When we hear the words “legacy” and “congregation” in the same sentence, most of us think of a devoted church member leaving a bequest in her will to her faith community. Yet, in the last eight years, I have worked with hundreds of congregations that have questioned what their organizational legacy might be.
The data is sobering:
- From 2005 – 2015, median worship attendance in S. congregations declined from 129 to 80.[i]
- Only 7% of US congregations have 400 or more members; yet half of S. churchgoers attend such a congregation. [ii]
- Research indicates a decline in attendance at the great majority of the nation’s churches, while those attracting 400+ persons are dramatically increasing in size.[iii]
For the very small church, the question of sustainability is very real and very frightening. Though some level of denial is unsurprising, markers that suggest that a congregation may be nearing the end of its visible ministry include:
- ongoing budget deficits that call into question whether the church can pay its bills;
- board members’ inability to articulate a mission and vision that extends beyond the four wall of their church’s building;
- a withering fellowship that receives neither visitors nor new members;
- an inability to recruit board members;
- a sense that all the work is being done by just a couple of people;
- a general sense of fatigue and despair about the church’s future
Local and regional leaders are increasingly called upon to assist congregations in such situations. Where does one begin?
- A good first step is often a gentle conversation with key leaders about their situation and their hopes and fears for the church’s future. An analysis of population trends in the neighborhood, together with a review of membership and worship attendance patterns, is helpful to illustrate the relative magnitude of the challenge.
- Offering state and national data about patterns in American Protestantism is usually reassuring, in that the church’s leaders can see that they’re not alone in their situations, and that the challenges they face are shared by many. This knowledge will often alleviate fears that “Maybe we did something wrong …” Years ago, my workplace superior told me in the midst of a huge and problem-prone project, “You know, this situation isn’t your fault. But it’s still your problem to resolve.” Being assured that the church’s situation is not the fault of the current board is often a key element of their willingness to take action.
- A study of the church’s financial condition is essential, especially evaluating giving patterns. In my work, it is not uncommon to see that half of a small church’s total income is derived from two or three families. While we are grateful for those families’ faithful generosity, we know that this pattern will prove short-lived.
- A period of discernment to include prayer and candid discussion will be necessary. Many boards will use a 30 – 60 day book study to help guide their thinking. (A resource that I frequently recommend is Tod Bolsinger’s excellent text, Canoeing the Mountains: Church Leadership in Uncharted Territory. [iv])
- A question I always try to ask is whether those present have the energy to continue. The response is frequently no.
- Using the data available, board members must contemplate what God is calling them to be and do in the current season. Sometimes, the most reasonable – and faithful – assessment is that their work as a worshiping community is nearly complete.
Helping church leaders come to understand that their ministry can continue through the work of others is energizing. For the congregation that owns valuable real-estate, there is joy and hope in the realization that the proceeds from a sale of that property – together with other assets the church might possess – can continue to fund mission causes that the church has long embraced. I worked with a fellowship of four members who were delighted to learn that the closure of their church and the sale of its property could fund an endowment that would provide for a chaplain at a small college nearby with which they had enjoyed a decades-long ministry.
As a pastor of another congregation told me once, “Through the sale of our property, we were able to fund more ministry that we’ve been able to do ourselves in the last twenty years.” Their situation was such that the property proceeds could fund the purchase of an AED device in every church in their regional association and establish a significant scholarship fund for foreign mission workers.
These conversations can be emotionally-charged and are often complex: the assistance of a disinterested third party who has the benefit of objectivity and experience can be significant. The discernment and decision-making process should not be inappropriately rushed, but neither should it drag on unnecessarily. Once consensus has been established, an action plan should be developed and implemented. A celebration of the church’s ministry should be planned and an orderly wind-down of the church’s affairs should commence.
We are resurrection people: we believe that death is not the ending, but is, instead, the beginning of something new. The faithful and gracious conclusion of a church’s season of ministry as a worshiping community is no different.
[i] “American Congregations 2015: Thriving & Surviving,” David A. Roozen, Faith Communities Today, Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
[ii] National Congregations Study, Duke University Department of Sociology, Dec. 2015.
[iii] “The Amazon Effect: Worshippers Flocking to Larger Churches,” David Briggs, Ahead of the Trend: Association of Religious Data Archives, January 21, 2016.
[iv] Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory: Tod Bolsinger, InterVarsity Press, 2015.