A Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage church could be described as one that has members who desire to remain faithful in ministry but are frustrated by various elements of decline that have led to the church’s current UnThriving status. This is also a church that desires to become linked in ministry with its local family of churches while committing to a process of honest evaluation with an openness to receive a new vision from the Lord. In late 2020, Woodfield Park became the first CMBA church to sign a Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage document to begin this journey.
“Twenty percent of CMBA churches are candidates for a Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage,” says Executive Director George Bullard. “It is our desire to come alongside each of these congregations, as we are invited, to help them spiritual-strategically discern and plan for the future God has for them. Too often when churches are at-risk they are working too hard just to survive. Our desire is to help them understand how they can thrive.”
According to Pastor Jeff Phillips, Woodfield Park is a prime candidate for the process he describes as “seeking the best contextual path forward for individual churches, because no church is the same.”
The neighborhood church has seen a rise and fall in attendance and effectiveness within its community over the years. Planted just outside the gates of Fort Jackson, Woodfield Park once exclusively served military families before the existence of on-base housing. A changing neighborhood coupled with the nature of the transient military lifestyle has led to some challenging years for the church, but remaining members are ready to embrace a new vision.
“We are in the process of identifying things with the help of Bill Wright and Freddy Johnson, and it’s going well. There is an openness to dialogue, a realization of where we are and a laying of a foundation for moving forward,” says Phillips.
The Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage process was created to come alongside of UnThriving churches by offering support from family churches and local leaders trained to walk this leg of the journey with them. Johnson, pastor of North Point Community Church in Columbia, is one of several leaders working with Woodfield Park’s staff and lay leadership in the process. He says transparency and trust have grown as conversations continue.
“I have a heart for the underdog, the guy who’s climbing uphill. I also have a heart to see churches find a new identity, whether God creates that through revitalization, merging or another way. I’ve known Jeff for a while, and when I had the opportunity to work with him on the team it was easy to say ‘yes,’” he says.
Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage churches are asked to commit to participating in prayer, learning, vision casting, some practical aspects of church management, legacy planning, partnership and coaching. Church staff and lay leadership are joined by coaching resources, like Johnson, who are connected through the CMBA. There is no set timeframe for the process from start to finish but it is an intentional and guided experience that will move the unthriving church to articulate a shared vision moving forward.
In Woodfield Park’s case, the process has gone slowly because of the holidays and some impacts of the pandemic. The CMBA coaching team has met with the church five times since last fall. Early meeting times were spent getting to know one another and gauging the church’s readiness. Individual coaching and leadership styles come into play at this point in the process, and Johnson says he encouraged Woodfield Park with open dialogues and brainstorming sessions that identified personal things to the church that members would struggle to release (something Johnson calls “sacred cows”), obstacles to moving forward and then solutions to these things.
“The idea is to dream big, there is no wrong answer. Some ideas won’t be used or even be possible, but it gets people thinking outside the box on how to make the church’s situation better,” Johnson explains.
Woodfield Park is currently at this stage, having shared strengths and obstacles to advancing in a healthy way and are working to identify which of these are most critical to how God will write their future story. Congregational demographics play a role in identifying future plans, and Phillips describes his church as being over 50 percent African American, about 20 percent Caucasian with the remaining Hispanic and Asian. Potential challenges he sees to effectively reaching the neighborhood include “people move into our neighborhood and move out, the ones who stay are seniors and they have been there awhile. We will have to find a unique path because of the diversity here. Not many churches are equipped to come into a poor neighborhood to minister and very few are equipped to come into a fully multicultural context.”
Phillips says several families have joined Woodfield Park to missionally support them, including a family from North Trenholm Baptist. He wants the church to continue to “be open to where the Holy Spirit is going to lead us, which means we need to be in prayer, stand on the foundations of the Word and trust God to provide the means to get there,” he says.
Cody Kopacz serves as a youth and media pastor at Woodfield Park. He is working to implement healthy church ideas as the church is going through the Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage process and says he can already see fruit beginning to show through the experience.
“I pray the Lord would guide us in these endeavors, not allow any selfish agendas that I or anyone else may have and that we would just see the Kingdom expand. I pray that we make the right changes and discern what is needed. I am eagerly anticipating what God will do through this church to reach not only the community we are located in, but also to the ends of the earth. I have lofty goals because I know my Lord can accomplish those things,” Kopacz says.
For his part, Johnson is happy to walk alongside smaller church pastors like Phillips who he says often bear extra burdens, and especially during difficult seasons. “I can be overwhelming. The Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage process allows for objective thinkers without a history or baggage related to the church to come and help and hopefully bring a new perspective. It’s a valuable process.”
As he looks forward, Phillips has begun to identify potential ministry partners to join the calling revealed to Woodfield Park through the Covenant Congregational Pilgrimage. “We will need assistance from multiple partners. We especially need African American leadership. One focus right now is identifying mature believers who fit our context because it is a mission field,” he says, adding that CMBA partnerships will be critical to effectively reaching the midlands.
Contact the CMBA office for additional information about the process at CMBA@columbiametro.org or 803.619.7110.