The Fairhaven congregation is located in a small town that has had a static population for the past 30 years. A community sustained by light industry, small businesses, a regional hospital, and a few struggling farms, the town is now targeted for new housing developments to accommodate a growing work force in a nearby metropolitan area. This growth is both a welcomed potential economic boon for the community and a source of resentment and fear for the changes it will bring.

The Fairhaven congregation is largely in denial about these changes and the implications they have for their church family and their long-established patterns of congregational life. The leaders of the Fairhaven congregation have no ministry plan, no strategy for outreach to new residents, and no vision to energize them for the challenges that lie ahead.

Meanwhile, in an adjoining county, the Middleboro congregation has been growing by leaps and bounds. Their Sunday school is bursting at the seams with new families, the worship celebration attracts a steady flow of visitors—many of whom have continued their affiliation—and the mission activity of the congregation has been expanding with new mission trips and service projects.

The leadership of the Middleboro congregation has been in a strategic planning process for the past 18 months and has formulated a vision and direction for the next five years. The congregation is struggling to keep up with these changes. They realize they are understaffed, lagging in reaching their giving potential, and at a pivotal point in their journey. They know they must figure out how to maximize this opportunity for growth and how to manage the tensions that are beginning to surface in the congregation.

Both of these congregations are part of the same regional denominational body. They both have very specific and unique challenges before them and could benefit from thoughtful assistance from the regional denominational structure. The question is, how can these congregations and the local denominational structure best partner together to advance ministry?

The Regional Denominational Dilemma 

Many regional denominational bodies are experimenting with new ways to resource and support the ministries of their congregations. Many of these congregations are in need of expertise and, sometimes, financial help that the local denominational structure is called upon to provide. Often the assistance requested by congregations exceeds the availability of funding and the capacity of staff to respond; strategic choices must be made about the use of limited resources.

Still, across mainline denominations there is the expectation of mutuality, compassion, and competence in the relationship between the local denominational structure and the congregations that constitute them. Negotiating this relationship in a missionally responsible way is important work if the congregations and the regional denominational structures are to move together toward a more vital future.

Helping congregations to develop a realistic appraisal of their ministry and to understand what they need in order to grow in their capacity for outreach is an important first step toward a healthier mutual ministry. Additionally, an appraisal of current reality helps the regional denominational structure identify those congregations ready to partner with that structure in more creative and effective expressions of ministry.

In mainline denominations, I find there are at least four categories of congregations, each requiring a different strategy or intervention (relationship) by the regional body to assist in the process of moving toward more effective ministry. These four categories—outlined below—are not based on size but rather on circumstance. They are described here as a framework for establishing priorities for the use of resources by the regional denominational body in its relationship to congregations. By their nature these categories of congregational circumstance have imperfect and flexible borders between them. By using the following descriptions, as well as the tool provided at /uploadedFiles/Alban/Conversation/pdf/JankaOnline.pdf, congregations and regional bodies can jointly assess which category most aptly applies, and create a strategy for advancing congregational ministry.

Categories of Congregational Circumstance 

High Performance CongregationsThese are congregations that exhibit innovation and creativity. They are open to experimentation and thoughtful change. They deal effectively with difference and have a healthy view of conflict. They are open to and cultivate diversity as it exhibits itself in the surrounding community. They have an ability to engage cultural trends and respond to emerging issues, and they are continually seeking new ways to respond to both the congregation’s and the community’s needs. They have a significant identity in the larger community and they attract a steady flow of visitors to their primary worship celebration. Of great importance to these congregations is the development of leaders. They provide regular opportunities for training and capacity building to their members and constituents. These are congregations that have the financial resources needed to move into the future with vitality. They are comfortable talking about money as an essential dimension of their spiritual life and regularly challenge members to support the congregation’s vision and mission through tangible acts of giving and service. They have a five-year plan for upgrading and/or expanding facilities, and their staffing is currently adequate to continue enacting their vision. There is a high value placed on quality in all that they do.

Partnering Opportunities: These congregations exhibit “best practices” and have learned a great deal about what works. Some of what they have learned is important for other congregations to know about. They have something to teach others and may need support in finding the appropriate setting in which to share their stories. Additionally, these congregations have often benefited from long-term pastorates and may need assistance in getting ready for and managing pastoral transitions and change. 

Aspiring and ReadyThese congregations have real potential to expand ministry outreach, as well as the vision and organizational strength to attract new constituents. Their facilities are adequate for their current ministry needs and they are financially stable but have not yet reached their giving potential. These are churches whose programs of ministry have not evolved to support their aspirations. They are often uneasy about the changes that must take place in order to enact their vision and they are not certain they can manage the conflict that often results from making needed change. These congregations may be understaffed, may have plateaued, and may feel frustrated by not knowing how to move forward. However, their leadership core is open to new possibilities and willing to work to realize them. These are congregations with a senior minister who is committed to remaining for at least five years to assist in moving the congregation forward.

Partnering Opportunities: These congregations can benefit from assistance in discerning what to stop doing and what initiatives to undertake. Often they need third-party expertise, training, guidance, and coaching to assist them in moving forward and managing needed changes, including interpreting and communicating their vision, expanding their program (which may include adding a worship celebration), and strengthening the congregation’s financial support. 

Potential in Need of a Dream
These congregations are often unaware of t
heir potential and exhibit a predisposition for the status quo. They are resistant to change and often anchored in the past. They are often either conflicted or conflict averse. Their facilities are often underutilized and they are having difficulty meeting financial obligations. They have initiated few if any new programs in the past three years and the programs they offer are targeted to current members rather than potential new constituents. While they may offer certain services to the community, they do not vigorously seek to incorporate those who use these services into the life of the congregation. Community demographics suggest that the congregation has significant potential to reach new people, but to do so will require a shift in the culture and attitude of the congregation. Congregations exhibiting these characteristics are either poised to become “aspiring and ready” or they are poised to become “limited and maintaining.” They are at a critical decision point.

Partnering Opportunities: These congregations may benefit from a process of theological reflection, visioning, and training to broaden their sense of purpose. The lay leadership may need coaching in mapping a plan to effect changes in the congregation’s behaviors and mission, and the pastoral leadership may need support, coaching, and more specialized continuing education. 

Limited and Maintaining
These congregations typically have fewer than 50 in worship and are either just maintaining their participation or are in a long-standing pattern of decline. These churches have few children or youth among their members. The majority of their active members are at least 50 years old and most of the current members live outside the community where the church is located. These congregations often have a less than full-time minister, who may also reside outside the community. The priority for many of these congregations is maintenance of the status quo and maintenance of the facility, which becomes more draining with each passing year, with fewer people to care for the work of upkeep. There is a limited pool of leaders for the church’s programs and there are insufficient active members to populate the traditional programs. These congregations are often in static or declining communities, or in communities where a racial or cultural transition has taken place and passed them by. In most cases, the denominational body does not have the resources to prop up these institutions.

Partnering Opportunities: After careful assessment and self-study by the congregation, in partnership with the denominational body, these congregations may consider the following options: staying as they are for as long as they can, discontinuing and selling the facility, merging with another nearby congregation, relocating, or closing and developing a totally new congregation in the current facility designed to attract a new group of constituents. By selecting a limited number of these congregations for study and partnering, the regional denominational body may learn new ways to create options for renewed mission. 

A Fifth Category in the Mix
Additionally, the regional denominational body has the responsibility to help establish new faith communities. Testing feasibility, developing a strategic plan, assembling needed resources, testing models, and providing for the leadership required for such initiatives to succeed are tasks uniquely assigned to the regional denominational body. This responsibility must be held in tension with the task of partnering with existing congregations and the dynamic of multiple needs competing for limited resources. Given the capital investment required by a traditional model for new church development, alternative models for creating new congregations must be explored. Those who are experimenting with these models will have much to teach others about what works.

Focus for the Regional Body 

The most critical focus of opportunity for the regional denominational body is with those congregations who are “aspiring and ready” and those with “potential in need of a dream.” Optimally, 70 percent of the missional resources of the middle judicatory designated for resourcing congregations should be committed to these congregations. The types of supportive functions provided by the regional body and needed by these congregations include:

  • assisting congregations in determining their current reality and potential
  • ensuring competent congregational leadership with at least a five-year commitment
  • assessing facilities to help congregations accommodate expanded programs
  • assisting congregations in securing additional staff at this critical time
  • providing leadership training and coaching for laity and clergy
  • funding experimental programs, including enhanced worship

In order to create these partnerships, the regional denominational body must often realign its own resources to support this new focus. This in itself can constitute a major institutional shift likely accompanied by resistance, conflict, and stress on an already taxed system. In this sense the regional denominational body must resource itself with expertise that may not be resident within its own structure. This is an investment equal in importance to the investment the regional denominational body makes in the work of supporting congregations.