The resources for how to revitalize, reinvigorate, redevelop, re-imagine, and re-create the local congregation are plentiful. We can read books and magazine articles on the subject, peruse any number of Web sites, hire a coach or consultant, take a class or a seminar, or participate in online conversations. Starting points include traits of successful congregations, stories of turnaround congregations, studies of mission-based congregations, programs for evangelism or spiritual growth or radical welcome or transforming worship, and on and on and on. I studied them all.
When I began my ministry I felt as if I had cheerleaders beside me—all the authors of these materials, all the faculty who conferred upon me my newly minted seminary degree, all those who had supported me through search and call, and all 15 members of the little congregation that I had agreed to pastor. Each of these voices cheered as I set out to be a turnaround pastor for Bethany Christian United Parish, a United Church of Christ congregation in Worcester, Massachusetts. “You can do it,” they chanted. “You can make it to the finish line.”
We did make it to a finish line, but one that was quite different from what my studies had described. Along the way, I learned that success is not measured by having enough income, or enough people, or enough space, or enough of anything. I learned that our goal is not a place, a time, or even a mission. Success does not come from looking at a line ahead of you but from the way you run the race. We had a successful journey. Our walk on God’s path was about facing loss, finding healing, and learning to let go. Bethany Christian United decided to step out on God’s path. In doing that, we risked all that we had and all that we were. In taking the risk we found death and, ultimately, resurrection.
In the 1970s, Bethany was a vibrant, large congregation still full of the excitement created by the merger of four congregations, the competition of three youth programs, the thrill of overcrowded worship, and the challenge of combining three denominations’ liturgical styles. Thirty years later, the dilapidated sanctuary felt empty even when all of the 45 remaining members were present.
But although the building was crumbling, the people were not. They were determined to do more than wait for the last dollar of their endowment to be spent and the last member to be buried. The church building was sold and a turnaround pastor was hired—that’s me. After my arrival, all of our processes of decision-making were streamlined and our outreach to the local community was finetuned. We adopted a local mission, created a new and innovative worship service, and told our friends what we were doing. We had a table at almost every event in Worcester, put ads in community publications, and hung flyers in local businesses.
All of that was simply not enough. We had visitors almost every week, but few returned. Forty-five members voted to leave behind the church building the congregation had occupied for several decades, but only 15 arrived at the storefront where we had agreed to come together again to worship. Newcomers raised our average attendance to 25, but that was not enough—not enough energy to organize the additional worship service, not enough money to reduce our stress, and not enough people to sustain the hope that we could turn ourselves around.
Still, the congregation was not willing to give up. Perhaps we could merge again, they suggested, join with another church to create something new. Sadly, it was this notion of creating something new that stalled merger discussions. We talked to five different congregations before we found one that was willing to imagine—initially, anyway—a different kind of church. After months of discussion, however, they were not able to envision letting go of things “the way they are.” We voted against merger and began the conversation about how to close.
A New Definition
Local churches adopt many metaphors to describe themselves. One is “people of God,” another is “refuge in the storm.” One congregation in our area thinks of themselves as “the new Jerusalem,” another as “the faithful remnant.” In each case, metaphor communicates worldview. But metaphors also risk miscommunicating the Christian message.
For Bethany, our metaphor was one found in many small congregations: “We are a family.” We take care of each other. Our relationships extend beyond Sunday morning. As “brothers and sisters” in Christ, we try, and sometimes succeed, in holding each other, especially in times of crisis. Churches that focus on their life as “family of God” can be healthy, but the metaphor creates some traps for congregations trying to change.
In the face of change, congregations easily pick up family-like dysfunctions: triangulating complaints, maintaining a false peace, and deferring decisions until the matriarch or patriarch has spoken. “Family” churches require a waiting period before new ideas are “adopted”; new members must wait for the matriarch and all the aunts to give the okay. The language and work of turnaround is about change, and change has a hard time finding a place in communities that use the family metaphor.
For Bethany, family language did not adequately explain the changes we had experienced. Why had members left? Where had we been in the face of some personal crisis? How could we deal with grudges and anger in the face of change? Family language does not speak to dwindling numbers and resources. Most of all, at a time when our community needed to take risks, the family metaphor said “don’t change.” Families are not risk-taking operations.
Changing visions, reaching outside boundaries, developing new practices, restoring historical values, and risking death in the hope of resurrection are all actions outside the metaphor of family. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples they are going to Jerusalem to risk their lives and, in fact, to die (Mark 10:32-34). Jesus’s message is still hard to hear. But it is in risking and in dying that resurrection and salvation take place. Risktaking is the metaphor of the Body of Christ, not the metaphor of family.
The metaphor of the Body of Christ includes working toward developing spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12) and combining gifts to express the fullness of Christ in the world. But for a church that wants to revitalize itself, for a congregation that wants to find new life, the Body of Christ metaphor says clearly: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
The journey for Bethany was a journey toward picking up our cross in the same way that Jesus willingly carried his. We needed to forget about saving our life and instead turn our path firmly toward Jerusalem. In Jerusalem is the risk of humiliation, beatings, and possibly death. But the trip to Jerusalem brings opportunities to tell Jesus’s stories, feel Jesus’s healing, know Jesus’s presence. It is Christian witness to the power of the gospel to become a church that recognizes that the greatest loss is not death but the loss of God’s Kingdom.
When Jesus took that fateful trip to Jerusalem, the disciples could not imagine the end result. When Jesus predicted his death the disciples reacted without hope, only with fear. When Jesus was arrested the disciples were afraid. When Jesus was beaten he felt only pain. When Jesus died, his followers believed his ministry was over. Even when the resurrected Jesus appeared, the disciples were locked in a room, afraid for their lives. And yet, in the face of that fear, they continued on, confident that God was doing something new in the world.
It requires great confidence in God’s new thing to look col
dly at the fear in a struggling congregation. It is tempting to soften the figures or imagine that miracles will happen. We are inclined to avoid looking too closely at spending or at the endowment. We avert our eyes from the date that this ministry will end. But if we are the Body of Christ we will speak boldly, as Jesus did, of the end. Do not be anxious, but be honest.
When I arrived at Bethany, our projected end date was July 2012. This was a date that initially offered a poignant comfort to about half of our members, who felt confident that they would die before the church did. They took consolation in the notion that the congregation they had been a part of for so long would bury them. (At this point we measured the doors of our storefront and discovered that we could not, in fact, have a funeral there, so even this small comfort was lost.) And we asked again and again: Is that what we do as the Body of Christ? Do we hang on so we can bury our members? Or do we stop hanging on and start reaching out? Do we want to take the trip to Jerusalem?
We considered what it would cost to increase our outreach, expand our mission, become involved in the local community, advertise our existence, increase our pastor’s hours, and make our space welcoming. The risk involved not merely money but also our energy, gifts, and time. The risk was the fear of telling others our story and meeting people we don’t yet know. The risk was that we would change. And the risk was that we would do all of this and still not succeed in becoming a growing, vibrant church.
We spent time understanding and developing our choices. We could hang on for 10 more years or we could take a risk. If our outreach succeeded our future was promising. If it failed, we would be out of money in four years. The hope was real; so was the fear. In the face of fear, the disciples stayed with Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. Bethany Christian United Parish chose to take the risk, too. We chose to embark on our own journey to Jerusalem. We tried a lot of things and we made a lot of mistakes. Some things succeeded and others failed. But more importantly, in the risk-taking—in the mistakes and successes, in the fear and hope—we found healing again and again.
There were little healings, of our bodies, and of our little frustrations with one another, but there were huge healings as well. We named our angers and frustrations with the past; we learned to forgive and to move on. We stopped thinking of ourselves as a group that had failed and instead learned to see the ways we had followed God to hard places. We gained confidence in our ability to present our church to others, learning to name the important ways we were growing spiritually. Mostly we were healed from being victims, beaten on by the world, and became instead deciders, deciding for ourselves which risks to take and choosing as a group to continue to take the risks needed to grow.
After three years of effort it was clear we were not growing in numbers. We recalculated our end dates. We could close in six months and use our remaining funds for resurrection in other congregations, or we could stay open with minimal pastoral leadership for two more years. Bethany chose to close. It did so six months later, in June 2005.
It is possible to tell the story of Bethany quite simply. We tried to redevelop, we failed to get enough new members to sustain our ministry, and the church closed. That true sentence assumes that church is a place we should go to, a finish line, or a goal that we failed to reach. But I think church is instead a journey, a path of healing and risk taking, of comforting and challenging, of faith and doubt—a road we take together and a process that sometimes pulls us apart. We became a church that recognized the journey’s passions and resurrections. We were resurrected on the way.
We were resurrected as the Body of Christ. When 15 gathered in our storefront location, we faced our own painful story of loss. Along with the pain of losing the organ, the baptistery, and the church building was the fear that our history was lost. And beyond that was incredible pain about the loss of people. In addition to feeling sadness about our losses, many of us were also really angry: Why did they give up? Why did they leave us? When we discussed our values, one stood out: we held on. Why did we hold on when others were letting go?
Our resurrection was about letting go. Centuries before us, the disciples had to let go of their picture of Jesus overcoming the Roman authority. Now we had to let go of our image of our church as a family. We talked about what it meant to hang on—about loyalty, integrity, and perseverance. And then we worked on how to let go: How do we let go of our anger? How do we let go of our sadness? Finally, how do we let go of Bethany? In continuing along the journey we were called to make we were led to answers to these questions.
Our resurrection was about healing. As part of our outreach, we began a healing worship service on Sunday nights. (We were supporting a local battered women’s shelter, and a healing worship seemed like the logical next step.) We were amazed and unprepared for the way people were healed. Visitors came, calling us later with stories of rest and calm, of healing and hope. Family members who hadn’t been to church in years joined us and cried with us through the healing. And members of the congregation shared their struggles with alcohol, with their grown children, and about their fear of illness and death.
But beyond individual healing we experienced incredible healing as a community in the creation and development of that worship service. We learned together how to think about the parts of worship, how to plan the flow of the service, how to make space for uplift but also for desolation. Members got a chance to try on different gifts and got feedback as to which fit best. On discovering healers and singers, greeters and socializers among us we affirmed each individual for his or her particular gift. Conversation began to include the parts of our lives that had been hard. Six members of the congregation had a chance to share about times when they had considered suicide. Several others shared what it was like to live with mental illness. The sharing, the new depth, the expanded stories about how God had saved our lives, all of this healed us, both as individuals and as a community.
Our resurrection was also about giving of ourselves. When the members of Bethany took the risk to spend our endowment in the hope of turning our church around, our image was still one of holding onto our church, to a thing and a people that we knew and loved. Three years later, when considering whether to hold on a few more years or to close while we still had money to give away, we had grown into a new image of church. Our discussions about money had moved from family budgeting decisions to questions about our role in creating the Body of Christ in the world. We had learned to let go and had found healing on our journey; we had grown into people who believed that Christian churches have money not for the purposes of holding on but in order to reach out. We gave the money away so that it could reach out with Christ’s love.
Bethany Christian United Parish was revitalized, renewed, redeveloped, turned around, and made new by Christ’s love. It happened in the journey we took, a journey that required our death. We made it to the finish line because we made the decision to risk all that we were, and we made that decision intentionally, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. In following the path we were called to take, we let go of what hurt us, we were healed as a community, and we gave away all that we had. We made it to the finish line: we found resurrection on the journey.
Questions for Reflection
- What is your congreg
ation’s metaphor for itself? Is it one that is helping you move forward?
- Do you and your congregation know what the end date for your congregation will be if you continue on the path you are on?
- What criteria would you use to determine whether your congregation is successful right now?
- What are the risks ahead for your congregation? Do you understand them? Are you willing to take them? What are the risks of the status quo?