Category Archives: Church decline

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 Servant Who Risks and Loses

John the Baptist having a bad day

John the Baptist having a bad day

The parable of the talents is making its annual appearance this week, and I put it before some teenagers I know last night. I handed out wads of cash and asked them what they might do as stewards of it for a year.  One, predictably, said he would spend it on McChicken sandwiches; who cares about the Master?  One said she would open a savings account because, even at less than 1% interest, at least she wouldn’t lose it (she had not, of course, figured in the current 1.7% inflation rate).  One 5th grader said “I would give it back to the Master; it’s not MY responsibility!”  Finally, one young man said he would invest it in the stock market, where he might make a gain, or he might take a loss.  And he could live with that either way.

I want that last guy to lead the church when I’m gone.

The problem with the parable of the talents is that nobody in the story loses their money.  The ones who risk it in investment and trading actually double their money.  I’m sorry, but in today’s market, that is highly unlikely.

I think Jesus should have included a fourth servant: the one who invested the money on an ambitious idea that simply did not pan out.  This servant laid all her money down to create a church where children and people with dementia could worship together, or a farm market with produce grown by teenagers, or a bed-and-breakfast where you pay whatever you can afford.   And the great idea flopped, because the world is not quite ready for all the great ideas God’s people are dreaming of.  And the Master came home and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant, because taking a leap of faith is more important than doubling my money.”

God’s people are starting to dream, at least a little, about new ways of being Christ’s church, and people like this blogger are calling us to take more risks in the church in order to reach those outside our doors.  I agree wholeheartedly!

And I also believe that taking risks in the church is like playing the stock market in one way: we might fail.  We might lose something.  It might hurt.

But that’s okay.  Because whatever happens, we will learn a little more about what steps God wants or doesn’t want us to take next.

To take a risk and double your money is a great thing, and it might happen!  But risking failure is also part of being faithful.

Just ask Jesus.

– *Painting by Geerten tot Sint Jans (1465-1495)

Crushing the Butterfly

butterflyA friend I will call Jean came to a summer party at our farm recently.  Jean is an animal lover who   entertains raccoons,  squirrels, ravens and even bears in the woods near her home.  When they appear sick, she feeds them with syringes or takes them to the wildlife refuge.    All the neighbors know where to drop the stray cats.

But she surprised us the night of the party when she found a monarch butterfly and brought it to show us.  Apparently, it was injured and could no longer fly.  She held it gently in her palm while we beheld its stained-glass window wings. “So beautiful,” she said.  “but I’m going to have to crush it.  It’s been injured.  It can’t fly anymore.  It needs to be put out of its misery.”

Suddenly, before anyone could protest her assessment of the butterfly’s prospects, she placed it on the ground and stomped on it squarely with her foot.  Shudders and groans swept through the group surrounding her.  The action was so swift, so authoritative, so seemingly heartless, we were all speechless.

I have thought about that action again and again.  What kind of impulse drove her to it?

I believe it was love.

Most of us love animals because they entertain and amuse us.  We imagine that they exist for our pleasure.  But Jean’s action expressed a deeper love, a compassion for the butterfly itself, not for its elegance or the hopeful symbolism it offered her.  More important than its resplendent wings was its unseen soul, its anguish, however imperceptible, at being injured and unable to fulfill its truest calling.  She put herself in the position of the butterfly and did what she thought was best for it.

To Christians, the demise of a church is a tragedy.  We love our churches and all churches.   We love what they represent and the good they have done in every corner of our world.  When we see them shrinking and closing, we recoil.  We want to hold those colored windows in our palms and preserve them forever.

But those who truly love the Church know that it was made to fly by the power of the Holy Spirit.  And a dying church can be a place of spiritual injury, a cluster of injured souls straining to survive as a human institution instead of reaching for the sky as a creature of God.  The Church should not exist to avoid hurt feelings, to maintain friendships or to preserve historical character in the neighborhood.  The Church exists to make disciples, and when the disciples are at the end of their rope, tired and thirsty for spiritual nurture, maybe someone needs to put the institution out of its misery.

Nobody wants to be the one to crush the butterfly.  It makes you look heartless and cruel.  But there is a kind of love that knows when it’s time to do just that.

The butterfly, remember, is living its second life.  It has already experienced resurrection once, so it has no fear for its future beyond the grave.  Shouldn’t this also be true of the Church?

 

* Photograph by Estela Romero, licensed by Creative Commons.

A Lesson on Resilience

July-August 2014 147This is my daughter’s pet plant, Vivaldi.  He’s a succulent, and a nice, bushy one, too.  But it wasn’t always that way for Vivaldi.  When she first brought him home from the nursery, she was given special soil and instructions to “be careful not to overwater a succulent.”  That first summer, Vivaldi did great out in the yard.  Evy was careful not to overwater him, but he did get rained on a few times.  In the winter she brought him in the house and continued to “be careful not to overwater him”.  In fact, she was so careful, he sometimes wouldn’t get a drink for weeks!

Eventually, Vivaldi shed some leaves.  Then his remaining leaves started to shrink.  And finally, he began to resemble…a dust bunny.  By the following summer, he was so small and shriveled, we thought he was dead.

A friend from a nursery then explained to us that succulents live in the desert, where they get big, infrequent downpours.  “Water him well,” she advised us.  “But not very often.  Once every week or two will do.”

When we began watering Vivaldi appropriately, an amazing thing happened: he came back to life, added leaves and filled out.  Now, he is beautiful.

I’ve since learned that succulents are resilient because they can store water in their leaves to survive drought conditions.  If it gets too dry, those leaves can easily be shed.  Succulents spread their roots wide, but shallow, to soak up any little rain that may come.  Their cell walls are elastic, so they can expand and contract depending on the amount of nutrients they receive from their environment.  And succulents literally have a “thick skin”, an impervious cuticle that keeps their leaves, well, succulent!

I wonder if churches could learn something from succulents about expanding and contracting according to the conditions around them, to maintain life and vitality.  Resilient churches might downsize for the lean years and challenge themselves to grow when spiritual and material gifts abound.  They might practice maintaining the spiritual health of their members, so they don’t “dry up” by depleting their spiritual gifts.  They might spread their roots wider instead of deeper, so that they could be touched and affected by changes in their community, rather than always focusing on their interior history.  They could fluidly shed programming that is outdated and innovate with new ways of spreading the Good News.

Resilience comes from flexibility, not rigidness.

A colleague recently explained to me the theory of organizational life cycles.  Even in the midst of decline (and especially early in that decline), a church can still grasp for a new vision from God, build new bonds of relationship with others in the community, experiment with programs that help people live the vision, and hopefully regenerate life for the future.

If the decline is left unaddressed, a church will eventually “dry up”, losing sight of its vision.  Its bonds of love will fray, its programs will wane, and finally, the church will become merely a skeleton of its old self…a dust bunny.  Even succulents can die if they are not cared for.

Is your church resilient?  Could it learn to be?

 

 

 

Not Today

Die todayI had an encounter recently that left me feeling dejected: at a gathering of clergy, a pastor poured out to me his frustration with his declining church.  He could not get the congregation to change their behavior, even though they were on a path of steep decline.  He was looking for some answer, some ray of hope.  All I could do was listen and nod my head.

I went home and asked my husband, “What am I supposed to say to these people?  Your church might die.  Sorry about that.” 

He looked at me for a moment, and then said, “Not today.”

“What?”

“They’re not going to die today,” he repeated.

It took me a second to get my head around that. My husband, a farmer, speaks from experience.  This is a guy who works to keep animals alive every day.  They get diarrhea and pneumonia and swallow pieces of metal.  He is always injecting someone with penicillin or patching a sore eye or bandaging a hoof.  When a heifer is gasping for life and he’s pumping her veins with electrolytes, he is saying, “You might die.  But not today.  Today, it’s my job to keep you alive in case you get stronger tomorrow.”

In his usual sparse way, he had said so much.  If you are not closing your doors today, there is still work to be done.  Any church that is worrying about the fact that they might close some time in the future is wasting time.  There is important ministry to be done today.  And I don’t mean cleaning the grout in the church kitchen tile.  I mean, there is a mouth to feed, a grieving family to be comforted, a love to be celebrated, a story to be told, a cold body to be warmed.

I know this contradicts so much I have said about planning for a generous, faithful end of life for churches when that end seems inevitable.  I still believe in all that.  But at the same time, letting church decline sabotage whatever good ministry you are doing now is not the answer.

Just this once, forget about dying tomorrow.  Keep being the church, alive, today.

*Photo by Marshall Astor, licensed by Creativecommons.org

 

Trees for Tomorrow

A 200 year old hickory tree

A 200 year old hickory tree

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:6

My husband Charles grew up eating hickory nuts. Hickory trees grow in parts of Wisconsin and there must have been some on one of the family farms because his mother always had hickory nuts to bake into brownies or sugar cookies, and he loved them.

As an adult, now in his fifties, Charles has lost both his parents. But he has not lost his love for hickory nuts. So, a couple years ago, he ordered ten hickory tree starts from a nursery. He cleared a piece of brush-covered land about 3/4 mile from our house and put them in the ground, a long ways from any water source. He encased them in little cages to keep the deer and bunnies out. All summer, we empty 5 gallon pails of water off the back of his truck to water the starts when the weather is dry. All winter, he looks across the pastures and wonders if those little trees have become snacks for hungry wildlife.

After we planted the hickory trees, we did some research and discovered they are slow to mature, but he expects that, if they survive cold winters and dry summers, they will begin producing nuts in about 40 years. Yes, 40.  He will be in his 90’s then. Hopefully, he will still have a strong set of teeth.

In an interview, a faithful church leader once said this to me: “My period of leadership is ending soon, and I sense that my church is in decline. What can I do now to leave a legacy that will help them get through this phase and move on to a better future?” One hunch was that she could help train younger and newer members with leadership skills. She also had a wonderful, “non-anxious presence” that served as a model to others, and her encouraging leadership style was infectious.  That’s a great legacy!

Whatever that leader leaves behind, she is asking the right questions. How can we be useful now in ways that pay off in the long term future? It sometimes seems we are casting seeds in the desert, unsure whether anyone will come behind us to water them, whether those seeds will be allowed to grow up as wheat among the tares, or ever produce a harvest. But seeds are seeds. It’s up to us to plant, and it’s up to the next leader, and God, to make them grow.

What has God given you the capacity to plant, or to water, in your faith community today so that it may still bear fruit in the distant future?

*Photo by G.W.  Bill Miller

 

 

 

 

 

The Task of the Storyteller

story teller dollI told a story in church last Sunday.  It was not just my story; it was a shared story from my family that had only been told quietly for a long time.  Maybe it was a confession.  After telling it I felt spent, as if something powerful had moved through me.

To be a storyteller is like having an electric current move through your body.  The story comes from somewhere–maybe you lived it, or maybe someone passed it to you–and it comes into your body and you ponder it in your heart for awhile, like Mary did.  And then one day, you tell it.  Not just for yourself, but for everyone who has a role in it.  And the telling has its own power, and the electric current moves through you and on to the hearer, and you as the story teller are changed, and the one who hears the story is changed, and even the story itself changes.

This is what it means to proclaim the Good News, to be a Christian witness, to testify to the stories that have changed us.

When I began interviewing people for my book “Toward the Better Country“, I was immediately struck by the responsibility of receiving people’s stories about  their struggles in declining churches.  I listened and recorded, wrote and edited, and the weight of those stories bore down on me.  I kept telling myself I had to finish the book on behalf of all those people who’s stories I had received.  I had promised them their stories would be told, so I could not let them get stuck inside me.

I noticed that, when people told me their stories, they were forming new meaning, and the stories changed.  The tellers listened to themselves and learned things.  And for me, listening and asking questions, I found myself  entering  the stories and becoming a part of them.

Once a story is shared, it can never be taken back.  Whatever power it has to transform the teller, the listener, or the story itself, just in the telling, that power is released like a chemical reaction.  From then on, the story does not really end.  It keeps being told, entering people’s hearts and waking them to new insights.

Last week, I attended a clergy event and ran into one of my interviewees who is a small church pastor.  I had a copy of my book with me, and I took it to him and opened it to a certain page and asked him to read it to himself.  There he found his own story, now part of a larger story of many churches that have languished, struggled, survived and been renewed by God’s hand.

It felt good to have kept my promise to him.

What story are you bearing the weight of?  Who will you tell it to?

*Storyteller doll by Helen Cordero, Cochito Pueblo