Many congregations find themselves in crisis. Their crises may be related to significant changes in the surrounding community or culture, or within their own walls and structures. The heart of the crisis centers on years of accumulated losses that have resulted in unbearable pain, fluctuating levels of self-confidence, and insecurity about the future.
Loss of Members
Many congregations remember a time when they had more members, younger members, and more involved members. Over time, these congregations have become aware that their members are fewer, older, and less active in the church. Looking ahead, members and leaders fear that the average age of members will continue to rise; fewer members will remain, and those members will be less active as aging stalwarts are not replaced by younger volunteers. Linked to this loss is the fear that a time will come when the congregation can no longer keep its doors open.
Loss of Congregation’s Centrality for Members
In the past, congregations could count on members to make church involvement a priority. Gone are the days when the church was the religious and social center of the community. Members have many more choices to fill their Sunday mornings and evenings, and congregations increasingly compete for the commitments and loyalties of their members. While members of all ages have more choices, it is the loss of youth that is most lamented. No longer do congregations occupy a privileged place in the lives of most members.
Loss of Pastors and Staff Members
Many congregations have fond memories of former pastors and staff members who provided significant leadership at a time when congregational vitality was evident in membership. No longer with the congregation, these leaders are missed because of the quality of their service and leadership and the degree of congregational vitality associated with their tenure. An increasing number of congregations can no longer afford a paid staff of the size they maintained when financial resources were more abundant.
Loss of Traditions
The loss of a congregation’s traditions is perhaps most obvious in the structure and content of worship. While recognizing that worship focuses on praising God and proclaiming the Word, congregations believe they can measure their vitality by the numbers of people participating in worship each week and the dollars received in the weekly offering. The way a congregation worships may also determine how it is perceived by other congregations and the community.
Loss of Structural Supports
When congregational membership was growing, structural supports were critical in the development and operation of programs. Church boards, committees, task forces, and ministry teams provided valuable service and leadership that ensured the vitality of congregations. These service opportunities also deepened the commitment of members to diverse ministries, cultivated a culture of shared leadership, and provided rich opportunities for membership formation, Christian education, congregational fellowship, service to the community, and mission outreach.
Loss of Status in the Community
Many congregations historically enjoyed power and influence in their communities. Church leaders often served as leaders in civic organizations, held visible and powerful roles in the community, and were identified as pillars of the community. In many cases, the status of the congregation and its leaders in the community has been diminished, if not lost.
Loss of Stability
All of the previously identified losses have resulted in a loss of stability for many congregations. These congregations seem less durable than in the past. No longer do they function as communities for restoration and renewal. Instead, their members and leaders typically feel vulnerable, insecure, and uncertain about the future.
For some members and leaders, the loss of stability has intensified as they have experienced change, especially unwanted change. Too often, the loss of stability has resulted in a fragile congregational unity that is increasingly susceptible to “church fights.” Naturally, such battles increase levels of instability and vulnerability, yielding more anxiety and a thinning veneer of trust among members and leaders.
Loss of Confidence
Enduring multiple losses and changes, many congregations have found their confidence eroding in significant dimensions of the faith community. Such a loss of confidence is seen when:
- Members lament that the congregation is not attracting the best and brightest leaders;
- leaders mourn that members are not as committed to their faith as members were in a previous era;
- members and leaders grieve the divisions that agitate many denominations as partisan groups quarrel over theological and social issues; and
- congregations lament the increasing gap between their identity and ministries and the communities and culture in which they live.
In lamenting, members may question whether leaders have the capacity to lead the congregation into a better future. Pastors and staff members may increasingly feel like mere employees of the church, defined more by their position descriptions than by their calling. In turn, lay leaders may decide that they are no longer going to waste their time and energy in a congregation preoccupied with lament.
Loss of Energy for Ministry
Congregations that have experienced many losses often have less energy, vitality, and passion for ministry. They are tired and depressed. Lacking a sense of purpose and a vision, these congregations seem more confident of their continuing decline than of the possibility of their renewal or rebirth. Visitors and observers are likely to perceive the congregation as a community that is “holding on,” more desperate for new blood than for new life, and as a people of passionless faith whose routines reflect monotonous ritual rather than the celebration of abundant life. Too many congregations have come to believe that their best days are behind them. Accordingly, they cling to what they can of the past and the present and exhibit less capacity to be creative, flexible, and adaptable in responding to opportunities and challenges.
Loss of Identity
Many a congregation that has endured a string of losses hears members lamenting, “We’re not the church we used to be.” The congregation has lost members and leaders. It has lost the central place it once held in the lives of its members and the community. It has lost traditions and the support structures crafted to reinforce such traditions. It has lost power and influence. And in the destabilization of congregational systems, members have lost confidence in themselves and others, energy and purpose as a people of faith, passion for the ministries to which they feel called and for which they feel responsible, and hope for a better future.
“Who are we now?” such congregations ask. The ethos in which many congregations once thrived, regardless of their size, has changed. An era has ended. On some level, many congregations are keenly aware that how they discern and live into the future, not how they engaged in ministry in past years, will determine their viability and vitality.
Since even necessary change is difficult, many congregations mourn, grieving the loss of the past as they struggle with questions of who they are to become.
Feeling the loss? Read other excerpts from this book:
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from Strategic Leadership for a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future by Kenneth J. McFayden, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute.
Strategic Leadership for a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future
by Kenneth J. McFayden
Strategic Leadership for a Change provides congregational leaders with new insights and tools for understanding the relationships among change, attachment, loss, and grief. It also helps leaders facilitate the process of grieving, comprehend the centrality of vision, and demonstrate theological reflection in the midst of change, loss, grief, and attaching anew. All this occurs as the congregation aligns its vision with God’s and understands processes of change as processes of fulfillment.
Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation
by Sarah B. Drummond
In Holy Clarity, Sarah Drummond explores the most basic reason leaders of religious organizations conduct evaluations: To find and create God-pleasing clarity regarding the organization’s purpose and the impact of its activities. Leadership and evaluation are not separate disciplines, she argues. Effective leaders evaluate because they need to know what is happening in their organizations and how those activities are effecting change .
It’s Not Too Late: A Field Guide to Hope
by Bob Sitze
A “field guide” is a small, pocketable book that accompanies you on an adventure or journey. It’s Not Too Late is a field guide to hope—sized so that you can carry it along with you on your daily journey of faith. The entries in this book will help you find hope, whether it’s right in front of you or it remains elusive despite your searchings.
The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Understanding Church Dynamics
by Israel Galindo
Faced with crisis, lack of direction, or just plain “stuckness,” many congregations and their leaders are content to deal only with surface issues and symptoms—only to discover that the same problems keep recurring, often in different, and more serious, ways. In The Hidden Lives of Congregations, Christian educator and consultant Israel Galindo takes leaders below the surface of congregational life to provide a comprehensive, holistic look at the corporate nature of church relationships and the invisible dynamics at play.
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Leader: Larry Peers, Alban Senior Consultant
April 24-26, 2012
Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center, West Hartford, CT
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