Friday, October 5, 2012

Running a Church and Growing It

            One of the things that I share consistently with Episcopal Church Leaders is this: Running a church well and growing it is NOT the same thing.  Why is this true and why is this important? 

Most mainline church leaders, and this includes Episcopalians, have been taught to believe that “If we run it well, they will come.”  There was some truth to this idea back before 1965 when we lived in what could be called “the Protestant Era.”  During this time, there was a cultural expectation that most people would be members of a church and, if the church was run well, it tended to grow. I remember a priest who was about to retire in 1971 telling me that in his younger days, “if you preached a credible sermon and provided Christian Education for children, people joined your church.”   Even though this has not been true for many years, the idea that running a church well is all we need to do still persists.   

Here is a typical example: the Rector and staff of St. Swithen’s are gathered to plan the Lenten Program.  As they discuss it, they decide they need to make a few adjustments.  This year they decide to add a lite supper, an alternative class, and something for the youth of the parish.  They may spend a great deal of time working on this.  It is possible that an improved Lenten program may lead to more “members” attending the event, but this will not lead to more non-members or un-churched folks attending.  The same principle applies to Sunday Worship, Adult Education, Church School, fellowship groups and on and on.  The underlying principle remains, “Run the Church well, and they will come.”   

This especially applies to mainline attitudes toward worship.  I often meet church leaders, especially clergy, who believe the number one thing they need to do to help their church grow is alter their Sunday morning worship.  This might mean lengthening the sermon or shortening it.  It may mean taking out the traditional organ and replacing the choir with a “contemporary music” group.  This may mean dropping the Rite I liturgy for Rite II or dropping the Rite II service for something more culturally relevant from the Alternative Service Book.  One I find especially interesting is incorporating some things from the New Zealand Prayer Book.  The truth is that such changes, the more radical they are, usually lead to a decrease in attendance, or even worse, major conflict. 

Here is how to demythologize this belief.  Studies of new members show that most people decide within the first 5 minutes of driving on your parking lot whether they will return again.  By 15 minutes almost all of them have decided this.  What this tells us is that how people are welcomed and greeted is far more important to connecting with new people than the style of music. And I should add for the benefit of clergy, this includes the sermon.  Clergy sermons come far too late in our service to be the primary ingredient in determining whether new comers will return.  

Now, of course, I am not arguing for bad liturgy or bad anything in church life.  What I am saying is that the skills necessary to help grow a congregation are DIFFERENT from those required in running it well, and that most of us focus most of our energy on running it well. 

If you want to grow a church, you will want to focus on two important dynamics.  The first is what we generally know about the front door of a congregation.  The front door involves three important tasks: 

1.        Inviting people: this involves signs, internets, Special Sundays, advertisement, and in today’s world, social media. 

2.       Welcoming people: this involves the hospitality ministry of the entire congregation.  It is what happens in those first 5 to 10 minutes of new people arriving.  For example, very large, growing, mega-churches often have volunteers greeting folks in the parking lot and helping direct them to the right place.

3.       Assimilating people:  This involves the conscious and intentional actions and activities of the congregation to move people from first time visitor toward both membership and discipleship.  I urge every congregation to have a clear path to both. 

You can learn more specifics on each of these tasks in my book Five Keys for Church Leaders in the chapter on “Opening the Front Door.” 

                The second dynamic has to do with size or “culture” of a congregation.  If you lead a Pastoral Size Church, the activities and events that will lead to growth are most predictably those that fit the style of the congregation.  If you lead a larger Episcopal congregation with attendance over 400, the activities and events that will lead to growth are very different from those of smaller congregations. 

                You can learn more on this topic by reading my book The Myth of the 200 Barrier where I describe these different dynamics.   

                Are you laboring under the assumption that working hard at running your church well will lead to growth?   If you are, learn the skills of growing a church.  These are not the same as running it well.  There is a relationship between these two, of course, but it secondary to focusing at the right issues.






  1. Recently I moved to a new town and went about systematically trying to find a church home where I could feel comfortable and loved. I am a cradle Episcopalian, so I started attending every Episcopal church in town for at least 4 weeks in a row to explore what the church and the people of the church were like. While I agree with some points in this blog, I will say that some places I've been have people taking things to extremes along this mindset. Vigilante friendliness, I usually call it. One priest frightened me so much before I even made it in the door to the church that it made me feel so uncomfortable that I turned around and left! I'd been there a couple of weeks when the main priest had been on vacation when a supply priest was serving and had enjoyed the experience, but when the real priest came I felt so attacked before I even made it into the door that it alarmed me enough to toally turn me off!! Admittedly, I tend to be afraid of people until I know them the vigilante friendliness factor might be only something that scares and intimidates me.....but I still think that making someone feel TOOO noticed as someone new and different when they very first come in is FAR more of a turn-off than it is a turn-on. I went to one church where the preaching was marvelous, where the singing was magnificent and I returned there week after week and even eventually joined the choir....but when I made it known that I needed help and support through the illness and eventual death of my older disabled sister whom I'd been caring for there was absolutely no pastoral care at all, in fact I was made to feel guilty and sinful because I didn't come to choir during the time my sister was dying. I stopped going there because even though the church was running well on most points, I found I felt no kinship....and I got far more actual pastoral care from the pastors and church members at places I had attended in other states. What matters to me is not necessarily what happens in the first 15 minutes I'm there, but in the genuineness of the treatment I'm given as an individual child of God there. Vigilante friendliness in the first 15 minutes followed by being swallowed into a faceless, nameless mass of humanity where no real, lasting kinship is felt is just not what I need and want from a church. Now I attend a tiny church, where I was allowed to attend and gradually get to know a few people before....where if I don't show up a week or two someone emails or calls or checks in with me because they are just generally aware that I am now alone in the world and they truly do seem to care--not just because I am not a warm body in their church pew or choir chair, but because I am me and they want to be sure I am OK. If you want to build churches, develop that....the warm, fuzzy, awesome sense that everyone in that church is intrinsically interconnected in kinship with everyone else that walks through that door. Not just for 15 minutes or for what that person can do for the church while they're inside the church doors...but because they are a unique and beautiful child of God.

    1. You've said many good things, but it is important that you had the unique perspective of a life-long Episcopalian. Most folks visiting our churches complain about how "unfriendly" we are.

  2. Kevin,

    Of course I agree completely with your ideas, as I have over the years. Yet, growing a church is really not a primary concern of most Episcopal churches. For the most part, Episcopal churhes are for its members, not for those seekers, unchurched or what ever we name them.

    The recent 2011 numbers bear that out at least in the Diocese of NC. For the last 10 years, most churches remain at the smae level of ASA,
    essentially no growth.

    Whether it's the leadership, culture or adherence to a syle, unfortuanetly growth is not on the radar screen of most churches.

    I read several years ago that mainline churches are like clubs for its members. That era has paseed as has many of the clubs. Churches need to be for "those who are not part of us." That is a difficult concept for many EC's.

    Jim Baker
    Cary, NC

    Of note: We became part of a UMC church after the diocese closed our EC plant (400 ASA in 2002,
    35 in 2011). The UMC bought the EC site and planted a new UMC. Last Sun. the same UMC opened another new plant (500+ adults, 120 kids on launch Sun.) The new plants name: 519Church, minimal reference to a mainline name!

  3. Yep Jim, not on most Episcopal Churches radar screens. Hence so many are stagnant or in decline.