As I have begun my work as a Field Consultant for the Alban Institute, I am finding pretty much what we all know: many congregations face difficult challenges in our changing times. And yet, it is crucial to note that the challenges are not overwhelming the important work congregations do in and for the communities in which they are located. Congregations around the country are engaged in incredible work serving their memberships and communities. Remove them from the fabric of our society and the garment just might fall apart. Such is the important connective role our congregations play in the United States.
While many claim congregations resist change, I think a case can be made for their incredible adaptability. God made a world in which those things/creatures that don’t evolve become extinct. We still see so many congregations dotting the landscape of this country because our congregations are, in fact, evolving, even when they won’t admit they are changing or don’t appear to be changing. In some cases, the change is coping with decreasing membership and money. In other cases, the change is coping with major social and economic transformations that impact their ministries. But a recurring theme in my consulting work is congregations recognizing the need to change:
- A congregation with $820,000 in expenses and anticipated revenues of $700,000 realized they needed to change their budget in order to continue the important work they do in their community.
- A judicatory where a huge percentage of its congregations are in membership decline is asking its congregations how it can be more supportive.
- Located in a very diverse city, a congregation whose membership is overwhelmingly European-American is figuring out how it can change in ways that make it reflective of its community.
- A congregation changes to a new, non-traditional style of governance in an attempt to be more institutionally agile and responsive to the world changing around it.
In all of these situations, there is a common denominator: change. Change produces fear, anxiety and hopelessness. But change can also generate hope. The swirling winds of change force us to consider that something new needs to happen. As we face our need to evolve, God kindles fires of hope within us, institutionally and personally. Hope opens our eyes to fresh, exciting, new possibilities to serve God and the world.
As a consultant, part of my job is to nurture hope. My hope flows from my faith in God. However, it also comes, in part, out of my experience as pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C for thirty years. When I arrived as the new pastor of Western Church in 1983, the membership consisted of a core of about 70 members, almost all of whom were over the age of 70. A decade before my arrival, our denomination considered closing Western’s doors. Every few years I would pull out the Presbytery’s mid-1970s, grim report on Western’s future to remind myself of how far we had come, how far we had to go.
Based on Western’s experience, I know, first-hand, the fear and anxiety many pastors and congregations face: Do we have a future as a congregation? Will anyone join our struggling congregation? Will I, as a pastor, have a job or have my salary paid? Gratefully, my fears were always overcome by the hope God placed in my heart and the hearts of Western’s members. By the time I retired in 2012, Western Church had 350 members, 2/3 of them were under the age of 45. It was a slow, incremental process to transform the congregation. We didn’t pass one of our goals of 50% of our membership being under 45 until the year 2000, a little more than halfway through my thirty year tenure at Western. But change and grow we did.
The key to our transformation was the original group of old-timers who were among the most hopeful, optimistic people I have ever known. They knew God had a purpose for a Presbyterian congregation in Foggy Bottom. They just hadn’t quite figured out what it was! But they never gave up hope that God would make something happen at Western. Once they got focused on the right issues (using a strategic plan before we knew to call it a strategic plan), the growth was inevitable—slow but inevitable.
Based on my faith in God and experiences in life, I feel compelled to bring a hopeful mindset to the congregations I am blessed to serve as a consultant. To me, the issue facing congregations isn’t “Can we solve our problems?” We can. The issue is “How do we solve our problems?”
To read the entire article from Congregations magazine, click here.
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