There’s a lot of talk out there these days about how churches are having to deal with change: hard change, messy change, adaptive change.  Those of us in pastoral leadership know these challenges are not merely theoretical.  Every day, we encounter real change on the ground as we try to help our congregations’ members be faithful followers of Jesus.

I have, for example, served as the interim presbytery executive for Sacramento Presbytery in California for the past 10 months.  As I reach the end of my service, I’ve been reflecting on some of the pretty amazing “on the ground” changes that have occurred just during my short time in the executive’s chair.

One of our congregations decided to sell its facilities, which had become an albatross around its neck, and leased a storefront building in the downtown area of its community. The congregation hopes it will be able to serve its neighbors more faithfully in its new location and be more missionally minded stewards of the proceeds realized from the sale of its buildings.           

At our presbytery meeting in just a few days, we will close one congregation and give birth to another.

The members of one of our smaller congregation decided it was time to acknowledge that their church was at the end of its life cycle and have chosen to let go. While the church has been one of our more missional congregations, it has also experienced a long decline in membership, finances, and energy.  We will celebrate all they have done for the cause of Christ over the course of their history, and then we will vote to concur with their decision to close their doors.

At that same meeting, we will celebrate the birth of a new congregation as members of a small Presbyterian church and a small United Church of Christ church join together to create something new.  They know they still have much to learn about each other and that more challenges lie ahead, but they also sense the power of the resurrection in this new community they are forming.    

On a regional scale, our presbytery has entered into formal negotiations about the possibility of merger with the smaller presbytery just south of us.  While these conversations still have a way to go, I’m confident that our two presbyteries will soon begin the process of mixing their unique DNA codes. And as in most instances when two sets of DNA are mixed, you know that something wonderfully new is going to emerge, even if you don’t yet have a clue what it will be.

Through it all, I’ve tried to encourage our presbytery, its committees, and its churches to become more flexible and permission-giving: open to new possibilities as we wrestle with the various adaptive challenges our churches face.  We’re becoming less rule driven and more open to the guidance of the Spirit (even when the Spirit invites us to try something completely new).  I like to think that – in spite of all the ways we experience the negative impacts of the ongoing changes in American culture – we are learning to let go of fear and embrace a uniquely Easter hope.

All this in just one presbytery and in less than a year.

Now, some of you may say, “Oh, but you’re in California.” That’s true, and it may be true that we on the west coast are on the leading edge of change that is coming to all American churches.  But I’ve been travelling across the country these past several years in my consulting work, and I’ve seen similar change taking place in every denomination and in every corner of our nation.

As I was reflecting on all this last week, I had the joy of listening to Rodger Nishioka, an outstanding Christian educator, talk about the importance of resiliency for today’s churches and church leaders.  The definition of resiliency he worked with was, “The capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”

Isn’t this exactly the call of the Spirit to churches in America today: to hold onto our core purpose and integrity as bearers of Christ’s love, mercy, and healing while – at the very same time – to adapt to the radically changing context in which we seek carry out our core calling?

Those of us who serve as consultants and coaches with the Center for Healthy Churches relish our shared ministry because we have discovered the deep hope that comes from facing resolutely into the waves of change sweeping over all our congregations.  We would love to help you discover that joy as well.

The definition of resilience is from Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Harley 

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.