One of the projects I’m working on these days is to help three presbyteries in the Mountain West think about their future.  All three are experiencing the decline with which most American churches wrestle.  All three been helping churches close in recent years and expect to help close even more in the years ahead.  Most of their remaining churches are small (the smallest being three members!), have an older membership, and are very spread out geographically.  Finances are a problem for all of them.

It’s not only their congregations that face the possibility of closure, though.  Our conversation started when the staff of all three presbyteries acknowledged that each may soon have too few congregations to remain a free-standing presbytery.  They’re watching two presbyteries in the Central Valley of California merge (including the one of which I am a member) and wondering if that’s not their future as well.

In a recent conversation with one of the presbytery executives I asked, “What do you understand your primary call to be at this point in your presbytery’s life?”  She responded with a phrase that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: “My call is providing realistic encouragement to our churches and to the presbytery as a whole.”

I love her phrase: “providing realistic encouragement.”  I hear it as the expression of an authentically Christian understanding of hope.

There are moments when those of us who lead congregations, regional church bodies, and even denominational level ministries look at the numbers, extrapolate the current curve of decline into the future, and are tempted toward one of two responses:

  • to put our heads down on our desks in despair, or
  • to sugar coat how things are going and offer glib words of encouragement. 

Neither does our churches any good.  

This executive, instead, is trying to help each congregation do an honest, unblinking assessment of where they stand: their vision for ministry, their resources, the depth of their faith, and their energy level – both physical and psychological.   Then she encourages them to think about the realistic options they have for faithful ministry into the future, given that assessment.

Doing this kind of assessment is not rocket science.  It involves

  • Looking at our own particular context with honesty and humility.  What do the numbers tell us (they don’t tell us everything, but they do tell us something)? When we follow our trend lines (age profile, giving, people’s engagement in mission), what can we predict?  When we look at the community around us, what pockets of need call to us?
  • Developing realistic options for stepping into God’s future.  No matter how frail a congregation feels, there are always faithful options available to them, even if the most faithful one is to close. 
  • Asking the Holy Spirit to nudge us toward one of those realistic options.  In all our number crunching and planning, we sometimes forget the centrality of prayer in discerning our way forward.  We need to pray long enough and deeply enough for a felt sense of the way forward to emerge among the church’s leadership.
  • Once we decide upon an option, encourage – and keep encouraging – each other to step out onto that path in faith.  New forms of ministry and mission don’t develop overnight.  Mutual encouragement make can make all the difference about whether a new effort will end up producing good fruits of the Spirit.

For some of us, going through this process will mean developing a new vision for mission that is rooted in our deep DNA as a congregation but is responsive to the new context in which we find ourselves.

For some of us, it will mean becoming more honest about the prospect of continued decline and beginning to think about the legacy we will want to leave if/when the time comes for our ministry together to end.

For others of us, it will mean acknowledging that it’s already time to let go and beginning the process of closing.  But because we believe in resurrection we can close in such a way that enables new life to rise up in churches around us or in community nonprofits whose mission closely aligns with our own.

Paul offered his own version of “providing realistic encouragement” to the church at Ephesus.  He called it “speaking the truth in love” to one another.  It’s precisely because we love each other as sisters and brothers in Christ that we are able to talk openly about hard truths from which we are otherwise tempted to hide.  And it’s precisely because we look those hard truths squarely in the face that we are able to discover viable and faithful ways forward.

What would be the first step you’d need to take to begin providing realistic encouragement for your congregation or judicatory?  If you’re not sure or if it would help you to have someone to support you as you begin that conversation, CHC’s consultants and coaches would be honored to come alongside you as you begin this most holy work.

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.