HANCOCK COUNTY — If a visitor trying to find your church has to stop for directions, will anyone in town know where it is?

After they make it to the building, can they find where the service is?

Can members of the congregation gathered in that service put into words the mission of the church?

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Several Hancock County churches have pondered these and many other questions, doing their homework in the Fruitful Congregation Journey. It’s a program in which participating United Methodist churches in Indiana think long and hard about where they’ve been and where they feel God is calling them to go.

The program formed in Missouri under a different name. It caught the attention of denominational leaders in Indiana, who renamed and adapted the program to help the Indiana Conference’s congregations sharpen their sense of purpose.

“I recommend everyone look at it,” said the Rev. Dave Galbraith, pastor of Mt. Comfort United Methodist Church of the Risen Christ, 3179 N. Mt. Comfort Road (County Road 600W). “It’s not for everyone.”

The journey asks much of churches who embark on it. The pastor attends a year of classes with other pastors in the program, reading a book a month on best church practices. A committee of laypeople attends its own long series of meetings, reading books as well.

The state denomination sends in an outside panel for a three-day weekend of interviews with various groups and individuals in the congregation. State church leaders also pay a few strangers from outside the community to show up as visitors and rate the church’s warmth and user-friendliness.

“Sometimes, I could pick them out … other times I missed it,” said the Rev. Mike Manning, senior pastor of Trinity Park United Methodist Church, 207 W. Park Ave.

“It was kind of eye-opening to read the report of some of the guests.”

The outside panel, made up of a pastor and several laypeople from elsewhere in Indiana, notes the strengths of the congregation and composes a plan of next steps. The congregation votes on whether to pursue the plan, and there’s no line-item veto — it must pursue all of the steps or reject the entire plan.

If it moves forward with the plan, there are deadlines for finishing each stage of the outline. The church must hire a coach to help it complete the steps, a cost in addition to the $895 a church pays during the first phase.

With the rigor and the cost, “It was kind of a hard sell,” admits Manning. “(But) the more churches did it, the more we could see the result.”

Those not put off by the process’s price tag might struggle with the scrutiny. Participants admit it can be difficult to hear a critique from someone outside the congregation. And yet, they say that fresh perspective can help a church notice chances for improvement it might otherwise overlook.

“You don’t always evaluate yourself very well,” Manning said. “Some of the things they came up with were kind of hard for us to swallow, but that’s OK. That’s who we were.”

Jo Mills, one of the laypeople involved in the Trinity Park process that completed steps earlier this year, said the process made the congregation reevaluate long-standing events.

“It encouraged us to look at how the church does things in a different way,” she said. “We’ve done this for years, and is it drawing people to Christ?

“You have to stop and think, ‘Are we doing this for us, or are we doing it to bring people in?’”

Mills said the process also pushed the church to be more intentional in making connections in the community, from giving customers at the church rummage sale an invitation to services, to engaging more with the groups from the community who use the church building each week, to pursuing local opportunities to minister such as preparing a meal for a youth meeting at The Landing.

Galbraith is glad to see community groups meeting at the church he pastors in Mt. Comfort, too. He said Hancock County Children’s Choir rehearsing there, for example, has been a “tremendous blessing.”

“From my point of view this church ought to be open every night,” he said.

In fact, facilities are on his mind as he ponders the future of the Mt. Comfort church. On Sunday, a district superintendent from the denomination will be at the church to lead a meeting after worship. In that meeting, the congregation will vote on the recommendations of the visiting panel. Members can select one of three bold plans:

Relaunch the church with a different name and identity

Retain the older, established church in the sanctuary and add another congregation with its own pastor in the church’s Family Life Center

Give the building to another church and rent space elsewhere for the Mt. Comfort United Methodist Church of the Risen Christ congregation of 125

Whichever option the congregation chooses — if it chooses one — the steps that follow will be carried out with a new pastor sometime in 2017. That’s the year Galbraith reaches the age of 72 and the mandated retirement that comes with it. He’s suggested to denomination leaders that his successor have some familiarity with the Fruitful Congregation Journey process to help the transition and the church’s next steps go smoothly.

“This congregation is a loving, wonderful congregation,” he said. “We’re moving in a really good direction right now, and I just hope we can continue.”

Other journeys

New Palestine United Methodist Church did some of the initial work of Fruitful Congregation Journey but dropped out after the first step. “We read seven books and attended seven seminars and learned a great deal” wrote the Rev. Mark Wesler in an email to the Daily Reporter. “But we opted out because we had concerns about the next steps since we already were a vital congregation.”

Bradley United Methodist Church has been moving through a lay leadership development process using Fruitful Congregation Journey principles.

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Anne Smith is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at asmith@greenfieldreporter.com