning Labs are chosen based on the strategic goals identified by each congregational cohort to help them deepen their understanding and broaden their horizons in the areas in which they are working. For the class of 2021, this included Growing Young with Jake Mulder and Sustaining Digital Ministry with Ryan Panzer.

Year three offers time for further discernment, trial and error, and a structure for getting over any lingering stuck points a congregational team may be experiencing. This year is about pulling it all together, and empowering the congregations to take the next steps in living out their strategic goals and move towards long-term sustainability.

What We’ve Learned So Far

As we approach the end of the second year of the Tending Our Soil grant cycle, we’re grateful to report on many important learnings.

  • Based on the success of using trained coaches to walk with congregational cohorts through the Tending Our Soil process, we strongly believe in the potential benefit of creating a culture of coaching in our diocese to help congregations to continue moving forward in response to God’s call.
  • By creating the curriculum for Tending Our Soil exclusively “in house”, we’ve been able to stay flexible to meet the goals of this initiative, and to adapt and update the curriculum as we learn from our successes and failures.
  • Even parishes that may not yet have a “fully developed” story of success are sensing a positive change, with some reporting growth in members and others excited that, for the first time, they are beginning to move out beyond their church walls.
  • Congregations are growing more skilled in developing stronger strategic plan processes as a result of their work on the 90-day microstrategies.
  • At least three congregations are working on re-developing their welcome space both physically and electronically based on what they’ve learned through Tending Our Soil.
  • Building from the popularity of cohort conversations during the Learning Labs, when three parishes and their coach have dedicated time to share and reflect, we’ve shaped the third year of initiative so that we will use this format as one of the main components for learning.
What’s Next

Though the initiative will continue another three years, it is not too soon to look toward the future. A crucial part of Tending Our Soil’s legacy rests in the modules that were created to lead the second group of congregations through their first year. We expect these modules will allow the most successful aspects of the Learning Labs to be used by all of our congregations in years to come. In the next few weeks we will announce the participating congregations and coaches of the final class of the Tending Our Soil initiative.

Participating Congregations

Class of 2021
Ascension, Silver Spring
Christ Churches – LaPlata and Wayside
Christ Church Washington Parish
Good Shepherd, Silver Spring
St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda
St. John’s, Beltsville
St. John’s, Olney
St. Matthew’s/San Mateo, Hyattsville
St. Nicholas’, Germantown
St. Paul’s K Street
St. Timothy’s, DC
Transfiguration, Silver Spring

Class of 2022
Ascension, Gaithersburg St. Anne’s, Damascus
Christ Church, Durham St. John’s, Georgetown
Epiphany, Forestville St. Luke’s, Brighton
Grace, Silver Spring St. Mark’s, Fairland
Our Saviour, Hillandale St. Monica and St. James, DC

Class of 2023
Coming soon!