Thriving Congregations Initiative Adapts in the Wake of COVID-19
by Audrey Wierenga (B.A. ’18)
The past few months have been unconventional for churches, ministries and congregations around the country and around the world. From adapting quickly to the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic to providing resources for ministries and families struggling economically, the pandemic has caused people to think differently about how church is done.
Before the pandemic caused widespread change in mid-March, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (GRTS) and the Urban Church Leadership Center (UCLC) received a grant from the Lilly Endowment to help fund a new Thriving Congregations Initiative (TCI). The initiative's objective is to support Black, Hispanic and Asian churches as they assess their changing communities, engage the connection between theology and Christian practice and develop ministry strategies. With the onset of the pandemic, the TCI broadened its scope to include providing resources for congregations and ministry leaders who are struggling in the midst of more uncertainty.
The first effort was to create the Kent County COVID-19 Church Task Force in partnership with the Kent County Health Department to keep urban churches safe and informed in the midst of the crisis. Each Wednesday, the task force, which includes urban church pastors and ministry leaders as well as leaders from the UCLC, meets with representatives from the Kent County Health Department to receive updates on COVID-19 in our community and guidelines to safely reopen churches. The task force also communicates regularly with Spectrum Health, Pine Rest and Grand Rapids city commissioners Joe Jones and Nathaniel Moody. Additionally, a website was created to provide resources for churches: COVIDChurchResources.com.
"COVID-19 has highlighted a lot of challenges in our community, like substance abuse, stress, depression and anxiety, particularly in our youth," said Jennifer Greer, adjunct professor of Bible at GRTS and project coordinator for Thriving Congregations. "Urban church pastors are first responders in many ways. So, we are providing mental health training through the Mental Health Foundation to equip them to respond in these situations." The TCI worked with Pine Rest's clergy counseling program and Chris Smith at NPS Counseling to help pastors receive the care they needed as well.
Besides the mental health aspects of COVID-19, the pandemic brought another challenge—moving church services and resources online. As a result, the TCI negotiated a contract with Faithlife Equip, an online church resource, to help transition resources online, from livestreaming sermons and text giving to small group discipleship platforms. The TCI has secured this resource for 100 urban churches in Grand Rapids.
Because church members are not able to meet in person, urban churches have faced financial challenges and shortfalls. "Finances are very difficult," Greer said. "We have been working with a platform called Church Relief, which helps urban churches in low-income areas receive grants through the West Michigan Churches Helping Churches fund." This fund was created by the TCI and the CityFest planning team, with co-chair Joe Stowell, president of Cornerstone University, in partnership with other churches who donated.
Thriving Congregations Initiatives believes that God has, is and will continue to work in this world. TCI is not a program for fixing churches or getting people into the church pews; instead, it is an awareness of a sense of God moving. TCI is about getting the church from a place of surviving to thriving.