If you’ve ever remodeled a house while attempting to live in it, you have a sense of the chaos and complexity of congregational renewal. It will take far longer, cost you more, and prove messier than you ever imagined at the start. People who have worked with both church starts and church renewal will tell you that starting a church is easy compared to renewing one. The difficulty lies in the work itself. Pogo’s line holds true here: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The church seeking renewal must look beyond simply improving its programs and its building, though both may ultimately be changed. Pastors and laity leading renewal in their declining congregations are asking people to make fundamental shifts in their perspectives, their attitudes, and their behaviors. The work demands a great deal from a people and a pastor.

Your congregation is what it is today not because of what a bad pastor did to it, or because the neighborhood has changed, or because our culture is going to hell in a handbasket. Although those occurrences and many others have had an impact, your congregation is what it is today because of how it responded, or failed to respond, to the realities it faced. What your congregation will be in the future is up to you and the other members and how you work together to create something new from the realities you face. What you do or don’t do now will make the difference. Your actions will either reinforce the patterns that have become established in your congregation, or start to counter and shift them. The leadership provided by your pastor can help or hinder, but it cannot make your congregation succeed or keep it from ultimately achieving the goals you set for yourselves.

Some wonder, “Is it even possible? Can people with little or no experience of their congregation’s being church in this way create this kind of community?” We’ve seen it happen enough times to know that the hope is true and that renewal is possible—not easy, but possible. The path to renewal looks different for each congregation, but some common elements can be observed. Here’s what we know.

Renewal has both outer and inner aspects. To move to a new place, a congregation must tend to both. Organizationally, there are three phases of work:

  1. Developing readiness: preparing the leaders to lead the congregation in a new direction
  2. Surfacing a compelling congregational vision that will guide decision making
  3. Developing and implementing strategies that move the congregation toward the envisioned future

These three fundamental tasks frame the work that ultimately realigns a congregation. Addressed sequentially, they break renewal up into understandable and manageable phases of work. The work of the first two phases culminates in pivotal decisions that prepare the congregation to tackle the final phase of work. Phase 1 results in leaders’ declaring the congregation’s current trajectory unacceptable and committing to lead in a new direction. Phase 2 results in a vision of a better future, discerned by the congregation and formally adopted by the congregation’s leaders.

While making such decisions might be a simple thing for an individual, it takes a fairly long time for a congregation to make informed and “owned” choices. Whatever the congregation decides must be desired, claimed, and lived into. It’s one thing to say you want something; it’s another to want it enough that you follow through and act on the intention. Phase 3 focuses on exactly that—creating the future that’s been envisioned.

Each of these three phases demands significant work on the part of the people involved. The real work of renewal, however, is inner work. It is here that the greatest challenge lies. To complete these organizational tasks, the people of the congregation must make inner shifts, making the transition from one way of thinking about the congregation to quite another. During renewal, people let go of what feels right and normal to create a new normal for themselves.

The congregation’s inner work of transition has multiple steps. It begins with the recognition that something is wrong—that congregational life, while adequate, is missing something. Because a congregation is an outpost of the Christian church, the next step is to become anchored in a biblical and historical understanding of the purpose of church. When that purpose seems clear, the next step is to name and let go of preconceived notions about the form ministry should take. This step leads to a period of genuinely not knowing what to do. Rather than jumping in and filling that void with a quick solution, the challenge is to open ourselves to God and wait. From that place of expectant waiting, God’s leading is sensed and a path forward is chosen. Finally, actions are aligned with intent, and a new way of being and doing church is created. The congregation moves through these steps of transition only as individuals in the congregation are able to move through these shifts.

This inner work is the real work of renewal, and it is a work of the people. Pastors and outside consultants have much to offer, but they can’t do the work for the people. It may help to think of renewal as physical therapy for the body of Christ. The body is renewed as the people engage in practices that develop and strengthen the muscles of Christian discipleship and community. It isn’t easy work, but it’s worth it.

Adapted from Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at alban@div.duke.edu and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

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AL371_SMPathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon

Pathway to Renewal offers pastors and congregational leaders a framework for understanding and addressing the deep cultural shift facing the people of a congregation during congregational renewal. This book will help leaders make sense of where their congregation could get stuck and guide them in thinking through what needs to be addressed next as a congregation seeks renewal. The realigning of a congregation’s heart and sense of purpose can be a long process, but one that ultimately all congregations must experience in order to fully live out the
world-transforming mission that God has given them to do.

AL304_SMPracticing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation by Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon

In a book that is both profound and practical, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith make the case that the health of churches and synagogues depends on congregations learning how to live out love in “right relationships.” Practicing Right Relationship offers theories, stories, and tools that will help congregations and their leaders learn how to build and maintain the loving relationships that provide the medium for God’s transforming work.

AL260_SMRedeveloping the Congregation: A How-To for Lasting Change by Daniel P. Smith, Mary K. Sellon, and Gail F. Grossman

What makes it possible for a church to reverse course from decline or stagnation into longlasting vitality? The three authors of this book address this and other questions by building on an eight-step framework for lasting change developed by John P. Kotter, noted former professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. His work on organizational change is heralded in the secular world as foundational, and Smith, Sellon, and Grossman have found that his findings hold true for congregations as well.