by Tim Shapiro

On my way to work I drive by two church buildings. One building used to be the home of a Methodist congregation, the other formerly a home for a Roman Catholic congregation. The Methodist building is a coffee house, now for sale. The Roman Catholic building has been renovated into office space for an architectural firm.

What happened to these two congregations? It is likely that a variety of factors contributed to their end, such as changing neighborhoods, poor leadership, death of members, lack of new members, more people becoming indifferent to religion, and so forth.

In that same neighborhood, on my way home from work, I drive by two other congregations; one, again, a Methodist congregation and the other another Roman Catholic congregation. These two congregations have experienced challenges, they have lost members because of death, they have had leadership changes, and they exist in the same culture of growing indifference regarding religion. Yet these two congregations robustly respond to threats and misfortunes. They are resilient.

Why do some congregations carry on despite disruptions while others close? What creates resiliency?

Congregations experience disturbance all the time (all human communities do). Clergy leave. Conflict goes unresolved. Unsolvable problems create anxiety. Disruption in congregations is heightened by the possibility (or reality) that religion is inherently disruptive. A resilient congregation is one that is able to continue and often expand its primary activities despite the inevitable disruptions that occur.

In our work at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, I’ve noticed three characteristics of resilient congregations. Certainly, there are other characteristics that support resiliency—sturdiness has a variety of contextual factors. However these three resilient characteristics transcend context. 1) a congregation’s ability to be a learning community, 2) congregational attention to outcomes, and 3) congregational commitment to teaching and supporting members in experiencing life lived well.

One positive way to respond to the natural occurrence of disruption is for the congregation to function as a learning organization. This means that the leaders of a congregation find meaningful ways to learn new behaviors. Learning new behaviors gives congregations new skills by which to effectively address disruptions and ever changing circumstances in ever more effective ways rather than be debilitated by them.

A learning congregation provides knowledge and wisdom for its members regarding the spiritual, strategic, and operational aspects of life together. Resiliency around challenges creates greater flexibility in responding to the inevitable decline that time brings.

Another factor that builds congregational resilience is attention to outcomes. For congregations, stability ultimately is the same as decline, especially over time. The governing boards of resilient congregations pay attention to results.

Not too long ago I worked with a congregation that sought to increase their annual giving. The resource they chose was the Consecration Sunday material developed by Herb Miller. The leaders participated in the educational exercises that are part of the curriculum (an example of the congregation functioning as a learning community). Their goal was to increase giving by 18%. At the end of the process, the congregation received an increase of 22% in their annual pledges. The increase helped them implement new youth ministries which in turn increased the number of youth engaging in religious activities. A board member remarked, “We’ve never met a financial goal before because we never set one.” Setting specific measures and targets contributes to congregational resiliency.

Resilient congregations teach their people about life. They help their communities make good judgments about how to live. Resilient congregations create opportunities for worship and education experiences that not only proclaim doctrines, but also teach the values that exist underneath the theological structures of doctrines, including life lessons about trust, love, sacrifice, generosity, commitment, and much more. Religious life holds much wisdom about resiliency and it is a good thing for such wisdom to be shared within the context of a congregational life.

Resiliency is different from sustainability. The idea of sustainability suggests that a resource isn’t depleted. In terms of congregations, notions of sustainability incorrectly suggest that any given worship community has light years to live and is potentially immune to the inevitable factors of decline that everything else in existence faces. If only the congregation does the right thing in the right way it will flourish forever. However, nothing is forever. Defense against depletion is not winnable. All things fade or disappear or go beyond our sight.

Yet, resilience is possible. Resilient congregations exist in all kinds of settings. Such congregations are not signs of immortality, but they do demonstrate redemptive ways of facing disruption and disappointment. Resilient congregations practice and teach the importance of life-long learning—focusing on outcomes and deeper meaning related to the transient nature of creation

Every congregational leader might consider holding these two thoughts in tension: it is inevitable that their congregation will not last forever and it is their responsibility to make sure the congregation they serve exists beyond their tenure. It is in the space between these two realities that resilience can be observed and enacted.

Congregations, 2013-03-22
2013 Issue 1, Number 1