One wise church leader who I will call Peg said in our interview that congregations in transition should do more than brain storm and decide what they want to do. They need to engage in spiritual discernment, listening to God’s voice and direction.
Another equally wise church leader, let’s call him Frank, said to me: You can always trust the Holy Spirit, but it sometimes really helps to know what the actual situation is.
Both leaders are right. Any serious decision making a church does should be done in a way that is attentive to God’s will. At the same time, congregations need to know what is happening in their contexts. Peg and Frank are aware of the irrational anxiety that can sweep through a congregation going through change. In high anxiety, information may not circulate well and poor decisions can be made. But with attention to God’s voice, and the objective data, the body of Christ can lower its heart rate and discern with more wisdom.
Spiritual discernment might come through prayer circles asking “What is God leading us to do and be in this time?” Your group might do lectio divina study where you read scripture and listen for what it may be saying in your congregation’s current situation. You could try a Quaker style meeting with some ground rules, where conversation is laced with silence. God can speak through individuals in reflection and through groups in contemplative dialog.
And then, balance the spiritual work with gathering data. What is happening now in your congregation and neighborhood? Examine attendance and giving records. How fast are you drawing down the church’s savings? Are you relying on a big donor who is advanced in age? How many children are attending Sunday School? When was the last time your congregation did a hands on mission project?
And don’t forget the congregation’s assets, spiritual and material: What spiritual gifts can be found among your membership? What is your building worth? How is your church proclaiming a unique theological message that your community values? Is there a significant ministry the community would miss if you were gone?
One church I interviewed found meaning in reviewing its history: they started as a mission point for a particular ethnic group in their farm community. After a couple generations, that ethnic group no longer congregated in that area. The congregation realized they had done a needed ministry for years, but now that ministry was fulfilled. They could celebrate and close their doors.
Another congregation studied ecclesiology: the nature and character of the Church. After some theological reflection, they concluded that they were no longer able to function as an authentic church in their current form, and something would have to change.
I once asked members of my church to go on a prayer walk through their neighborhood, to observe the people who lived there, and to pray about how God might be calling us to be in ministry with them.
In short, when change and anxiety overwhelm a congregation, getting the facts and listening to God go together. Pray over the facts. Let God speak through them.