Westmont Magazine Engaging Central Coast Churches in Meaningful Conversations

A new center offers resources to local churches to explore how to do God’s work on the Central Coast of California. Through a free, yearlong program, the Westmont Center for Thriving Communities (WCTC) gathers teams from a broad range of churches in the area. Together, they consider where they are, who they are and how God might be prompting them to promote authentic flourishing in the midst of change in their congregations and neighborhoods.

“The Central Coast has long supported a vibrant ecosystem of churches representing a diverse cross-section of the Christian family,” says Aaron Sizer, co-director of the program and associate director of the Gaede Institute. “Today, a complex set of changes — demographic, cultural, social, political, economic and theological — present disruptive opportunities and challenges. Slowing population growth and a rising cost of living threaten sustainability. The erosion of community in all of American life puts pressure on congregations to be and do more. These challenges also present opportunities and invite us to ministry that’s more vital and more relevant to our time and place.”

WCTC Paul Willis
Paul Willis leads a poetry reflection with pastors on Westmont's Paul Willis Trail.

Westmont received a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. in 2020 to help establish WCTC. The funding comes through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative, which seeks to strengthen Christian congregations to help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other and contribute to the success of local communities and the world. Lilly Endowment is making nearly $93 million in grants available nationwide. This generous support means WCTC offers all its programs free of charge and covers all costs for participants from the churches in the cohort.

WCTC will work with up to 12 Central Coast churches each year to explore how congregations can thrive where God has planted them. This spring, the center has been recruiting the first year’s cohort, which will launch in August 2022 and feature a diverse array of congregations. The center limits participation to the Central Coast to focus on needs that are local and particular and to deepen relationships with others who encounter those same needs.

Each church in the cohort will select a team of six members (including at least one pastor and one member of the governing body) who can commit to attending most or all activities, including four short plenary retreats at Westmont. Churches will also host three congregational events that apply the tools introduced at the retreats. The teams will keep in touch with a liaison at Westmont who will provide support and resources. Finally, the cohort members will share findings, insights, challenges and plans through a network of participating churches and organizations.

“We also anticipate inviting participants to attend, free of charge, periodic conferences and events at Westmont relevant to the purposes of Thriving Communities,” Sizer says.

WCTC discussion participants

WCTC sponsored its first event, Holding Hope: A Retreat for Pastors and Leaders, on March 11 at Westmont. Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe of the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth presented a workshop, as did several Westmont professors. On March 24, the center held a public deliberation, What Are Churches For? Participants engaged in a guided round-table conversation based on models of healthy group dialogue.

The leadership teams will meet periodically with faculty and staff from Westmont and ministry and nonprofit leaders invested in helping our communities thrive to explore a variety of issues. Churches will gather to:

» Examine their needs.

» Identify, celebrate and develop the traditions, values and practices that define their ministries.

» Resolve conflict with a robust set of tools for hosting healthy dialogue across difference.

» Make decisions using resources for thinking systematically and accounting for all priorities and pressures.

» Hear from theologians, historians, sociologists, missiologists, psychologists, economists and other Westmont faculty about how to thrive in the midst of change.

» Connect with other churches in a diverse learning community who seek to thrive and learn how they’re responding to God’s call.

» Use mini-grants to pursue new learning and initiatives.

Campus Pastor Scott Lisea, who co-directs the program, looks forward to drawing local congregations into new conversations. “This is a fascinating time for churches and leaders as they engage their communities,” he says. “A great deal of current research can help churches consider what real impact looks like. Westmont has scholars in theology, sociology, economics, history, art and many other fields who can connect congregations to those discussions, helping them thrive as they serve where God has placed them.”

“The value of this program is bringing churches into conversation with each other and also into internal discussions to explore the opportunities and challenges Christians face on the Central Coast,” Sizer says. “We want to think intentionally about how the church can serve God’s kingdom in this place.”

Lisea notes that the pandemic has brought significant change to churches. “These last two years have put pastors into difficult situations as they’ve faced some of the hardest challenges of their ministry: the pandemic, politicization and a racial reckoning. I see a hunger in these churches to seize the opportunities of the moment to discover what it means for the church and the community to thrive.”

“This season has further exposed that a lot of congregations don’t talk to each other very well, going their separate ways and only occasionally getting together,” Sizer says. “How do we continue to be human beings to each other when everything seems to be coming apart and we have fewer opportunities for conversations given our divergent views?”

“We don’t see ourselves as experts telling churches what they should be doing,” Lisea says. “We’ll do a lot of listening and offer tools that congregations typically lack. I’m excited to hear about the challenges churches face and what they can teach us about ministry.”

“I’m excited to put more of Westmont’s resources at the disposal of churches,” Sizer says. “We look forward to connecting faculty with knowledge and expertise relevant to churches with people in these congregations.”

WCTC will draw on the work of partners at Westmont in exploring issues with the churches in the cohort. These partners include:

» The Westmont Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which helps students and faculty understand and engage the Santa Barbara area.

» The Westmont Center for Dialogue and Deliberation, which gathers people to discuss complex social problems and shared values that might drive solutions.

» The Westmont Decision Lab, which uses formal economic theory to help churches and other organizations make crucial decisions.

» Westmont’s Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, which seeks to strengthen LIBERAL ARTS education, multidisciplinary learning and the integration of faith and learning locally and nationally.

» The Westmont Campus Pastor’s Office, which plays a central role in spiritual life on campus and connects Westmont and faith communities in our region.

» Westmont faculty, which brings diverse expertise to the project of thinking from a Christian perspective about our communities and our place in them.

WCTC is one of four programs at Westmont that help churches and individuals explore God’s call. Trailhead is a summer experience that invites high school students to slow down and see how their lives might participate in God’s work. Frontiers supports ministry professionals through seasons of vision and transition. The Young Adult Leadership Lab works with churches to support their innovative efforts to engage and re-engage adults in their 20s.