Episode 48: “Congregational Renewal Begins with Breakthrough Prayer” by Sue Nilson Kibbey

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 48: “Congregational Renewal Begins with Breakthrough Prayer” by Sue Nilson Kibbey

Looking for ways to re-energize you congregation? In this episode we speak with church renewal expert Sue Nilson Kibbey about the central role of breakthrough prayer in helping a congregation shift the focus of its gaze up and out, rather than down and in.

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Looking for ways to re-energize you congregation? In this episode we speak with church renewal expert Sue Nilson Kibbey about the central role of breakthrough prayer in helping a congregation shift the focus of its gaze up and out, rather than down and in.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and I’m the editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. I’m so pleased today to be the host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks podcast, speaking today with Sue Nilson Kibbey. Sue is the director of the Missional Church Consultation Initiative for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. She served many years at Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, Ohio, which is one of the great turnaround churches of our times. She’s worked with more than 70 congregations to help them achieve more fruitful ministry. And Sue is also the author of several books, most recently Ultimate Reliance. So, Sue, welcome. It’s good to be talking to you today.

Sue Nilson Kibbey: Well thank you so much. It’s an honor.

Ann Michel: I want to turn right away to the central premise of your most recent book, Ultimate Reliance, and that is that congregational prayer needs to be at the heart of congregational renewal. So, I just wanted to give you an opportunity speak to that.

Sue Nilson Kibbey: Well, when we began the Missional Church Consultation Initiative, or MCCI as we call it for short, it was the most challenging appointment as a United Methodist clergy that I had every received thus far. And it still continues to be today. And the challenge of our bishop in West Ohio at that time, or his dream was, that we would create a coaching, training, resourcing initiative to help good churches, with clergy who wanted to lead their churches forward, with laity who wanted to see their churches move forward, but who were stuck or maybe starting decline. That this would be a resourcing initiative that would be the wind beneath their wings to help them move forward into their next season of fruitfulness. And so, the challenge and the invitation of the bishop was to create a training, coaching, resourcing initiative that would accomplish this. And as I began praying and thinking through all my own experience leading churches, my own season as a trainer of other churches, now needing to bring it together into this intensive kind of experience for ten to twelve church every year at that time in the West Ohio Conference. I realized that any revitalization initiative must begin with prayer. Prayer for God to do the new thing. For God to breakthrough with new hopes, dreams, and possibilities. And that we would all surrender ourselves both personally and as a congregation to what it is that God has next. You know, Oswald Chambers, who is the one behind what is probably the most popular daily devotional of our generation, My Utmost for His Highest, made this point. He said just as our physical bodies need physical food to stay healthy, strong, vibrant, and energetic, and without out food our bodies can become weak, listless, apathetic, we just want to sit around and not do anything. We could even die if we don’t eat food. Oswald Chambers pointed out, just as our physical bodies need physical food to eat and stay vibrant, so the food of the Body of Christ — which scripture says is the church — that the food of the Body of Christ is prayer. So is it any wonder that sometimes churches can become weak, listless, apathetic, indifferent, not motivated? They can even die. Could it be that churches are snacking on prayer rather than feasting on prayer? What could happen if at the center, across everything, all ages ongoing, that there was a feast of prayer happening that helped the church become strong, vital, energetic, courageous, ready to step out? So, I really knew that the MCCI had to begin with training pastors and churches on how to put prayers for God to breakthrough anew at the center ongoing of everything. And so, I created this simple training on how to put this additive component to the existing prayer life of the church. That God would do the new thing, break through anew, to show us what God has, that we’ll surrender ourselves. And how to position that every time the church is praying and all of us personally, and across the church. And for that to be ongoing. And that would be the beginning of every church’s revitalization journey through the MCCI. Because you see the church isn’t just an institution or an organization that we are going to reorganize into a new season. The church is a spiritual movement. And a spiritual movement is fueled by prayer. And so that’s how this breakthrough prayer initiative happened. That’s how it got started. And what it evolved into was that this breakthrough prayer initiative, in addition to fueling the ten to twelve churches invited by our bishop into the MCCI initiative each year, as they rolled forward, we began to see that even if a church did little else, if they put this at the center of everything, all ages on going, that even if a church did nothing else, amazing miraculous movements forward would happen. And I began being invited to offer the Breakthrough Prayer Initiative Training just on its own to churches not involved in the MCCI. And in fact, I’ve been invited all over our United Methodist Connection. I am overwhelmed with the breakthrough prayer movement happening now in hundreds and hundreds of our churches, and the stories coming back about what happens when prayer is put at the center. And there is something about a shift, when a church is looking down and in with discouragement, that this simple additive component to the prayer life, of looking up and out with expectation about what God is going to do. That shift changes everything. And you can probably tell, I’ve become a witness to what I cannot quit speaking – what I’m seeing and hearing about this powerful breakthrough prayer initiative movement.

Ann Michel: Sue, I’m so grateful to you for naming what I think in so many ways should be obvious to us – that renewal in the church begins with spiritual renewal. And yet I’ve never heard anyone name it with the clarity and the sense of purpose that you are bringing this. And so, I really want to thank you for drawing our attention to something that should be so obvious to us. And yet it often isn’t. I think so often renewal efforts are centered around tactics and strategies neglecting the fundamental spiritual underpinnings. I wondered if you could maybe give and example or describe some of the experiences you’ve had in working with churches that engage this Breakthrough Prayer process?

Sue Nilson Kibbey: Well, that’s very an interesting question. When I begin bringing the Breakthrough Prayer Initiative Training to a church, a pastor, and the leaders, often churches are feeling some urgency because they are seeing decline. And they are looking for the next steps to bring a new season and new revitalization. They are looking for a program. They are looking for a new staff person they can hire. They are looking for a way to redo the budget. So, to proposed that the real place revitalization begins is with a breakthrough prayer initiative across the whole church, interestingly enough for some discouraged church leaders, isn’t where they thought about starting. Sometimes I hear, “Well, we have a 7 am Friday Prayer Group that has been praying for years. They’re praying. And now help us revitalize the church.” And my premise is, and my learning is, and my passion is, that it is the leadership of the church that is leading the breakthrough prayer initiative. It’s the pastor. It’s the administrative council. The board of trustees. All the positional leaders of the church are the ones leading the way, adding this Breakthrough Prayer Initiative, this additive component for God to breakthrough with the new thing. They are leading the rest of the church. Because it is really impossible without opening the door to this miraculous movement and direction of God’s Spirit for anything to go forward.

In fact, trying to have a strategic vision retreat, which some churches do. “Well, we’re going to get a hold of our revitalization by having a 4 or 5 hour strategic vision retreat on Saturday.” Really, if we get together and do that without praying ahead of time for God to show us the new steps, and doing this extensively and across the church, then we’re just getting together for a Saturday morning vision retreat to share our own opinions. We’re not really on what God is speaking and showing us what’s new. And so, I will say that the paradigm shift of this prayer at the center, that pastor is the champion and leader at all times, of rallying the church to the Breakthrough Prayer Initiative, in and through everything, that the positional leaders of the church are right along there incorporating it every time they meet, is significant to mention. And when this happens there is transformation at all levels, including at in our own personal lives of faith.

Ann Michel: Can you think of a church that really experienced wonderful transformation as a result of this? Can you share a success story, maybe?

Sue Nilson Kibbey: I can probably spend the next three hours sharing success stories! So, one story that comes to my mind immediately is a church that brought pastor plus a team of leaders to a Breakthrough Prayer Initiative Training event I did maybe two months ago. And one of the leaders who came was a 92-year-old lifelong member of the church. She was a retired teacher. She had taught in the Children’s Sunday School back in the day when they had 100 children in Sunday School. And at the time that this pastor brought his leaders and came to the Breakthrough Prayer Initiative Training, they were down to three children in Sunday School. So, they came to the training. And we talked about taking this churchwide to all ages – the teens, children, the leadership — and adding this component. And the 92-year-old teacher went home to the church. And that Sunday, she is the only teacher, there are three children in the Sunday School. She took some of her learnings about breakthrough prayer to the three little children. And that Sunday, she shared it with them in their Sunday School class. And she said to the children, “We need to pray for another teacher to be able to teach in another classroom for older children.” And she took the children by their hands and she and the children went and prayed and walked – prayer walked — through the empty Children’s Sunday School classrooms of that building. And every Sunday for three weeks she and the children prayed and walked through those empty Sunday School classrooms. The third Sunday they did that, a new leader approached the pastor after the worship service that morning and said “Hey, do you need any Children’s Sunday School teachers here? I think I’d like to do that.” And it was the same Sunday that a new family showed up with three older children who would need to be in an older class with a teacher. Now, this was only the beginning of what unfolded at that church. But, do we really believe that prayer makes a difference? Do we really believe that God must love that prayer? Do we believe that God is looking and continues to look for openings in the hearts and the minds of God’s people in churches everywhere asking for new breakthroughs and new possibilities and that we’d be surrendered to it? This is just one small story that has had eternal significance for a set of children. I believe this church is now up to 15 children in three different classrooms with teachers in every classroom now. What does it mean for God’s church to rise again?

Ann Michel. Thank you so much for sharing that story. I want to now get into your long experience in working with congregations that have been seeking to renew themselves. And taking as a given this very important reliance on prayer that you have named as foundational, as you work with different congregations, what are some of the characteristics and practices that you think are essential in addition to this foundation of prayer?

Sue Nilson Kibbey: I really think that the journey of revitalization is ongoing for every church that is a spiritual movement of Jesus. That’s what the church is. The New Testament clearly helps us understand that the church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual movement. And I believe that it is essential for those who lead the church, not only the pastors but the church’s lay leadership, understand the dynamics of fueling a movement, and are really coachable around what that looks like. We’re not just there to be small group leaders of a congregation, although leadership of a small group is a gifting and a calling in and of itself. We need people who lead small groups. But leading a church, that’s something different. That’s leading a movement. And I think coachability and openness to what it means to lead a movement is very, very important. And part of the willingness to lead a movement is the willingness to try new things. To do things differently than they have been done before. To see what God might do if we do it this way instead of that way. And to learn from that. To step out and let God take us to new places with that. That kind of openness and coachability is just a nonnegotiable.

Ann Michel: So, I’m hearing an openness to change and a willingness to think big. Which of course probably ties back holistically to the importance of breakthrough prayer as well. When you use the word “movement” it reminded me of your first book Ultimately Responsible. I think I’ve told you on several occasions that that book really had a huge impact on me. It came out in 2006 which was just as I was getting started in leadership studies. And I think the reason it made such a big impression on me is that it really looked at leadership practices systemically. It didn’t look at just the role of the pastor. One of my criticism of the body of literature that we have around church leadership is so much of it focused on the role of the pastor. And I think your book really looked more holistically at leadership as it is practiced across a congregation. And it also really dealt with some of the spiritual underpinnings of leadership. So, I really wanted to thank you for that gift. But I want to use it as the opportunity to think about the question of leadership. And I wondered whether you might share what you think some of the key leadership practices are for congregations that are seeking to enhance their ministry.

Sue Nilson Kibbey: Well, Ann, you and I share the same heart and passion that the spiritual movement of the church is not just about the pastor. It is about God’s people rising up and following Jesus collectively and getting unleashed to do so. That the church would be an environment where the central activity of the church is people being equipped and commissioned and unleashed to change the world with the message, and the mission, and the love of Jesus. And so, I am so with you right there in that. I think that the churches that I see and work with and celebrate to the depths of my heart, are churches where any paid leadership as well as the key unpaid leadership understand that their core purpose is to set the stage for those who are part of the congregation to discern and sense what God is speaking to them that they can uniquely do. Who they are called to be? What their passion is. They are setting the stage to identify, equip, deploy, and cheer on the congregation to rise up. One of the great perils of the church, which to my opinion guarantees status quo and decline, is when the paid and unpaid leadership assume that they are the ones who get to do all the real strategic work of the church and that the congregation is just there to help them out when something is needed.

Ann Michel: Let me ask another question. You’ve been at this work a fairly long time. So, I wanted to ask you, what seems different to you today than say 15 years ago when you wrote Ultimately Responsible? In terms of the challenges churches are facing and some of the ways forward?

Sue Nilson Kibbey:  What an interesting question that is. My sense is that in this unique time, not only of our country, our culture, our society, also of the United Methodist denomination which is my primary setting, what I feel like I see is in a time where I think our churches need to become more and more nimble to remain relevant to our mission fields all around — our message never changes but our techniques to stay relevant to our mission field all around must change — instead our churches are hunkering down and hanging on because of the rapid pace of change and shifting going on, not only in our society, but denominationally, various factors here. And rather than navigating the waves, riding the waves, learning to be nimble and adept, we kind of put down the anchor, batten down the hatches, and think we are going to ride it out, and in so doing, sink further and further from where we really would prefer to be and go.

Ann Michel: That’s a really apt metaphor, I think. I do see that tendency, I think particularly in denominational systems. People think hanging fast to the traditions becomes all the more important in changing time. When in fact that probably is counterintuitive to what reality dictates. As I was thinking about that question myself and looking back at your 2006 book Ultimately Responsible, I think that in that book and so many other resources that come out in the 2000s, what strikes me is that they all have some common assumptions about how people would come into the life of the church and engage the life of faith. And what we took at that time to be a given pattern for how people would engage the life of the church no longer seems as normative as it did 15 or 20 years ago. And I wondered if you shared that observation?

Sue Nilson Kibbey: I really think that is a right-on observation. And in the learnings that have come through the work of this MCCI resourcing – as of this fall, we are now up to 180 congregations across multiple conferences that have been journeying through it or entering it. Some learnings I’ve had about it I wrote in my book Flood Gates: Holy Momentum for a Fearless Church (2016) — some learnings about this very thing that I wrote about in that book. I attempted to point out in that book that now I have finally understood, for example, that the process of discipleship within the setting of a congregation …. You and I, Ann, can remember back at the time that there was a general understanding that a discipleship pathway was a set of classes. I’m not saying that a set of classes isn’t useful. But in Floodgates, I wrote a chapter called “Ubiquitous Discipleship” where I talked about what it really takes to set the stage in a congregation for people to progress spiritually, for people to move along spiritually, and how there is a whole different way of looking at that, that can help you create such an environment that the entire church really is this glorious progression of followers of Jesus growing forward together. It may include classes, but also may include a retreat, or a mission trip, or whatever it may be. But you can craft it in such a way that people’s spiritual growth is fueled and triggered very significantly to continue to move forward. And so, it’s just a different picture now. Times are different. People are different. And this is part of that nimbleness that we have referenced already that is all about the church of now and beyond.

Ann Michel: I love that phrase “ubiquitous discipleship.” I have read Floodgates. And I think it really does start to identify some of this paradigm shift in how we attract and engage people. And we need to be thinking about it in so much more a holistic and varied ways from the patterns we used to assume were normative. To begin to draw this conversation to a close … so much of the metanarrative around church life today is negative, right? There is declining attendance. There are declining finances. For those of us in theological education, we are faced with declining enrollments in many, many settings. And yet we are called to do this work of renewing our church against the backdrop of what often gets projected as a very negative scenario. I wanted to give you the opportunity to just name what gives you hope in this? What keeps you going? And what should be keeping us all going as we are continuing this work in the face of what seems to be an increasing level of challenge?

Sue Nilson Kibbey:  You know, it is true that if we look at circumstances around us as you’ve described, we can be discouraged, very discouraged. But I thank God that no one seems to have told churches like the Grove United Methodist Church in Woodbury, Minnesota, one of our MCCI churches in the Minnesota Conference. The Grove is a congregation that only a few years ago had been plateaued and in decline — a substantial church with a wonderful building wondering what it would mean to reach their growing demographic. And with a thorough-going breakthrough prayer initiative and faithful implementation of every tool that I talked about in Floodgates and that we train about, this church is leading the way in the entire Minnesota Conference with new people every week, with connecting people immediately into what we call “first friends,” which is an MCCI initiative that connects new people into new friendships right away. This church is in mission all over the city. It has completely changed its cosmetic appearance inside so that it feels welcoming in new ways to new people. And in every way is on such a move forward. Not that the church isn’t thoughtful and discerning about the bigger milieu of what’s happening in our denomination. But their momentum is so significant, continuing to ask God to breakthrough with the new, that they quite frankly don’t have time to wring their hands over the realities. Because they are keeping up with where God is leading. And I really think this is why this foundation of breakthrough prayer initiative changes everything. It shifts us up and out, inviting God to rally us and lead us forward. And it puts everything into the perspective of what the church is called to be.

Ann Michel: Sue, I really want to thank you for naming the fact that it is hard to be discouraged when we have God as our leader and Christ as our leader, and when we keep focused on that, the way forward is bright and obvious in ways that you have helped us see. I want to thank you for the work that you are doing. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me and our listeners today about this important work. And I want to wish you continued blessings and fruitfulness in this important ministry that you’ve undertaken.

Sue Nilson Kibbey: Ann, thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to visit with you. And I’m so grateful for your leadership and the work that you are continuing to do to help us help churches succeed in their mission. So, thank you so much.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we discuss Messy Church with Johannah Myers, Director of Christian Formation at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Johannah is an integral part of the messy church movement, and she shares with us how this way of being “church for all ages” is a viable possibility for established congregations.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

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About Author

Sue Nilson Kibbey is the inaugural director of the Bishop Bruce Ough Innovation Center at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Previously, she served as Director of the Office of Missional Church Development for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Since writing Ultimately Responsible: When You’re in Charge of Igniting a Ministry in 2006 (available at Cokesbury and Amazon), she has coauthored several more books, most recently Dynamite Prayer.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.