Category Archives: Resources

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.

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!

 

 

 

A Favorable Review

book title coverI was honored to read a review of my book “Toward the Better Country” in “Preaching and Pondering”, a blog written by the the Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Church of New York State.  You can read it here.

I was especially pleased to read that Rev. Hugenot was compelled by the book to get in touch with his own grief about churches facing decline.  I think it’s healthy for judicatory leaders and pastors to stay self-aware about our emotions and assumptions regarding struggling churches and the impact we can have on them.

Thanks to Rev. Hugenot for sharing my book with others in his region!  If any of my readers would like to write a review of my book, favorable or not, you can post one on the Amazon.com page where my book is sold.

 

A Parallel Start in New Orleans

Carrollton UMC

Carrollton UMC

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  (Jeremiah 29.11)

On a recent mission trip to New Orleans, I visited Carrollton United Methodist Church, where two brand new pastors are dreaming of a new venture: a parallel start.

My group was visiting a senior center that is housed at Carrollton each day, providing lunch and classes in sewing, Spanish language, tai chi, and more.  Guests play Bingo and lounge in the church’s windowed breezeway when the programs are over.

But the senior center is now the most significant ministry occurring at the Carrollton church.  A couple of small non-profits share the building, and they once built showers to host workers who came for Katrina clean-up.  But now the worship community is down to about 30 people and there is a sense that the building is haunted by its own unfinished business: how to be vital not just as a community gathering place, but as a church.

So the United Methodist Church has infused this congregation with funds to hire two new full time pastors, Sione and Billy, who had both started working there the day before we arrived.  These two have the task of maintaining the current organizations that house the building AND launching a new church development there at the same time.  That’s sometimes called a parallel church start.

Our hosts gave us a tour of their meandering building, which in some parts still has the lingering odor of standing flood waters. Its rooms are a mixture of forlorn memories and promising potential.  A large parlor will be used for worship by the older congregation.  The hall pictured above has been used for children’s programs, but badly needs a face lift and some blades for the ceiling fans.  There seemed to be kitchens everywhere we turned, including one in a closet, but none of them looked fit for preparing a large meal.

The closet kitchen

The closet kitchen

In every room, the two new pastors saw hope.  They were imagining how the rooms could be repaired, revived and filled with new ministry, the way Jeremiah did when he imagined a future for his fallen city :

Thus says the Lord:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
    and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound,
    and the citadel set on its rightful site.  (30.18)

There is no way to move forward in these times except with bold imagination.  But a little money really helps, too!  Kudos to the UMC for investing in the future with these two ambitious leaders.  May God bless them with a future and a hope.

There is not much out there to read about parallel church starts.  From the Episcopal tradition, check out this article, though it’s a bit outdated.  And this recent DOC newsletter mentions a parallel start project in Washington.  If you have more examples of parallel starts, please send them my way!

Toward the Better Country

June 2013 021Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection

by L. Gail Irwin

is now available from

Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers 

You can order your copy here,

Web price:$17.60 plus shipping

Copies are also available online at Amazon.com

Book Synopsis

The pews of many mainline churches are clearly not as full as they used to be.  While committed Christians are trying everything they can to keep their churches open and thriving, history has shown that no local church is meant to live forever in its current form.    Like people, churches are born, live and breathe, fulfill their missions, and pass away.  And recent history shows that more churches will be closing or re-shaping their ministry in the near future.

Toward the Better Country tells about the grief stages, discernment processes and creative options explored by lay leaders, pastors and regional leaders who have dealt with this sensitive time in the life cycle of a church.  These are woven in with the author’s own experience of leading a church through steep decline toward closure.

This resource, based on interviews with over thirty lay, clergy and judicatory leaders, will offer healthy, practical ways for congregations to move through the terrain of loss, discern God’s path for their future and pass on their legacies to emerging ministries.  It can be used for personal reflection, leadership training, or in discernment groups in local churches.  Scripture readings and questions for conversation are included at the end of each chapter, along with a list of additional resources for churches struggling with decline.

Chapter Titles:

1. Introduction

2. The Rise and Fall of Sacred Places

3. Expressions of Grief in the Faith Community

4. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Lay Leaders

5. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Pastors

6. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Regional Pastors

7. Multiple Paths to the Future

8. A Tale of Two Closures

9. Laying the Foundation for Future Ministry

10. Seven Ways to Say Goodbye

11. New Wine for New Wineskins

Appendices, Additional Resources and Bibliography

The Book is Here!

June 2013 021If you are part of a church struggling with vitality and viability, and wondering what options you have for continuing ministry, I am happy to announce that my book, “Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection” is now available in print from Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers.

This has been a four year project for me and I am pleased to see it come to fruition.  My book is not perfect, but hopefully it will generate discussion that helps us all move the church forward into a new era.  I am happy that so many great stories shared with me can now be shared with others, and I encourage you to read it and let me know if it is helpful in your church.

For a brief synopsis of the book, click on the “About the Book” tab at the top of the page.

You can order the book now by clicking here , or at Amazon.com.  The book will be available as a Kindle e-book within 3-6 months.  Libraries and educators may be able to access the book through Ingram.

If you are part of a church or denominational group, and would like me to come and talk about the topic of church downsizing and closure, please leave a comment below and I will contact you.

 

In Defense of the Interim

bridge 1An interim ministry position is a funny gig.  The Interim is not called but hired.  S/he is not installed, not permanent, and often not paid as much as the “permanent” (or “settled”) pastor.  I knew early on that interim work is viewed as a second tier career track, when a guy at a nursing home said, “You’re a pretty good preacher.  I’ll bet you could be a real minister.”  I didn’t bother to tell him I’ve been a “real minister” for 25 years.

An interim minister is always learning new names, always learning to call it the “Consistory” or the “Council” or the “Cabinet”, and always about to lose his/her job.  We often lovingly compile data that our successors don’t pay attention to.  We learn that we will not be able to change much about the churches we serve, and we have to sit on our hands and bite our tongues when it comes to being “change agents”, because there is only so much you can do in a year or two.

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood things about interims is that we are not “placeholders” who simply keep the congregation treading water until the new guy or gal comes along.  We actually have a unique perspective as the outsider sent in to engender trust quickly and help a group of people do some hard soul-searching that they usually do not want to do.  Sort of like a family counselor.

Interim ministry as a model has come under question recently.  Some churches prefer a “succession” model where another member of the pastoral staff takes the Senior Pastor’s position.  Some churches like to hire quickly and get by with pulpit supply so they don’t lose momentum.  There may be a place for these other models, but the 1-2 year interim that is tailored to helping a congregation re-examine its character and discern God’s direction is still, I think, a good idea, especially in these times of rapid change.  I like to see congregations ask interim questions like:

How has the make-up of our congregation changed in the last 5-10 years?

How have our community demographics changed?

What church programming has become outdated or ill suited to who we are now? 

Where is our revenue coming from and where will it be coming from in five years?

What happens in our church when we try doing something new, or doing something old in a new way?

And the All Purpose Transition Question:

What is God leading us to do and be in this time and place?

Here’s an article by Tony Robinson that I’ve been passing around at my current interim assignment.  I think it gets at why interim ministry is changing in character, but may be needed now more than ever.

I find interim work to be both humble (you won’t make a big “mark”) and courageous (you must say things no one else will say).  I am lucky to have been mentored by some great interim ministers like this clergy couple.  And so far, I’ve found it to be very, very REAL ministry.