I have always found The Congregational Life Cycle to be a helpful tool in teaching Congregational Development and in understanding what a declining congregation needs. Many of my readers would be familiar with this model. A congregation is birthed. It grows and, at some point in its initial history 15 to 20 years it reaches a stage of stability. If leaders do nothing at this stage, a congregation will begin to decline. This decline points to three necessary responses.
First is “Re-Visioning”
This is what congregational leaders need to do during the initial turn down at the end of the stabilization period. It is often hard to do, because in many ways the congregation is operating at its best in most areas of congregational life. It takes gifted and dedicated and mission minded leadership to challenge others to think ahead and push forward.
I learned some time ago by studying larger congregations that their history is often seen in as a series of growth spirts followed by plateaus that lead to a new time of further growth and greater vitality. In other words, just as growth in the natural world is seldom a straight line, growth in a human community isn’t either. Those who study such things now think that these moments of stabilization reflect the organism’s need to integrate the proceeding development and prepare for the future. Failure to do this, leads to decline. The scientific term is “atrophy” – things left to their own devices tend to run down.
Unfortunately, many congregations never move to this new level because the status quo is seldom challenged. A typical pattern is a new plant grows until it can afford a full time Rector and then clusters around the Pastoral Size with an average Sunday attendance between 75 to 140. This remains standard until either a crisis or the inevitable aging of the congregation starts the church toward decline. Sometimes a new Rector brings new energy and new growth, but the congregation never moves beyond the Pastoral size and its limitations.
What I am saying is this; Re-Visioning is the best time to re-evaluate and create a renewed vision, but satisfaction with the status quo keeps this from happening. Often Re-Visioning involves clarifying or refining the current sense of mission. Writing a mission statement can be a helpful tool especially if new and expanded ministries are planned and executed.
Once decline is clearly evident, the congregation needs “Re-vitalization.”
This is a harder and more costly process because it demands change that is not congruent with what has gone before. The Leaders often feel that the problem is simply a need for a few newer families with children rather than realize that this is merely aimed at maintaining what is known. So let me say this as clear as I can. The almost universal suggestion by Dioceses that congregations write a mission statement is almost useless in a congregation needing Re-Vitalization. When the leaders write one, it will mostly be a maintenance statement disguised as a mission statement.
Re-Vitalization takes place best when a clergy leader with skills in congregational transformation in in place. Many will not like to hear this, but the leaders who got the congregation to the stage of needing Re-Vitalization are not the ones to get you out of it. In my next blog, I will discuss some of the skills and characteristics of such clergy and lay leadership, but for now I want to focus on the process needed.
When we did intentional Re-Vitalization in the Diocese of Texas during Bishop Payne’s tenure, we would do some or all of the following.
1. We would take an active role in recruiting the right kind of ordained leader for this work. Declining congregations make very poor choices in a search process.
2. We brought new resources in both capital and operating assistance usually for a period long enough to make a difference – 3 to 5 years.
3. We reduced the size of the vestry to 5 to 7 leaders. Our request to the congregation was simple and direct, “Put your A Team -best leaders - on the field."
4. We would keep that Vestry in place for the 3 to 5 years of the partnership.
5. We often kept the same Senior Warden in place during this time too.
6. We expected the clergy and lay leadership to review current ministries and stop those that were no longer viable.
7. We provided training in Leadership, Congregational Development, and Stewardship. (For example: Congregations in the Re-Vitalization process were required to send a majority of Vestry Members to the Annual Diocesan Stewardship Conference.)
8. We trained lay leaders in New Member Ministry (the genesis of Mary Palmer’s “Invite, Welcome and Connect” seminars. And we shared best practices from similar sized congregations.
9. We would ask the leadership to prepare a series of goals and timelines and made clear that continued funding was dependent on meeting them.
Of course, we were a large Diocese with plenty of staff to assist making these things happen. Did these strategies work? In my 9 years with the Diocese, it worked in every intentional Re-Vitalization.
Once decline has reached a critical point, what is now needed is “Re-Birth” or frankly Resurrection.
A dying English speaking congregation of 15 folks becoming a growing Hispanic congregation is Rebirth, it is not revitalization. Hence a dying English speaking congregation that starts a Spanish speaking service in hopes it will bring about revitalization to the English speaking side of a congregation is headed for trouble.
In my experience, almost all Re-Birth events in congregations involved finding a new target for the future. Sometimes this is ethnic. Often times it is generational. In dynamic places it often involves both. I am also convinced that congregation Re-Birth is almost always a God thing and looks very much like a miracle. I guess Resurrection is like that. However, it is also important to remember that for a Resurrection to take place, something has to die. And, of course, some congregations will simple die.
Now with these three terms in front of us, Re-visioning, Re-Vitalization, and Re-Birth, I can now make a couple of final observations.
First, most congregational leaders wait too long to take initiative in each of these stages and often act in reactionary ways.
Second, being in denial, the leaders often underestimate which stage they are really in. Hence the congregation needing Re-Visioning just focuses on operations. The congregation needing Re-Vitalization focuses on writing a new Mission Statement. A congregation moving toward death believes a new Rector and new programs will turn things around. And finally, a congregation in the throes of death believes that “Jesus will never let his Church die.” As is often said, Denial is not a river in Egypt!
And third, Diocesan Leadership seldom intervenes with the right strategy at the right time even though they actual know better than local leaders the true state of the congregation.
Now in my opinion, most of the 70 to 80% of our congregations in decline in TEC are in the Re-Vitalization stage and we need to train both clergy and lay leaders in the necessary steps to bring about this Re-Vitalization. I would love to put together a two week continuing education at one of our seminaries on this and invite folks to attend. I am still awaiting an invitation.
In summary; A congregation in decline needs to understand what stage they are in and apply the appropriate strategy to meet it. This often involves new leadership, especially clergy, and new information by way of training. Re-Visioning can be done largely on the local level. Re-Vitalization and Re-Birth need intentional Diocesan support.