When we hear about transitions in Methodist denominations, we typically think about pastor moves. However, congregations are in a state of flux themselves as well. Many of our Hispanic congregations expect to lose 25% of their members each year due to relocation for work and family purposes. A large portion of our older Anglo congregations may be looking at losing that many to death, health concerns, or retirement relocation. Indeed, some of our congregations with a majority of members in their 70s and 80s may be looking at losing much more than that. Everything and Everyone Everywhere is changing... Except our mission.
Jesus raised up leaders after Him to carry on the process of making new disciples. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking our job is to get people saved and God's job is to take them from there. Instead it is just the opposite. Only Jesus can save and He commanded us to go and make disciples and feed the sheep He brings into the fold.1 We all fall prey to this misunderstanding from time to time. Both churches young and old get mixed up regarding their mission and God's part in that.
Perhaps it is because the specifics of God's mercies are new each morning and He is not entirely predictable. Our egos cannot control Him and plan for Him. So instead, we plan around Him, leaving Him out of our plans. Ultimately, He is the one making the plans and we need to constantly realign our own lives around His vision. Perhaps it would make a difference if there were leaders set aside to specifically seek God's vision and help align the ministries of their church in obedience to God. Normally, the main task of those leaders is making sure the bills get paid and the building does not fall apart.
Often this transition is experienced in a slow decline. A few members move away. Each year a few more pass away. We experience the normal passages of life as we lose more through graduations, marriages and divorces, and more. This is normal. This is life.
The problem arises when we realize that it has been several years since we have brought in new people to our family of faith. The births do not compensate for the deaths, and we hemorrhage out our graduates, who often never return. Essentially, our babies do not stay and become fully-functioning members... so where will our new members come from? When was the last time we had a visitor to church? When was the last time someone joined our congregation from outside our church families? These are some of the questions that do not get asked until we are already on the downward slope and losing our balance.
Sometimes, transitions occur because of new growth. Growth, which often seems to be the entire goal, brings changes itself. Many churches can tell stories of experiencing a period of great growth, followed by loss, and then ending in slow decline. Why is that? They were not equipped to handle the growth.
They may have run out of seats or parking spaces. It is likely they were no longer able to know everyone by name and people felt neglected. Ultimately, the church was able to grow in numbers, but not in disciples because all the energy was being directed to bringing in more people and keeping them there, instead of truly making them part of the family of faith and raising them up to be followers of Jesus... and that problem probably found its root with an insufficient number of leaders/teachers within the congregation. Where the leaders are few, decline is right around the corner.
There is another part of this story that may have occurred as well. Somewhere in the middle of that growth, a few people may have realized that some of the members (with longer standing in this church) were given more influence and input into the way the ministries were run. There is a certain justice to that, but when new people do not have clear ways (and clear filters) into the leadership of the church, everyone gets frustrated, lines are drawn in the sand, and conflict grows into a schism in the house of God.
This kind of conflict is never easy to resolve and almost always means losing not only attending people, but often losing good leaders within the church. It kills the morale of the congregation far more than the death of beloved leaders, because this kind of separation feels so unnatural. It feels like the church kicking people out rather than welcoming them in and it often takes years for a church to recover.
How do we hope to help? It may seem counterintuitive that an outsider could bring any practical help to congregations facing these issues. (Although, ironically, most of these congregations believe that bringing in a new (better) pastor from outside will solve the problem.) I am a pastor myself and I know that we pastors make our fair share of mistakes. Generally speaking though, removing people from the congregation is not the best place to start. Healthy congregations have ways of gracefully correcting us for the benefit of all, and that health can be modeled to a congregation through the intervention of outside leaders. These kinds of things are primarily helpful with churches in conflict though. What about the majority that are simply experiencing slow decline or a burst of growth they are unprepared to adequately disciple?
We invite the leadership into a discussion about Ability, Willingness, and Vision. It is not helpful to discuss major property renovation if the resources are simply not there to make it happen. Likewise it is useless to discuss the addition of major programming if the current property is unable to support it. We have to have a conversation about the current reality of the congregation so we can begin to chart a course to the place we need to be. Sometimes that kind of conversation is easier when you have a more objective outside presence in the room encouraging the conversation.
We also talk about willingness. Some congregations have leaders that are simply exhausted and do not have the capacity to lead the people into the next few years, let alone the next few decades. Lack of spiritual renewal often leaves them burnt out and when the church puts on revivals, they are often the ones left to carry the workload for the benefit of everyone else. Without willingness, a church cannot move forward.
Finally, we talk about the kingdom vision of the church. What do we know already that God wants us to be and to be doing? Do we know how to make disciples? Do we know how to reach people for Christ? Do we know how to call them to serve Him with their lives? Do we know why we exist?
These are all questions that every church should ask of themselves at least once a year. They can keep us on the path of faithfulness to God if we continue to check our alignment with His will on a regular basis, instead of waiting until we are halfway off the cliff. I am beginning to use these questions among my own church leaders and sharing them with other pastors, to help spread this opportunity to encourage good spiritual health within our congregations.
We are training regional pastor and laity teams (2 by 2) to be facilitators in this process. I do not expect to be doing much consulting with this particular process myself, but I have already been involved in helping to train up some of the first facilitators who feel called to this kind of ministry. Among the many plates I have spinning at the moment (and there is more to come), this was one I feel I can support more from a distance, as a consultant to the process. I am saving my presence and efforts to be more involved when those turns toward health are made and opportunities arise for discussions about Fresh Expressions.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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