More than once, I have tried to start meaningful conversations among small groups in churches, attempting to introduce some new idea at a leadership retreat, a governing board meeting or a series of cottage meetings.
In a healthy church, this sometimes works. But when I’ve tried this in a church experiencing anxiety, it did not go so well. In some groups, a few voices will dominate the conversation while others remain silent. In others, the group easily gets off course and lapses into chit-chat. If there is uncomfortable business to discuss, many people would prefer to pick one or two others to talk to in the parking lot.
Next time, I may try an idea I got from a recent Alban Institute webinar with Alice Mann. She talked about taking some open questions to people one at a time; maybe key leaders, maybe thoughtful people whom others respect. Sit down and say, “I’m wondering about our church’s future options…” and invite one person into conversation. How do they feel about it? Then maybe give them a short article on the topic to read and go on to another person. After you talk to a few people, invite them all to get together and talk about the article and their thoughts. Then see if the group generates its own energy to widen the conversation.
This is not something to do when you want to push your own agenda; it needs to be about getting a genuinely open conversation going.
Group conversation may seem like a timesaver compared to visiting people one at a time. But I think people are hesitant to speak honestly in groups at first. In my experience, they need to get warmed up before they will address the hard issues:
Why are we not getting much spiritual energy from worship lately?
Why it is that, no matter how much I give financially, it’s never enough?
I miss the people who don’t come anymore.
I miss the choir. I want to go to a church that has a choir.
Some questions, like whether we can afford to pay the pastor, or whether the building is worth repairing, are taboo subjects that may only come up in one-on-one conversation.
If these questions and thoughts are not brought to the surface, a church is destined to die a slow death in shared silence. But once individuals’ concerns are voiced, the group can consider its options, listen to God together, and re-claim their power to move forward. Maybe they will go on to live in a new way, or maybe they will close. But either way, they can only be proactive if they talk about the “elephant in the room”.
The Alice Mann webinar I attended, “Crunch Time in the Small Church”, is an excellent resource on the many options for small churches in decline. You can purchase its 3 parts for about $50 at www.alban.org (go to “On Demand webinars”). Alice does not sugar-coat her topic; she makes it clear that some options are not realistic for some churches, but feels that churches facing necessary change should carefully consider ALL the options before plunging into one.
Another resource on this topic from Alban is a mini-book in .pdf format by Mann called “The Smaller Congregation: Pathways in Challenging Times”. This covers some of the same ground in a print version aimed at church leaders.