“From Death to Life”

Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.

Romans 6:13

Since April, 2010, I’ve been researching stories about how churches discern a decision to downsize, merge or close when they are losing vitality and sustainability.  My research is supported by a Pastoral Study Project grant from the Louisville Institute.  This site is designed to engage people in conversation about how vulnerable churches faithfully discern their future options.  It will be a more lively discussion if you share ideas and questions in the comment boxes beneath each post.  If you want to receive free notification of new posts, which come about once a week, you can subscribe on the right.

Does Your Flock Need You?

Mr. Shiny and the Hens

Mr. Shiny and the Hens

Mr. Shiny, the rooster, and his harem of ten hens showed up in our yard last winter–the gift of a friend who could no longer care for them.  I was elated.  Every morning, I started my day taking care of someone who truly needed me.  I fed and watered the little flock, made sure they had their grit and corn, and celebrated the colorful eggs they laid for us.  They relied on me completely, and I loved that.

But then came the spring, and it was time to let them venture out of the coop to wander the yard scratching up grubs in the lawn.  I started each day like before,  slipping their feed into the pen for breakfast, and then let them loose to wander in the afternoon.

But as the weather warmed, their curiosity for exploring the world became more intense, and soon they were jumping out of the coop as soon as I opened it.

Suddenly, they didn’t need me anymore.

Eventually, I began letting them out of the pen first thing in the morning.  They fled joyfully.  They ate less and less poultry feed and started relying more on a natural diet of seeds and worms.  Their feathers became glossy and they laid more eggs, with deep orange, flavorful yolks.

They were happy.  But they didn’t need me anymore.

In May, the Pew Research report on the rise of the “Nones” came out and caused a stir among my clergy colleagues.  The report found that “the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years…Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. ” 

Some of these “Nones” still have a vague interest in spirituality, but are not choosing to feed that interest by attending church.  Many are completely disinterested.

I won’t add to the many commentaries on this new information, except to say that it is yet another blow to the egos of mainline clergy, who suspect that we may not be needed anymore.  Our institutional faith practices seem to be losing efficacy in ways that are now transparent and measurable.

As I eye up my flock of chickens, roaming freely and joyfully around the garden, choosing their own diet instead of relying on my manufactured Fleet Farm rations, it occurs to me that, in nature, the creature can be trusted to feed itself.  Is it possible that this is also true in the spiritual world?  Might our wayward flocks have the capacity to go searching for their own spiritual truths and practices, inhabiting a new religious landscape that fits this time in history?  Is it possible that they don’t need us clergy to spoon feed them theology and ritual anymore?

I don’t have the answer to that question.  If you do, feel free to share your thoughts!

Meanwhile, I’m going out to tuck the chickens in for the night.

Oh, didn’t I tell you?  Every night, after an afternoon of grazing, they turn in and roost in the little coop I provide for them.  Every night, I lock up the coop to keep the raccoon and the weasel at bay.

Maybe my flock still needs me after all.

Churches That Helped Make It Happen

More Light PresbyterianSince the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage last week, I’ve found myself reminiscing about one of my previous churches.

This was a church in which roughly half the active members were gay and lesbian Christians, many with partners and children.  Back in the 90’s, word had gotten out around town that this church was “welcoming” of all.  We were not a “More Light” church or an “Open and Affirming” church.  Our members merely wanted a safe place to worship  God, a place where being gay and being Christian didn’t have to collide with each other.

My tenure at that church fell during the years that openly gay Christians were not considered eligible for ordination as lay leaders or clergy in the Presbyterian Church.  And the Book of Order had no provisions for same sex marriage.

Coming from the UCC, I took vows to be loyal to Presbyterian polity, but from the beginning, I broke those vows, primarily by ordaining gay Christians as elders and deacons.  I justified this in my mind over and over again with this thought: We are breaking the rules now, but eventually, history will catch up with us. 

The PCUSA did eventually loosen its teaching regarding both ordination of gay Christians and same sex unions.  Ironically, that all happened after my little church closed its doors.

I often wondered if it was cowardly of us to be a “closeted” church.  Maybe if we had been more outspoken in the community about our character, we could have moved history along a little faster.  Other like-minded Christians might have found us and we would not have had to close our doors.

Well, that’s all water under the bridge now.  But I would like to think that the witness of our little fellowship did make its mark on the world. I believe we were a small piece of the story of the recent Supreme Court victory.  I know there have been many churches, large and small, where grace has reigned when it came to the inclusion of gay and lesbian families; where those families were honored as legitimate, long before the state and wider culture honored them.  While the Church as a whole has stood in the way of this victory, there are local churches (including two I’ve served) who have taught that all people have a right to form families.

Churches like ours contributed to the Supreme Court victory when we baptized the children of gay couples.

We contributed to this victory when we blessed partnerships, civil unions and the adoption of children by gay parents, expecting the same fidelity from these commitments that we expect from straight couples.

We contributed to this victory when we invited the partners of deceased members to sit in the “family pews” at funerals.

We contributed to this victory when we created space where gay couples could just hold hands.

Gay Christian families have existed for many years.  Every church that has welcomed them has contributed to this victory and you should take credit if you are from one of them.

This is not unlike what Paul and Peter were called to do when confronted with the challenge to include the Gentiles.

This is what it means to pay attention to what God is doing in the world and follow, even if it’s in a new direction. Eventually, maybe a very long time from now, others may follow, too.

 *Photograph by Alex McNeill, licensed by Creativecommons.com

A Perennial Passion

Ed's Perennial Mr. Baker  loved to teach Sunday School, and he did so for over twenty years with elementary children in one of my churches.  He also led adult studies and a book group, and studied different methods of faith formation in his free time.  He was a man with a passion for Christian education.

But a time came when his lifestyle changed.  He and his wife both retired and were ready for more travel and freedom. So, during my interim pastorate (a time when leadership roles often shift), he decided it was time to step away from teaching– at least, he said, for awhile.

That spring, the church gave each Sunday School teacher a flowering annual bedding plant, as is their tradition.  I had the children hand out plants to each teacher, but on a hunch, I prepared a different gift for Mr. Baker: a flowering perennial.  I explained to the congregation that, although Mr. Baker was stepping away from teaching, he was, at heart, a perennial teacher, and we might see him in the classroom again some day.

The following spring, after a year of travel and relaxation in retirement, Mr. Baker came to my office.  He wanted to talk about the next fall’s Sunday  School curriculum.  I was pleased that he was still interested in faith formation, but wondered what he was really there about.  Finally he confessed: “I miss teaching.  I want to come back.”

He reminded me about the perennial flower we had given him the year before, and told me it was in full bloom.  He even sent me this picture of it, above.  “Like my desire to continue teaching, that plant continues to thrive,” he said.

I have watched lay leaders step away from leadership after becoming tired or burned out.  But beside that challenge is the joy of watching new leaders, who are curious and adventurous, say “I can try that.”  In my former church, I watched volunteers who took over for Mr. Baker try their hand at teaching. It’s exciting to see people learn what they are capable of.  Not every experiment goes well, but we all learn by engaging with the church in new ways; including me!

In Mr. Baker’s case, his absence re-affirmed his perennial passion for teaching; it’s part of who he is and how he lives out his mission from God.

An interim period is a good time to try on a new role or encourage someone else to.  Sometimes, when you take a break from leadership, someone else gets a chance to step in.  Maybe you will find a role you like better than the one you’ve been filling for awhile.  Maybe you’ve never taken a leadership role and it’s time to try it.  Or maybe, like Mr. Baker, you will take a break and then come back to “bloom where you are planted!”


Asset Based Community Ministry

asset based organizingEvery now and then on the roller coaster of ministry, I read an article like this one and think, “Maybe there is hope for the church after all!” This article, from the wonderful Faith and Leadership website (Duke University) tells the story of a church that has found an entirely new way to be the church.  Instead of helping people by providing for their needs, this church is striving to build “social capital” by inviting people to identify their assets and network with others to make use of them.  “Roving listeners” walk the neighborhood seeking out the gifts people have to share through networking and community organizing.

It could be argued that this church is no longer doing what churches historically do (think: the Six Great Ends of the Church in Presbyterianism).  Not everyone goes there to worship God or study the bible.  Some are there to use the kitchen for catering start-ups! But the building still houses a worshiping community (in fact, a growing one), while generating community cohesion for people outside their membership.

In fact, it could also be argued that this church is doing what churches have always done: providing “glue” for the neighborhood; a place people come to stick together and strengthen their community life.

The church’s pastor was inspired by the concept of asset-based community organizing written about by John McKnight and his colleagues at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social policy.  McKnight’s book, “Building Communities from the Inside Out” is now twenty years old.  But the concept is still ground-breaking for churches.  McKnight says that positive change requires learning to see the community as a glass that is “half full” instead of “half empty”.  He writes:

If you’re a neighborhood organizer, you have to start with the belief that the people here have capacities and abilities and that if they come together in a community organization, they can be powerful.

His ideas, which have been applied to urban neighborhoods, could just as easily apply to us in our churches.  Instead of focusing on our problems and asking “SuperPastors” to fix them, a congregation might instead take an inventory of its spiritual and material assets, and then organize those into new ministry ventures.

It would be fun to team up with a church that was open to an approach like this.  Instead of talking about how to prop up what we’re already doing that doesn’t work very well, or obsessing about what we have lost, we could look around and ask, “What gifts has God put in this place?” and then…”What does God want us to do with those gifts?  Maybe it’s something different than what we are doing now!”

If you’ve ever tried something like this in a congregation, write to me about it!  As for me, I’ve ordered a copy of McKnight’s book.  Twenty years late!

The Outsourced Church

With all the struggling churches out there, it is likely that some of you are asking yourselves: how much can we cut from our budget in staff expenses, and still be seen as a respectable church?

For example, what happens if your church is unable to afford a preacher? Can you still worship together?  Well, you might turn to “A Sermon for Every Sunday”, a lectionary based resource that offers videotaped sermons by the likes of Brian Blount and MaryAnn McKibben Dana, among others.  For $4.99 each, you can pop one of these babies in the DVD player and project a thoughtful, intelligent sermon drawn from the scriptures for the week.

Or what if your wonderful organist injures her foot?  (This has happened to me twice!).  Everyone knows how hard it is to find a good organist these days.  Well, search no more!  The UCC has in existence a collection of recorded organ accompaniments on CD, covering every hymn in the New Century Hymnal.  Any congregation with a decent sound system can sing hymns accompanied by a world class organist.

When it comes to governance, a lay Moderator runs the governing boards of UCC churches; no pastor needed!  In the Presbyterian Church (USA), a pastor is required to moderate a Session meeting.  But if there is a pastoral vacancy, provisions can be made for a pastor from another congregation to moderate a Session meeting.  In other words, you can “rent” a pastor to govern your Board.

Deacons may be trained to visit and serve communion to the home-bound.  Lay ministers can be licensed to baptize and bury the dead.  These people, while not ordained, may still have authentic spiritual gifts for ministry.

Of course, if you really need an ordained minister, anyone can get a certificate of ordination that authorizes them to perform weddings or other pastoral functions.  If Conan O’Brien can do it, you can too!

Staffing is often the biggest piece of a church’s budget, and many people assume the success of a church hinges on its having a qualified pastor.  Yet, we live in a world where MOOCS* are intruding on traditional education and knee replacements are being outsourced to India.  Churches I observe are moving from two pastors to one, from full time to half time, from ordained to licensed, and from Christian educators to volunteers, all in an effort to lower their costs.

This trend may be both perilous and full of potential.  Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness churches have functioned without paid clergy for many years, relying instead on lay leaders.  Eugene Peterson, in his latest book, The Pastor, tells of his church appointing a cadre of women who took turns volunteering in the church office (in the 70’s).    These models seem antiquated at a time when many households are chronically over-scheduled.  But I wonder if there is anything for us to learn from them.

Progressive Protestant churches want educated preachers and teachers, patient, mature youth leaders, qualified administrators, musicians and custodians.  But how do we attract these human resources if we can’t pay them very much or anything at all?  Should we be “outsourcing” our sermons?  Delegating more tasks to already exhausted volunteers?  Sharing staff with other churches?  Narrowing the range of ministries we provide? Asking professionals to work for free?

What do you think?

 * Massive Open Online Courses

Smoke and Ash

ash and childNot many kids came to our youth program on Ash Wednesday.  Some were scared away by the temperatures outside, which dipped below zero;  0thers by the serious evening worship service that would interrupt their usual scavenger hunts and Wallyball games.

But a few showed up for a promised opportunity to play with fire.

I taught them a little about what Lent means, and we each wrote on a piece of paper something we wanted to burn that was separating us from God, as a ritual to begin the season.  Then we went out to the church breezeway and crushed up last year’s palm branches.  We threw all the papers and palms into a big soup pot from the church kitchen and lit the whole mess on fire.  Smoke rose up in the frigid air and we stood around poking at the embers until the red light came out of them.  Then we lugged the pot upstairs to the kitchen, sifted the ashes down and sprayed a little Pam on them to make them sticky.

Who needs a priest when you have four middle schoolers to help prepare for Ash Wednesday?

That night, we went home not only with ash on our foreheads, but reeking of smoke.  Some grown-ups said the church smelled like their college dorm rooms.  Others were reminded of Boy Scout campfires.  I myself remembered the Orthodox churches I visited in Israel, their air so thick with the smell of candle wax and incense, you could hardly take a deep breath without choking on particulates.

Now my car smells like smoke, and my coat and mittens, too.  But I don’t care.  Whenever anything really important happens in your life, you come out the other side smelling different.  You smell like the hospital where you got your new heart, or the sterile nursery flowers laid on the coffin of a beloved.  You smell like the cologne your husband wore at the wedding or your baby’s milky breath. It only seems right that, when we burn something from the past that needs to be let go, the odor of regret mixed with hope should linger long enough to remind us we are no longer the people we used to be.  In some small way, God has extinguished a dangerous flame in us, or cleansed with fire an impurity of the heart.

I hope, when those kids got home last night, their parents sniffed them lovingly like they were puppies, and wondered at the fragrance of mercy that rubbed off on them.


Mission Trumps Size

St Mark's New Jersey

If you think you’re too small to have an effect, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”       (Bette Reese)

Many of us might assume that a church with only 32 members automatically qualifies as a “struggling church”, or even a dying church.  But in the case of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Keansburg, New Jersey, many of us would be wrong.

St. Mark’s housed a non-profit meal program out of their building for years, but when Hurricane Sandy hit, and the electricity went out, the program was unable to continue.  Members of St. Mark’s came down to the church after the disaster and found hungry people at their door.

At that moment, they demonstrated that they are a church with a vital mission.

They took the thawing food out of the church’s freezers and started cooking for anyone who showed up.  From there, a new meal program was born, as volunteers returned or showed up for the first time, to help feed their devastated community.  Today, they serve breakfast and lunch every day, about 5,000 meals a month.  A nurse, social worker and crisis counselor visit regularly.  And they also gather for weekly worship, healing services, and  monthly “Recovery Eucharist in the AA tradition”.

Most of St. Mark’s members are over the age of 70, but the congregation has welcomed in outside assistance, including other churches and Scouting groups, who come in to help them carry out their mission.

A few things worth noting in this story:

1) It reminds me that a disaster often gives us the urgent ability to respond to a crisis with compassion, and can become a wake up call about whatever true mission a church is called to carry out

2) A small group of people may not be able to do it all on their own, but with coordination and delegating, any size group can have a significant impact on the world.

3) A church full of 70-year-olds can be a vital church!  And with the changing demographics of our country, we are going to have to stop assuming that churches need big Sunday Schools and youth programs in order to be vital.  Vitality is not limited by age or size, but only by our ability to respond creatively to what the Holy Spirit is doing around us.

Here’s another story about a church that found vitality and a new mission in the midst of a disaster.

Churches in Conversation

Fall 2014 003




In November, I was invited to meet with clergy and lay leaders in the Hudson River Presbytery in New York.  There, under the direction of Rev. Rhonda Kruse, their Connections and Change Presbyter, I had several occasions over two days to help foster conversation about creative responses to church decline.

The first was a shared Sunday worship service with three small churches who are located near each other but had never worshiped together before.  The church we met in–Bethlehem Presbyterian– was established in 1729 (see photo).  Talk about resilience!  With a combined choir to inspire us, four pastors led worship and gathered with members over coffee afterward.  The common refrain I heard was, “Maybe we should do this again!”

Later that afternoon, 70 people from around the Presbytery gathered to hear a summary of ideas from my book and talk among themselves about their own experiences of decline and revitalization.  It was a time to be honest about the struggles they were experiencing, and to recognize that they were not alone.  Presbytery staff were on hand to listen and respond to concerns, encouraging churches to consider options for revitalization, merger, or closure, depending on their circumstances.

On Monday morning, I was taken to the beautiful Stony Point Retreat Center, where the Presbytery Committee on Ministry was meeting.  Once again, I shared stories from the book and judicatory leaders clustered in small groups to talk about how to help struggling churches they are in contact with.

Over meals and on car rides, I listened to stories of churches facing incredible obstacles and still finding divine creativity in the thick of it!

At one point, I said to my gracious host, Rhonda: “I don’t feel I can do much for these leaders.  I’m just coming and going, but they are staying here to do the hard work.”  Her response encouraged me: “You’re helping them start the conversations they need to have.”

Since I started the book project, I have always believed that honest conversation, whether it includes lament, idea sharing, critique or celebration, is the best way to hitch our hearts to the Holy Spirit’s power to make all things new.  By listening and learning from each other and our neighborhoods, we recognize that God is already at work in us; we just need to catch onto what God is doing.

I appreciate the foresight the Hudson River Presbytery has had in helping their churches team up to converse about their future.  All our local churches are really Christ’s one Church, so why do we keep struggling alone?

If you are interested in having an honest conversation with other churches in your area about change, decline, and God’s new thing, and if you want help starting the conversation, contact me, and maybe we can make it happen.

The Church on Fire

Klondike Community Church

Klondike Community Church

Recently I visited a nearby country church with a tumultuous history.  Built in a burg called Klondike, it was originally a Catholic church.  In the 90’s, the building was hit by lightening.  The volunteer fire department bravely climbed up into the attic and put the fire out, at some risk to their own lives.  Repairs were made and the church went on.

But a few years later, in 2005, the Diocese closed the church, and its members migrated to another nearby parish.  The building sat empty for awhile until two women bought it and tried running a bakery out of the church kitchen.

When that tanked, a nearby family purchased it and decided they would form a new congregation in the building.  They hired a preacher, printed an article in the paper and invited the neighbors.  A few showed up.

But just as traffic began to pick up, another disaster hit: an arson who had started a series of fires in the area broke into the building and lit one in the chancel.  Once again the fire department was called.  The fire charred the walls of the sanctuary and rose up into the steeple, but the building was not lost.

Without enough insurance, but with determined owners and well wishing neighbors, money was raised and repair on the building was carried out by volunteers.  During the restoration, the little band met in an outdoor open shelter, which was cloaked in thick plastic during the winter months.

Today, the building looks beautiful, inside and out. My friend Michael is its current preacher.  A forty-something African-American pastor from Cleveland, Michael came to northern Wisconsin to work as a Christian radio announcer, and has now found himself moonlighting as the church’s spiritual leader.

The day I visited, there were about 25 in worship, despite the sub-zero temperatures outside.  The sanctuary was cheerfully adorned with Christmas poinsettias.  A keyboard player accompanied us on “Softly and Tenderly”.  Then she pulled out a guitar and led us in a cowboy version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Michael, in his conversational style, preached to a room full of pink cheeks and white hair, wondering aloud what it would be like if white church leaders called up black church leaders to just talk about the racial tensions in Ferguson.  He called upon us to remember that Christ died “just for you”, and urged us, out of gratitude for our own salvation, to reach out in community toward others.

After worship, we gathered in the basement for coffee.  There, a church leader named Don told me the story of his church’s multiple encounters with disaster and closure.  The more he told, the more fervent he became in the telling.  It wasn’t religious fervor, exactly, but more like wonder at the persistence and hard work of so many people in the tiny Klondike community who have cared for their disaster-prone building.

Without a a denominational affiliation, a permanent pastor or even sturdy walls, this community is determined to preserve its spiritual gathering place.  Is it possible that something beyond human tenacity is at work here?

I have written previously about resilience in churches.  Sometimes resilience is the result of adaptation and flexibility, and sometimes it comes from sheer stubbornness.   But there may be churches that are resilient because they are just on fire with the Holy Spirit.

Partners in Sacred Place Sharing

SOAR Powerkids

SOAR Powerkids

Recently, my church made a connection with an after school program for kids.  They needed a large room for martial arts classes after they lost their space at a nearby school.  They found our building, with its large hall and polished wood floor, and asked if they could rent the space from us for a small fee.  After checking out the insurance arrangements and how furniture would be moved before and after the program, an agreement was reached, and now, two afternoons a week, the upstairs is full of kids kicking and punching the air, testing each others’ strength,planning community service projects and, most remarkable, listening quietly and respectfully to their leader, a female martial arts expert.

The program not only teaches martial arts, it also focuses on character development, bullying prevention and civic responsibility.  While it is not a faith based program, it is consistent with many of the core values we teach kids in our own youth programs.

Your church may be sharing its building with other community organizations: a Scout troupe, an AA meeting, or a yoga class, for example.  You might think of these other groups as “tenants” who help you pay the bills.  But it’s possible that they are co-workers alongside you in the building of God’s reign.

Partners for Sacred Places is an organization that provides resources to help churches team up with other organizations for the building of community life through “mission based space sharing”.

In this Youtube video, they explain how they are creating a network to match local arts and non-profit organizations with churches for space sharing that is not only mutually beneficial for each group, but also creates “social capital” in neighborhoods, helping them build their own cultural life using the “moral and physical” presence of church buildings.  The video points out many other reasons why sharing space is a good idea for your church AND your neighborhood’s vitality.

Check it out!