The Dilemma Of Leading a Church in Decline

One of the hallmarks of my ministry as a solo pastor is that I have been sent to congregations that at sometime in their life have been growing and thriving places but due to  difficult pastoral appointments, changes in community community demographics, and poor decision making at crucial times along the way, these congregations now find themselves in a pattern of numerical and spiritual decline. These, like many other congregations around them, are hanging on for dear life, clutching at all sorts of things that might bring back the former glory and success. These churches are made up of of good, and often faithful people, who thought that things were okay until they looked up one day and realized that the sanctuary was half empty and that the average age of the congregation was closer to seventy than thirty. They love their church, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in their lives, and they certainly don’t want this place they love to die. But it’s hard when faced with a new world to now want to look back to the good old days when the church was full as a model for helping the congregation to faithfulness in the future, and the congregation looks to me, the pastor of the moment, to help them figure out what’s next.

Of course, like many of my generation, I recognize the value in going back to the foundations of our faith — foundations that many church members in fact never received in the moral therapeutic deism American Civil Religion days of the church from the 1950’s and ’60’s. Much of my job involves moving away from institutional maintenance and survival and working to try to get folks to embrace the radical discipleship that is part and parcel of following Christ. As I’ve written here before, I have to help folks understand that “church work” is not the same thing as the work of the church; that keeping the building open may or may not have anything to do with following in the way of Jesus.

Where I find myself struggling today is the balance between being an agent of hope, and providing an honest assessment of our short and long term prospects for continuing as a congregation. My tendency in the past has been to be honest about what I am seeing — often that these congregations have no more that 5 to 10 years of continued existence without changes in how they approach the call of Christ and the mission of the church. My belief in ministry by inertia suggests that I may be surprised by my assessments, and the church hangs on by its fingertips for longer than I think, but simple demographics alone suggests that without change most of the congregations like those that I’ve served are facing a bleak future without a change of direction and a clear sense of mission which leads them out of their comfort zone to take seriously Christ’s call to grow in love of God (personal piety) and to love sacrificially our neighbor (social holiness). Drawing on the advice of several folks along the way, I’ve tried to be honest as a means of helping folks to recognize the seriousness of what they face, but I honestly don’t know how effective that’s been.

Moe recently, drawing on a reading of N.T Wright’s Surprised by Hope, as well as the reflections of Dan Dick and others, I find myself wondering if I am not falling into the same trap that we find ourselves enmeshed in throughout the United Methodist Church. What we have done far too often in the UMC is to use the language of death and despair, talking about impending “death spirals” and other terms to acknowledge the seriousness of the problems we face as a church. We do this with good reason, for based on all our measures of “success” in the past, our denomination seems in decline. We, like the congregations that I’ve served, had our day in the sun in the 1950’s and ’60’s as the top dogs in American Christendom in numerical terms, but now we find our rolls shrinking, our churches aging, and are trying to deal with a new world, often by looking back to where we’ve been.

The danger, both for us as a denomination, and in my local congregations as well, is that in our desire to be realistic about our situations (that is, to avoid the tendency to stick our heads in the sand and hide from the realities of what we face) we spend too much time talking about decline and death and fail to be agents of hope, people who believe in resurrection, and who proclaim to the church nationally and locally that Christ indeed has the power to bring forth a new thing and to transform that which is in decline into something that is pulsing with life and vitality.

For me that message of hope doesn’t come easily, for I (like our Bishops and D.S.’s at the national level) find myself enmeshed in the daily grind where we are often looking at how to make payroll or to keep the HVAC system alive just a few years longer. Being an agent of hope and resurrection gets tough when it seems to fly in the face of a system which more often than not isn’t really sure it wants to be transformed. In some ways being a pastor who is proclaiming hope is like being a counselor to an addict whose be committed to rehab but who really doesn’t want to give up her addiction. A counselor can only help someone who wants help, and trying to help an unrepentant addict only leads to frustration and heartbreak, and the pastor who wants to proclaim positive change often finds themselves likewise struggling uphill in their desire to suggest that there is a new and hopeful future in the face of a current reality that has been headed backwards for some time.

The struggle for me is finding the balance between the honest assessment and the proclamation of hope. It’s the dilemma a doctor faces when he or she has to tell a patient they have cancer — on the one hand the need to be honest about what the patient is facing, but also the need to proclaim hope for survival so that the patient will engage in their treatment and have hope as well. The struggle is to not withhold the truth as some sort of delusional denial of where we are, but to not also spend so much time in sharing the details of the sickness that we fail to put our hope in the ability of the medicines and the great healer to bring us back to health.

Maybe Jesus in the healing of Lazarus offers the best balance that should be our model. Jesus doesn’t deny or hide the reality of Lazarus’s death, in fact he weeps at the reality of the level of decay before him. And yet, in the fact of that death he orders the tomb opened in the assurance of God’s power to bring that which was dead alive.

I lead a church in decline. And yet, I still hold onto the belief that inside the whitewashed tomb across the street from my house that something amazing is about to happen.

Come Holy Spirit and breathe into us new life.


8 thoughts on “The Dilemma Of Leading a Church in Decline

  1. Great reflection, Jay, and one that speaks to a great many situations I am sure.

    Can these dry bones live? Why, yes, they can by God’s grace.

  2. Thank you so very much! This has been my ministry since I entered in 2005 and 3 churches later in the A.M.E.C. I now have renewed hope. This article spoke right into my existence.


  3. Jay I really apreciate this post. I think the Lazarus text is fitting because in death is always the hope of resurrection. Praying for the Spirit to move in your ministry!

  4. Why do you think people are leaving the church? Could it be the message of love is tangled with a too-complex metaphysics; is tangled with old testament thoughts about nonbelievers, gays, women, and the environment; and is tangled with political aspirations? Personally, when I here public speakers weave politics and religion together (whether by Newt Gingrich, the city mayor, or the public school principal) I think to myself, ‘we need to just pull back from associating with a church.’

  5. I was looking hope but your piece only helps to draw me away from the church. Churches & pastors have changed since i was little. By the time I was ready to marry, the main consideration seemed to be cost. We didn’t fit the pastor’s schedule, so we eloped & 5 years later, after $85/hr counseling, we married in the church. For the next 15 years until he retired was to send baptisms & weddings out of town. He was a wonderful fundraiser, and left us with a beautiful parking lot and expanded schools. Has the church turned into a “church of women?, yes! My late husband and I enjoyed bible study & other activities as well as sunday services but as a widow… I am no longer eligible to join most groups & have been told I am too old to work with children at 50. I church shop & this is common. What happened to the church I grew up with where we had many activities designed to be enjoyed by everyone from Granny all the way down to kids? Now anyone who goes near kids has to be vetted, most are excluded before they even ask. Food should be catered & insurance restrictions put everyone in a safe corner. The pastor who married us in the end gave up counseling to save on insurance (or so he said). The last minister that I wanted to talk to requested not only a fee for his time but also had a own semi-legal release form to insure no blow-back from the conversation. Once the churches allowed themselves to be turned into a business model, perhaps their eventual death was inevitable. All I know is after 4 months of being labeled to sit in a corner at a series of churches I finally understand what my mother told me 20 years ago when she quit her church a decade after my father died. When we asked her to come with us, she just said that her time for church was over. I later discovered that a number of older men & women had been encouraged to stay at home where they would be sent tapes & newsletters. I don’t know if that worked for anyone but perhaps it saved on insurance.

    I had expected to stay active in my church for another 20 or 30 years, but there is nothing for me to do except be directed attend a 9:30 service & tithe. My mom felt this pain in her 80s. I also don’t want to date or join a senior card or travel club. She loved the church they had donated a lot to build. She tossed the mail. When my husband died, our church was closed for funerals & we held a memorial service at a Preby church near our daughter’s home. When I was ill afterwards, I was put on a mailing list & told that attendence was optional (they did put stamps on envelopes so I could continue to contribute). When I felt better & asked about volunteer opportunities, they gave me a number for an outside county coordinator. I may join those who go out for breakfast or coffee on Sundays, but I miss something. As time goes by, my memory & that feeling will fade as I fill my time with the activities others have discovered to replace the church they were brought up in until in my old age I chose a wonderful new church IF they have an attached senior community with a view. (that business model is already springing up in the Midwest). I have bibles & will console myself and work to create and improve my own community (without a formal church). It’s just the way it is, no matter who stands at the front of the church and the ultimate successful business church will incorpate it all: pre-K, school, & senior apartments with the minister overseeing his empire as we all wonder, WWJD?

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