Back in 1997, we knew something was coming. But we didn’t know what. We had been growing as a congregation for a few years, and we were running out of room. We needed more storage, classroom, and youth program space. The problem was that we weren’t quite sure what to do about it all.

When I first came to Calvin Presbyterian Church to be its pastor, some fairly serious issues with the building needed to be dealt with—issues that made it difficult for me to agree to become the pastor. The church was worn down. It had been in decline for more than 30 years. They had gone from a high of about 380 members in 1965 to about 215 members when I came. During that time, they had to cut budgets and struggled to determine what was or wasn’t an economic priority. They faced the same dilemmas that most of our mainline congregations face today, which is how to support ministry in an aging building, one that requires increased funding to maintain.

By the time I came to Calvin Church, the building was in very poor shape. The sanctuary was dingy, with wrinkling carpet that had been pulling up from the floor for years and could no longer be stretched to fit the floor. Everything in the sanctuary was either dark brown or a deep shade of red, making for a worship space that seemed tired and old. The primary colors of all the classrooms were dark brown and burnt orange. In the downstairs classroom, a heavy tarp that acted as a classroom divider sagged from its ceiling track. After I visited the church building for the first time, I drove away teary-eyed. I loved what I had seen of the people of the church, but I sensed that I could spend my whole career there renovating a building in disrepair. This was not something I wanted to do in my ministry. In the end, though, I sensed God calling me to this church despite my reluctance.

Three years after I had become Calvin Church’s pastor, changes had been made. We had begun to grow and to receive new members. We had renovated the sanctuary, making it brighter and more vibrant, while also retaining its traditional charm. But we knew there was more to be done, and we didn’t know what to do. We were left in a quandary: do we build on, build up, or build out? We decided to wait and see what God would lead us to do. Waiting is hard for any congregation to do. We wanted to figure out our options and to develop a definite plan. Instead, we were waiting, seeking, praying, and trying to discern God’s plan.

In the midst of waiting, we decided to consult with an architect to determine what sorts of actions we would need to take if we kept growing at our current pace. The architect told us that either we had to buy new property (at least 17 acres) and move, or we had to buy the three lots with houses on them adjoining the church. He encouraged us to move. We discussed these possibilities within the church, and in the end we were clear that God was calling us to remain where we were. Then God acted. Immediately upon discerning that we were called to remain where we were, we discovered that the first of the three houses targeted by the architect was for sale, and that its asking price had been reduced by $10,000 that week. We acted quickly.

We called a meeting of the session to discern whether God was calling us to buy this house. We toured the house and then spent more time in prayer. We struggled with the practicalities: should we spend money on the house, or save our money for other eventualities? Some session members who had previously had bad experiences in declining churches cautioned us against buying the house. One commented that in her mother’s church, a young pastor had persuaded the church to engage in a capital campaign and then departed, leaving the church with a crushing debt. It didn’t matter that I had no intentions of leaving in the middle of a campaign. This elder believed that pastors couldn’t be trusted in such matters. Eventually, we were able to put aside our more practical concerns and to pray. We sought God’s will, and it became apparent that God was calling us to buy the house, using money from the sale of the church manse several years earlier, as well as money collected as part of our capital campaign.

Buying this house became one of the greatest gifts that this church had ever experienced. We called it “Faith House,” because we believed it reflected our faith that God would reveal a path for us—and God did. Over the ensuing three years, we ended up buying the other two properties the architect had targeted for us.

Our leadership’s willingness to recognize that something might be coming, and to wait and prepare for it, was essential to the health of Calvin Church because it created the opportunity for growth by removing obstacles. The church leadership was willing to look and plan ahead, while remaining open to God’s possibilities, to the power of the Holy Spirit. What the leadership of Calvin Church did was not easy by any stretch of the imagination, because it meant moving in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, the leaders had to be proactive, planning for growth. On the other hand, the leaders had to be willing to wait, pray, and discern.

Too often leaders and churches are not very open to the power of the Holy Spirit and the leadings of Christ. Many churches and leaders are reactive, waiting until a problem arises before trying to figure out a solution or a strategy. They get caught up in a crisis-management approach that consists of waiting until they are fully ensconced in a crisis, or on the verge of one, and then trying to figure out how to deal with it. Their solutions are rarely God-inspired. Instead, their decisions could be characterized as either grasping at straws or doing what they’ve always done, thinking that if they just work harder and better, what they’ve always done will eventually work.

The more effective leaders and churches act proactively, scanning the horizon to anticipate potential problems or possibilities, and then creating elaborate plans and processes to deal with them. They develop one-, three-, five-, and even 10-year strategic plans, complete with goals and strategies to accomplish them. Unfortunately, no matter how proactive they are, they can never get quite enough information, understand their situation well enough, or foresee events clearly enough to prepare for all eventualities. They fail to take into account all sorts of demographic, sociological, generational, and religious trends that can hit like a tornado, ripping apart churches and their pla

The problem with both reactive and proactive approaches is that the world is changing so quickly and dramatically that it leaves reactive leaders feeling overwhelmed by the constant problems they face in their churches and surrounding cultures, and makes proactive leaders feel like failures, because they can never gauge the church and the surrounding culture accurately. Reactive leaders constantly face a world they cannot understand and react to properly, while proactive leaders try to understand the world but eventually get overwhelmed with information and struggle to determine which information is relevant in the face of a constantly shifting culture.

The changes occurring today are rapid, and they do create anxiety among mainline church leaders. Also, they require the development of new approaches to congregational life—some of which renew old rituals and some of which create new rituals. We are responsible for leading the church through a time of transition in which the old ways no longer make sense and the new ways are not yet clear. The church needs a kind of leadership that is able to anticipate the future while simultaneously discerning God’s path for getting there. This leadership cannot be dominated by fear and uncertainty, but instead must lead in faith toward a direction that is discerned as much as it is planned for.

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Adapted from Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace by N. Graham Standish, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. 



AL326_SM Humble Leadership:
Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace
by N. Graham Standish

Humble leadership, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, means recognizing that what we have and who we are are gifts from God, and our lives should reflect our gratitude for these gifts. It requires us to be radically and creatively open to God’s guidance, grace, and presence in everything. When we lead out of such openness, God’s power and grace flow through us.

AL302_SM Becoming a Blessed Church:
Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power
by N. Graham Standish

Standish shares the story of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, and its journey to become a spiritually deep congregation, one that is inwardly and outwardly healthy: spiritually, psychologically, physically, and relationally. This book will help you find Christ in your midst and become aware of the many ways the blessings of God’s Spirit flow through your congregation.

AL295_SM The Practicing Congregation:
Imagining a New Old Church

by Diana Butler Bass

Historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues against the conventional wisdom regarding “mainline decline.” She sees encouraging signs that mainline Protestant churches are finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices as they lay the groundwork for a new congregation.

AL313_SMFrom Nomads to Pilgrims:
Stories from Practicing Congregations

by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking

From Nomads to Pilgrims tells the stories of a dozen congregations that have been on a pilgrimage to vitality—retrieving and reworking Christian practice, tradition, and narrative. The book reads as a series of first-hand dispatches from pastors of congregations on the road to an emerging style of congregational vitality, one centered on the creative and intentional reappropriation of traditional Christian practices.


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