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As Christian Reformed Church in North America staff members reviewed the assessments coming in after the pilot of a newly developed training course called Thriving Essentials, two words stood out: breakout rooms. 

The CRCNA launched Thriving Essentials in early 2022 based on the belief that there are some things every ministry leader in a local congregation should know regardless of one’s specific role. These paradigms are so fundamental that they shape every ministry of the church and should affect how each leader leads.

“Whether your congregation is in a time of transition or stability, Thriving Essentials provides a way for all the ministry leaders in your church—elders and deacons, volunteers and staff, newbies and old-timers—to become aligned on core concepts of mission, discipleship, discernment, and leadership,” explained curriculum developer Elaine May. 

The program is funded with generous support from Lilly Endowment Inc. and therefore is free for CRC congregations. Leaders can participate on their own or with a group of other leaders from their own congregation. The pilot program began in July 2021, and more than 300 people have already taken part in the training course online. What has been surprising is how valuable the virtual small-group discussions have been. 

“I thought it was very helpful to have the course offered via Zoom, which, while it presents some unique challenges, was also the most convenient way for me to participate from my own home. I'm not sure I would have taken part otherwise,” explained one participant. “I also really enjoyed the breakout rooms and the discussions and ideas that were shared in there. It allowed me to connect with some people from churches across North America, which was pretty cool.”

“We pored over the data from 300 participants across the United States and Canada,” May said, “and an overwhelming majority found the breakout rooms to have been one of the most helpful elements of the course. We were surprised by the feedback, in part because of our personal experiences with ineffective breakout rooms in the past.” 

As the team reflected on this more, however, they realized that what made these breakout rooms so successful was the structure, management, and content. 

“Leaders feel anxiety when confronted with a lack of leadership,” May said, “so their natural response to a breakout room that lacks direction or facilitation is to step into the leadership gap. When that happens, they are no longer participants. By carefully crafting short opportunities for small groups to discuss what they had just learned in a larger group setting, the breakout rooms became fertile ground for exploring the day’s lesson.” 

Leaders could discuss what they had learned and begin to apply it to their own contexts. When they met with other leaders from their own congregation, they found concrete applications for the lesson. When they met with leaders from other parts of the continent, they gained new insights and perspectives to help sharpen their own thinking.

“The breakout sessions were so helpful because (they) put me in touch with those who were in the trenches,” one participant said. “I got the sense that we all had our own set of troubles, and it was nice to share and gain perspective outside my own context also. It was helpful to hear the good and the bad. It was all encouraging.”

You can learn more about Thriving Essentials at After completing the initial course, participants may join learning cohorts with other congregations via a newly-launching part of the program called Thriving Practices.

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