A Different Animal

Sunday I met with a session to begin the process of closing a church.  It reminded me of this, the first chapter of a book I’m working on.  This is just a draft, so comments are welcome ….

“That’s why the presbytery sent you, right?  To close us?” Ruth whispers into my ear.  I was sitting next to an elder from St. Marks Church, a congregation that I had just begun serving as moderator of the session.  Their very part time supply pastor had left the congregation about a month earlier.  It was a fall day, and the presbytery had just voted to dissolve a 110-year-old congregation in a neighboring city. Ruth was afraid this was why a member of the presbytery staff had been deployed to moderate their session.  “No,” I responded quickly and confidently. “You are a completely different animal.” 

Believe it or not, I was surprised to hear myself say that.  St. Marks was a congregation about forty years old. It had never reached the “success” in numbers that they had anticipated when it was a new church development.  Their membership peaked a couple of decades earlier, and they were now a small church – a very small church.  We weren’t sure of the numbers at that point, because it had been years since the membership book had been fully up to date and the rolls purged of inactive names.  But the elders counted twenty-eight adult members.  Frankly, on that fall day, I wasn’t sure that the congregation would not be closing its doors soon.  Then I heard the words come out of my mouth, “No, you’re a completely different animal.” 

It’s true.  St. Marks was a very different congregation from the 110 year old congregation.  They had fewer members than the congregation that was closing, but they had energy. Too much energy sometimes.  I remember the first time I met with their session.  Six elders and nearly three hours later, my head was spinning.  “That session has ADHD!” I said to my colleague the next day, and their previous pastor who happened to be at our office confirmed it.  They had energy; they just had to learn to focus it on the right things.   

I had met a number of times with the closing congregation. They didn’t have energy for ministry; the members, themselves, were older, and they were tired.  They had planted a number of nearby congregations over the years that were strong.  They were, at one time, a large downtown congregation.  Their building was massive, their stained glass windows were tiffany, and their endowment was stable enough to keep them “open” for quite a few more years if they had chosen to.  No, they felt that there were others who would benefit more from the building and the money.  It was clear, they had a good life, and God was calling them in another direction. St. Marks was different. 

St. Marks was worshipping in a building that was stalled at stage two of a three-stage building project.  The large sanctuary was never constructed; instead the multi-purpose room they used for worship and fellowship was moderately-sized and flexible.  The second stage classrooms were great for a small choir rehearsal, adult study groups, or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  There was a large piece of property, but no taxes, no major maintenance required, no large utility bills, and no mortgage to pay.  The leaders of the congregation were newly retired or nearing retirement age, but far from finished.  And the spiritual DNA of the congregation was faithful and mature.  They had a history of strong and well-grounded pastors. A handful of youth in the congregation had grown up to be pastors themselves.  The congregation was active and involved in the life of the presbytery and leaders in the ecumenical work of the community.  In fact, less than a year before I arrived, the congregation had opened its doors to house and distribute clothing donated to relief work in the area in the aftermath of the most recent hurricane.  No, I wasn’t there to close the congregation, not at all; they were a completely different animal.

Many small churches fear that denominational leaders will be the ones to “shut them down.”  In my experience, this rarely happens – and never without the congregational leadership having a clue or inkling.  That is, most of these fearful congregations are aware that things aren’t going as well as they’d like.  They know they are small, that their budgets are shrinking, that their buildings are in need of maintenance, or that they are unable to pay for a fulltime pastor.  They had a vision of what a “successful” church is.  Perhaps it’s the newest mega church popping up across town or a booming new church development in the presbytery.  And deep down these elders fear their congregation is not living up to that image of “successful”… or they are convinced that others see them as not living up to it.

There was an “inkling” stirring up in Ruth during the presbytery meeting, and she was bold enough to call it out into our conversation. “That’s why the presbytery sent you, right?  To close us?” Ruth had clues that things were on a trajectory towards closure at St. Marks; some of those clues I knew, others I would get to know over the next couple of years.  It takes courageous leadership to honestly assess a congregation’s trajectory and to discern whether or not the congregation will go down that path at this time or change the trajectory in some way.  Ruth was ready to begin the process.

That’s the story of this book.  The six elders we meet and the stories we share will be the turning points along that discernment.  This is not a story on how to close a church or how to keep a church from closing, but a story about how to re-assess and re-identity what makes church faithful and vital and worthwhile.  Spoiler alert: It has little to do with the size of the church or the number of programs the church offers.

Most assessments denominational leaders offer congregations who are deciding on their future story, focus on the tangibles: numbers of members, amount of the offering, financial indebtedness, the size and expenses of the building, or the staffing design or job description of the pastor.  This book won’t ignore those issues, but they are secondary to the more important (and often more difficult) issues of: understanding the congregation’s mission and vision, being church vs. doing church, developing permission-giving leadership, the role of the pastor and options in pastoral leadership, and the building use.  This chapter begins the story with an assessment of energy.

An image popped into my mind as I blurted out, “No, you’re a completely different animal!” The image was of prairie dogs.  We lived in Detroit for eleven years.  My daughter was born there.  We were members of the Detroit zoo and would often go in to see one exhibit or another instead of hanging out the whole day. The prairie dog exhibit was a regular stop; it was my favorite.  I could stand there and watch those cute little rodents for hours. It was like God created them on fast forward.  They had so much energy! They’d pop up from a hole, run to another hole, disappear, pop up again, play with a friend, disappear … it seemed like they never sat and rested, they were always moving or intently staring and listening and making sense of the world around them.

I saw prairie dog energy in the elders of St. Marks.  I saw it, but they didn’t necessarily see it in themselves.  They told me they were tired, that they were burning out, that they were becoming resentful of all the work they were doing at the church with little change.  No doubt they were burning out.  They were working hard and giving everything they had.  The trouble was, they were doing the wrong things, fighting the wrong fight, and jumping through the wrong hoops. And they weren’t being fulfilled by the work they were doing, so their reserves were running on empty.  Burning out isn’t about being without energy so much as it’s about running out of fuel.  They were busy, but they weren’t been fed.  They were pretending to be a church that they weren’t. Imagine prairie dogs living and working like the great apes or the polar bears or vice versa. That’s burn-out.

The members of the 110-year-old congregation we voted to close at the presbytery meeting that fall morning were not burned-out.  They were tired.  They were old.  They were content with a long and productive life.  They were done.  That is very different from burnout.  What was most interesting about this congregational dissolution is that they decided closing was the most faithful move for them even though they still had money in the bank, their building was in relatively good shape, and they had a wonderful full-time pastor.  Their membership numbers were falling, but they still had more than three times as many members as St. Marks.  For them, they realized didn’t have the energy, the passion, or the call to continue as an active congregation, so they decided to embrace their new identity as a legacy congregation.  That is, they were willing to dissolve the church, join neighboring congregations (some of them joined “daughter” congregations) and give away their financial resources to particular mission projects both local and globally.

The energy of a congregation is not only about the level of energy, but the focus of the energy.  A congregation could have high energy for starting new programs, but little desire to focus on discipleship.  It could have a strong commitment to itself, but no energy to reach out to the community around them.  It could have high energy for conflict within itself, but little energy to do the work of reconciliation.

So how do you assess a congregation’s energy level?  First, look at what is:  What’s the average age of the members of your church?  What is the average age of the leaders of your church?  While I don’t want to imply that older people don’t have a great deal of energy or younger people can’t be un-energized, there is a real correlation between the stage of life of an organization and the stage of life of the individuals within the organization.

Years before I worked with St. Marks, I did a congregational visit with a nearby church that wanted to talk about evangelism.  They realized their congregation was not attracting new members.  When I met with the twenty or so members of the congregation after worship, I didn’t notice anyone who looked like they were under 75 years old.  I began by asking them what they most hoped their congregation would be like in ten years.  After a few blank stares, one member answered, “Do you realize most of us will be dead in ten years?” “OK, good,” I thought, “Now we can at least talk about the real issues.”

This congregation was not without energy, but the energy was solely focused on themselves and their congregational family.  They presented me with a list of “mission” activities that I had asked for. The activities consisted of birthday parties for members, celebrations of 50th anniversaries, and other inwardly focused fellowship activities.

The leaders of St. Marks, on the other hand, were mostly middle aged.  They were well established in their careers, had adult children, and were new grandparents.  They were relatively healthy and looking forward to active retirements.  And, most importantly, they intended to be around for a while.  Because they were at a different stage of their own life development, their energy for their own future was different. Their list of mission activities, too, was not about celebrating themselves. Though they did enjoy monthly fellowship dinners, the dinners had a mission or study topic.  They also welcomed friends and new comers to these dinners.

Noticing age, then, is not all there is.  We also need to look at the energy available for mission, leadership, prayer, discipleship, and change.  I was able to assess these things at St. Mark’s intuitively, but I often use a quick continuum exercise for a congregation to assess these energies in themselves.

In looking for energy, specifically energy around mission and ministry, having a large selection of strong leaders is important for the sustainability of a congregation, no matter what size the membership is.  Congregations that find it difficult to find volunteers to help lead worship, teach Sunday School, usher or count the offering are facing a much more difficult time than those that have trouble meeting a budget or paying the mortgage.  Leadership is key to energy and vitality in a congregation.

Having members who are active in community service projects and organizations indicates a high level of energy toward mission and service.  Having a strong prayer life in the congregation indicates a level of commitment and energy to discipleship.  Willingness to learn or try new things is measuring the kind of energy and courage to change that is required for a congregation to change its trajectory.  The final question is assessed in the negative … that is, if people are saying “I’ve done that already” and “I’m done,” it is probably an indication that energy for new life is waning.

St. Marks had a large percentage of strong leaders.  Most all of their members had been ordained as elders, but more importantly, most of the church members were involved actively in the work and ministry of the church or in community mission and organizations.  In fact, St. Marks was more likely suffering because their members were involved in too many projects, committees, and community organizations.

Bible study and prayer was important to the congregation.  They would share prayer concerns each week in worship and were good at sending notes saying “we prayed for you today” to neighbors in need.   The congregation was great at learning new things.  They were less likely to try new things on their own, but that was something they were ready to address as a congregation.

Willingness to try new things and do new things is important for the future sustainability of a congregation.  There are assessments online to measure a person’s readiness for change or style of change.  But sometimes the best assessment is to just ask.  One way I’ve done that is to have people identify themselves as belonging to one of four quadrants that represent both the amount of change needed in their church and their willingness and commitment level to making it happen.

The horizontal axis represent the amount of change you believe is necessary for the congregation to move off of its current trajectory and into a vital and faithful future.  The vertical axis represents the level of energy you as an individual member or leader are willing to put towards making those changes.  It’s vitally important here, that we realize that change only occurs in a congregation when individual members and leaders are willing to change themselves.  That is, the congregation won’t change or grow spiritually unless the members are willing to change and grow spiritually.

There are a number of ways to collect where members place themselves.  What’s important is that there is a way to collect the self-assessment in a private, secret way.  It’s difficult for members to report that they don’t have energy if the reporting is being done in a public way.

I didn’t use this assessment with St. Marks, but if I had, I expect that most of the members would have placed themselves in quadrants 2 or 4.  They may not agree on what or how much change was necessary for the future of their congregation, but they were committed to doing whatever was necessary to make it happen.  They were a high-energy congregation.  And that’s what made them a different animal from the 110-year-old congregation that closed.

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