Vital Ministry

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
February 27, 2020


Vitality – it’s something we all want for our own selves, for those we love, for work about which we care, and for institutions of which we are part. To be vital means, literally, to be “full of life.” Vital statistics provide empirical measurements of how full of life we really are. We know quite reliably those measures for bodily vitality: blood pressure, weight, age, cholesterol, blood counts, etc. A city’s vitality can be measured by population trends, per capita income, tax revenues, and so on. How do we evaluate the vitality of a congregation or denomination?

One of the three focus areas of our church’s Matthew 25 vision is the promotion of “congregational vitality.” What does that entail? A specific vision for congregational vitality is outlined in the Matthew 25 prospectus, and in coming weeks we will consider the seven marks of congregational vitality it proposes. We need to adopt and be accountable to specific benchmarks of congregational vitality if it is to flourish among us. The purpose of nurturing congregational vitality is not to create great congregations, but to strengthen their mission in the world to the glory of God.

Before we engage in a conversation about vital congregations, I invite us to consider the markers of vital ministry. What does life-giving ministry look like?

My decades in ministry have led me to identify what I call “the four F’s of vital ministry”: Faithfulness. Fruitfulness. Fecundity. Fulfillment.

Faithfulness. Vital ministry is accountable to the Scriptures and Confessions that form our understanding of what God has called us to be and to do. It begins with personal and corporate commitment to Jesus as the one who calls us to salvation and service. It is about integrity and transparency, about living what we profess. Perhaps more than ever, young people demand authenticity from their leaders. Do we live what we proclaim? Vital ministry requires that what we speak is aligned with how we live.

Fruitfulness. Vital ministry bears good fruit. (Matthew 7:20) The fruit of the Spirit are evident in its spheres of influence: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Where factions and fear predominate, we can be sure that fruitfulness of ministry in Jesus’ name is absent.

Fecundity. Vital ministry reproduces new ministry. It replicates itself. Vital ministry is marked, among other things, by producing candidates for vocational ministry. I could not rest as a pastor until I knew that some of the youth among us were feeling and responding to God’s call into vocational ministry. If my ministry does not lead others into ministry, something is awry.

Fulfillment. Vital ministry is marked by genuine joy in service. I learned this from my father, whose 96th birthday we just celebrated. Ministry in Jesus’ name is the highest and most joyous calling of any. When joy is replaced by a sense of sheer duty or expectation or obligation, ministry vitality suffers.

When I served the national Office of Theology and Worship, one of my responsibilities was to nurture the vitality of pastors serving our denomination’s congregations, with a special focus on first-call pastors. In that work I learned that two of the most important things that nurture “four F” ministry are steady maintenance of personal spiritual disciplines and regular gathering with colleagues in ministry for mutual encouragement and admonition.

As with pastors, so it is with congregations – vital ministry is characterized by faithfulness, fruitfulness, fecundity, and fulfillment. The presence of the final “F” is the surest single sign of vitality in ministry. Lack of joy in fellowship, worship, discipleship, and mission is a critical indicator that a congregation needs an infusion of new vitality.

How does your congregation nurture its own vitality in ministry? Our journey in upcoming weeks through seven marks of church vitality will lift up practices that strengthen the vitality of our members and our mission. Stay tuned!

Yours for vital ministry,

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