This week’s blog post is probably the closest I’ve come to articulating why I get up every morning to write this blog. I have grown weary of organizations, producing resources for leaders, who offer no evidence that they are helping create resiliency in local congregations. This is particularly true of online resources. What’s being offered to clergy and congregational leaders has very little grounding in reality, which begs the question, “why do they keep publishing it and why do we keep reading it?”
This problem is not unique to congregations. Most of the helping professions are stuck in information overload. There’s a name for it, “Fear of missing out” and the retreats that help people address their “problem” are gaining popularity.
Clergy are not immune from this obsession with information. Rabbi Ed Friedman was one of the first people I’ve known to liken it to substance abuse. Clergy and institutional leaders are anxious about the dying church. As the problem gets worse (and leaders become more anxious), clergy crave resources that offer a promising way forward. As clergy move from one coveted idea to the next, anxiously working to stem the decline, their anxiety increases with a constant obsession for more ideas.
The State of Religion
There is no doubt in my mind that religious life in the United States is on the decline. It has been for several decades, and every branch of the religious tree is affected. Growth does appear in some places on the tree, but it is overshadowed by the vast amount of decline.
I recently read an article confirming that if the current trend in the Christian church continues, membership and average worship attendance will both arrive at “0” in 2040. That’s a sobering reality! Will this come true? It’s hard to say. It’s unlikely that Christianity will disappear in 23 years, but it will certainly look different!
“It Worked for Us” is Insulting
I started in full-time ministry 23 years ago. At the time, I was unaware of the decline in the Christian church. When I went to college in 1987, Willow Creek had established itself as a pioneer in new church, non-denominational growth. Things were looking up. People flocked to Willow Creek both for worship and for leadership training.
It wasn’t long after I began serving in full-time ministry that church officials, pastors, and even lay persons were becoming anxious about declining membership numbers. The factors that contributed to the initial decline in membership created a new level of anxiety for congregational leaders. But as time went on, that anxiety began to fuel future decline. The more we worried about decline, the worse it got. In other words, worry about decline became a self-fulfilled prophecy.
The “quick fix” mentality swung into full gear by the late 90’s. Large congregations, those worshipping above 200, who were experiencing significant success in membership growth, started to charge smaller congregations (many who were being pressured by judicatory leaders to address the decline) a fee to come and learn “what worked” for them. The teaching was done with good intentions. The result? None of it was transferable. The learnings from the larger congregations did not translate well to the smaller congregations. There may have been a few exceptions to this, but on the whole, nothing changed. Despite all of the teaching on best practices, the mainline church continued to decline and has yet to level off. We are closer than ever to the brink of extinction, and yet we continue to push the same paradigm, hoping things will change.
Clickbait for Congregations
Most leadership institutions for clergy are intellectually lazy. Desperate to hold your attention and provide something of substance, they look for any congregation anywhere that has any kind of success which is then offered up as a possible new model. I recently read one such article that pointed to church growth for a couple of congregations that moved their main worship from Sunday morning to Wednesday evening. As if that’s the key. While I don’t dispute the examples that were given, correlation does not equal causation.
I don’t doubt that these organizations are publishing these ideas with the best of intentions. They may even offer them with the hope that it will inspire creativity, thinking outside of the box, and perhaps throw open the flood gates of new ideas. Is it any wonder that we are in decline as pastors continue to implement any idea that looks remotely promising? And then we wonder why it is so difficult to find volunteers. This process is exhausting!
If I’m going to move my worship services from Sunday to Wednesday, I want to know some specifics. I want to know success rates. I want to know about as many variables as possible. I want to know something about the churches that had success. Tell me about the functional level of the person leading the effort to change. Tell me about the functional level of the congregation and its leaders. Tell me about their track record in making these types of changes. Tell me about the process they used to make the change. Tell me about the resources that were available to them. Tell me how they handled the predictable pushback. Tell me about the effects of the change on the growth of the congregation one year out and five years out. Was it worth it and how did they measure it?
Church growth coaches and educators simply offer a glowing review of a congregation’s success without any relevant, factual data about the total effort that went into making the change. No one seems to be capturing the entirety of the markers of the process that led to success.
I call this effort (to only publish the results and not the process) “clickbait” because church growth organizations are giving into the temptation to use catchy headlines and engaging subtitles to attract desperate pastors and congregational leaders who will try anything once to calm their anxiety.
The Answer is Thinking!
Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature. Romans 12:2 (CEB). What’s important to me is not the results of the effort, but the process that went into the effort. What do successful leaders think about at each milestone of congregational growth? What’s on their mind? How are their minds being transformed? How are the minds of the congregation being transformed? Did they ever catch a break that helped them make it to the next level?
I’ve never interviewed a successful pastor, something I would love to do, but this is what I would guess they think about:
- What is the context of my congregation? Where is it located? Who is attending? Who is not attending? What is the nature of the community I’m serving? What is the congregation’s historical connection with the community? How connected is the congregation to the community?
- What is the functional level of the congregation? How well do they do when challenged? How well do the leaders function? How tense are the relationships in the congregation? How do they process anxiety? Who needs to stay in leadership, and who needs to rotate out?
- How am I reacting to the congregation? Am I stressed and anxious about the congregation or am I confident about the future? To what extent am I able to step back and think about the challenges the congregation is facing? What will it take for me to be a better leader? What will it take for me to be emotionally neutral (not take sides or blame others or self) in my relationship with each person in this congregation? What am I willing to tolerate? What am I not willing to tolerate? What is this congregation capable of achieving? What am I capable of achieving?
- Who are the people in the congregation who are motivated to be the best version of themselves? Who is as invested in their life as they are in the life of the congregation? Who are the most mature, responsible individuals in the congregation? What will it take to get them engaged? What is the best way to challenge them?
- What is the identity of this congregation? What is the congregation hoping to accomplish down the road?
- What are the steps that will lead to implementing the vision? What will it require of the congregation? What resources are available to do this work and what resources are needed? Who has the capacity to make this happen?
As you can tell, it’s not sexy. It’s not something that can fit into a headline nor catch your attention in five to seven words. It’s not a quick fix, and it’s certainly not something you can learn in an all-day training, over a weakened, or even at a week-long event. It takes a consistent, persistent effort over time. There are no shortcuts.
To be clear, there is a time and a place for resourcing and training congregational leaders. I do it, others do it, and it’s important. But the focus of training needs to shift radically from programs and ideas to thinking and process. Once the thinking and process are engaged with lower levels of anxiety, programs and ideas will follow.
Who is training congregational leaders to do this work? What seminaries teach these types of skills? What “teaching congregations” are offering these types of classes? What institutes are promoting differentiation of self? The answers? Very few. Why? Because, on the whole, denominational leaders have yet to admit that the current paradigm for training no longer works. The organizations that resource local congregations are so reactive to our current plight, they seem to lack the capacity to redirect their efforts and pull up.
It’s possible that even the best leaders we have are not aware how they perpetuate the challenges we face. They may be so focused on the content of solutions that they too are missing how a focus on thinking and process can solve these challenges. Congregations succeed not because of the programs, content, or techniques of a specific model. They succeed because of the resiliency of the relationship system in the church and the process that goes into creating a vibrant congregation. It is fundamentally about the relationship system whether we’re talking about the congregation, the family, the neighborhood, the community, or society in general. The sooner we embrace this reality and train congregational leaders to engage their thinking in the context of the relationship system, the better chance we have of transforming ourselves and local congregations.