Tuesday, April 27, 2010


One of the three most critical analytical questions any leader should ask of their own congregation or prospective congregation is “where is this church in the predictable life cycle of a congregation?” The life cycle information was one of Arlin Rothauge’s most helpful resources on congregational information that his office produced. In my humble opinion, it is not used as often as it should.

By way of reminder, Arlin (and others) pointed out that most congregations go through five key stages of development:
Birth – Growth/development – stability – Decline – Death

Birth is the time in which the initial vision for the congregation is cast. During the last major development period for TEC, 1945 – 1960, this vision may have been as simple as “having our own parish in this part of town.” Today, vision is more critical and needs to be much more refined, and not institutional since “membership is not a destination” for most secular people. Birth is a good analogy because just like human birth there is a lot of messiness.

Once launched, there comes a time of up-building. During the initial life cycle of a congregation, this growth/development stage often determines the size (family, pastoral, program, etc.) of a church. During our last building period, many churches were build with their parish hall as their initial building. Since these were built at a “pastoral size” in the life of a church, few congregations had the energy to move beyond this limit to a larger size. This is, however, when ministries get established.

Then comes stability. The role of the leadership becomes maintaining the present known culture of the congregation. Stability can continue for some time. Stability is actually the best time to revisit vision and start a new revitalization process, but few congregations have the visionary leadership to do this at this stage.

Eventually, decline sets in. Most congregational leadership don’t address this stage very well, and most respond, when they do, to trying to return to some previous stage instead of facing present realities. Decline can happen quickly or over 50 years.

Lastly, death comes. My experience is that congregations die hard. Most everyone knows when a church is in the last stage and few are in denial about it, however, the resources necessary at this point (people, money, leadership) are usually in such short supply that revitalization at this stage is rare.

Most congregations finish their initial cycle after about 30 years and then need revitalization. Given the ages of most of the Episcopal Churches in this country, this means that most clergy are presiding over the decline and death cycle. Revitalization is difficult work especially for us clergy who were trained to maintain churches – that is to do Lent over this year with some improvements.

One major problem in revitalization is that few lay leaders have really thought through where their churches are in this cycle and what this means. One way to help them do this is to present the life cycle information and ask them to identify “where” they think their church is in this predictable cycle.

Long standing congregations, like the Cathedral that I serve, have gone through several life cycles, having lived through revitalizations at some point. I plan my next several blogs around the topic of revitalization of the declining and/or dying congregation and why this is often so hard to do.

“The life cycle in congregations: A process of natural creation and an opportunity for new creation” (Congregational vitality series) by Arlin J Rothauge is available through Amazon.com. I do not know if 815 continues to carry this.