In my last blog, I began a series on revitalization. I started with an emphasis on leadership and I will return to that topic in a further blog. In it I will explore the characteristics and behaviors that I have seen over the years with clergy who are able to help a congregation revitalize their life?
In this blog, I want to change focus for a moment to move toward what I think is one of the most important issues in congregational revitalization, namely the congregation’s readiness to undertake this process. Far more Episcopal congregations need revitalization than are willing to take on the process in a healthy manner.
Often new clergy are recruited or sent to congregations to lead this process without the congregation and especially its leadership buying in to the need for change. The congregational leaders are assuming that if we just had a new and younger ordained leader who will help us recruit some new families with children, we will be alright. Once the price of revitalization becomes apparent (it is always CHANGE) then the congregation reacts, then frequently resists, and even can sabotages the process.
My first experience as a Rector was exactly this kind of situation. I naively thought that given the desperateness of the situation, members would understand the need for change. At my first Annual Meeting, I plaintively said, “Many of you don’t seem to understand that this congregation must change or it will die.” A long time member stood up and responded, “No, you don’t understand. We would rather have the congregation die than change.” He was right.
So, what are the signs that a Church is ready to seriously undertake revitalization?
I would list these:
- An honest and frank assessment of their true situation that is shared broadly with the membership.
- A willingness to engage with new ordained leadership in a 5 year process of Change. This means no terminations. When a congregation engages a new clergy person for the purpose of revitalization, I would establish a 5 year contract between Priest and Congregation. (It is one of the only times that I agree with having a contract.) If you fire the clergy person, you will pay that person for the full 5 years. This gives the new ordained leader leverage.
- A willingness to engage with the Diocese by establishing key points of accountability.
- A willingness to establish a consulting/coaching relationship with an outside person who helps the local leaders persevere through the process and predictable obstacles they will face.
- A willingness to reduce the Vestry to 5 to 7 Key leaders who will not rotate for at least the first three years of this process including establishing or keeping the current Senior Warden for the 3 year period. The congregation needing revitalization needs continuity. Bishop Payne used to say, “Put the A team on the field. This is a critical time for the congregation and we need its best leaders to step up to the work.”
- If the diocese provides financial support, it continues only as long as the congregation keeps to the agreed upon steps of accountability. I am astonished at the money some dioceses give to subsidize declining and dying congregations even when local leaders are sabotaging revitalization efforts.
Now while all this seems daunting, the good news for Bishops and Staff is that not very many of our declining congregations are ready for this intensive work. Many just need someone to maintain them and help them get to the point of readiness. This also means that a diocese doesn’t need a whole bunch of ordained Leaders capable of leading revitalization. These are hard to come by these days. They just need the right one for the next ready congregation.
So Revitalization demands a congregation’s readiness to enter a process of change with accountability and intentionality. If this is present, the Diocese and Congregation can enter a partnership for the revitalization of the congregation that has a reasonable chance of succeeding. Without this readiness and a cooperative partnership, revitalization has a much smaller chance of ever happening.
In my next blog, I want to revisit the three types of strategic action that are necessary for congregations that have begun to decline.