Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Time is Your 8 O'clock Service?

I often joke at conferences that the Episcopal Church is the only church in the world where people call us up and ask, “What time is your 8’o’clock service?” 

For some churches the answer may be 8 o’clock, and for others it could be 7:30 or 7:45, but we know what they mean.  Why we have 8 o’clock services and the problem they create for many of our churches is an important topic that I will address in a moment.  First, it makes for a great introduction to the subject of service times.  I was pulled into this topic recently when a friend asked if I had ever done a blog on service times.  I had not, but I do have a number of things to say on the topic.

First, let’s establish the norm for our Pastoral Size (ASA 75 to 150) congregations.  These churches, the norm from the American Revolution till around 2000, tended after World War I to have a two service format.  First, the main service was usually at 10 or 10:30am.  This varied by region and the time was based on how long it took farmers to take care of the livestock and then load their families onto wagons and get to church.  In the West where we have larger spreads, it was normally 10:30 to allow for the wider distances.  Of course, almost no Episcopalians work on farms now, but this long-standing pattern established the principle that “Prime Time” for most churches was between 9am and noon.  I will return to the issue of Prime Time in a moment, but what about 8 o’clock services.

When I ask clergy why we have an eight o’clock tradition, most respond with either “People like a quieter more traditional service without music” or “Some people prefer the earlier time to allow them to get off to the golf course or wherever.”  These are some of the reasons we have these services NOW, but they are not why we have an 8 o'clock tradition.  The origin lies in a historical fact that almost no current Episcopal Clergy would ever understand.

You see before the liturgical revisions brought about by the Oxford Movement, the typical service on a Sunday in TEC was Morning Prayer.  The two most common patterns were Communion once a month for higher church folks and Communion four times a year for broad church folks.  When more clergy and laity wanted to have more frequent opportunity to receive Holy Communion (they never would have called it the Eucharist) then a good alternative was to institute an 8 o’clock alternative.  It was an effective strategy because it meant change without having to disrupt the tradition of most members.  By the way, attendance was always lower on Communion Sundays because non-confirmed people could not receive communion (a fact that most Episcopalians have completely forgotten!)

Once the radical idea emerged in Prayer Book Revision that Holy Communion or the Eucharist was the standard for churches on Sundays, the Oxford Movement had reached one of its most profound influences in TEC.  With the 79 Prayer Book, we moved on to this now normative formula, but alas the 8 o’clock remained and became for most folks the refuge for those who love traditional English.  Now, of course, it is about golf, breakfast, shopping or whatever.  I say “alas” because this eight o’clock tradition (what time is your 8 o’clock service?) often gets in the way of growing congregations.

This brings me back to the issue of ideal service times.  Given that this depends some on geographical locations and time zones, the NFL plays on Sunday mornings on the West Coast, here are some important points to ponder.

For most churches, Prime Time remains between 9am and 10:45.   Starting before 9am is just too early for families with younger children and impossible for families with teenagers.  10:45 is the earliest you can start a main service and end near noon.  This isn’t so much for the popular idea that if you go beyond noon, the Baptist will beat us to the restaurants, but rather that noon marks a significant shift in the day and families with younger children will find it much harder to keep the hungry critters quiet.

Most Pastoral Size congregations, as I pointed out above, have a 10/10:30 main service and an 8 o’clock format.  It would be far better for them to have a 9 or 9:30 service aimed at families with younger children.  It is not, of course, simply to have it for these families, but to find creative ways to keep all generations engaged in the service.

Imagine you are planting a new Episcopal Church that will start by sending a church planter to a community.  One would start with one service at say 10am and when the congregation gets large enough than shift to a two service format say 9 and 10:30 and largely use the same liturgy, music, and sermon for both.  This is the typical pattern used by Lutheran and many Methodist plants and it works well in allowing the congregation to grow to over 150 ASA.  Remember Lutherans and Methodists don’t have an 8 o’clock tradition! 

Now even though this works and many Episcopal Churches of Pastoral Size would greatly benefit from such a Sunday morning schedule, two problems immediately arise.

First, what to do with the already existing 8’oclock service?  This is sensitive because in many churches the early attenders give a much higher percentage than their later service time attenders.  One church I worked with recently told me that 70% of the income comes from 12 regularly attending members at the 8’oclock service.  All this makes creating space for the newer Family Service very hard. Warning, do not try to combine both into an 8:30 service, neither group will be happy!

Second, what do we do with Christian Education?  If you have a 10 or 10:30 service, chances are that you have Church School just before the main service and you cannot figure out how to fit Christian Education between two major services on Sunday without moving the later service into starting too late.  11am is too late! 

The answer to this second issue is a bit complex, but let’s turns to our Baptist friends for the clue.  Most Baptists have a Bible School at 10am (for all ages based on age, gender, or school grades) followed by a 1 hour service with hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call set to 16 verses of “Just as I am” but ending by noon.  Why do they do this?  Because Baptists give Prime Time (10am) to what is most important for them, the class format study of the Bible.   For Episcopalians, it is simple.  Our Prime Time should be given to Liturgy.  It is our “thing” after all! 

The more important issue for churches wanting to appeal to younger families at an earlier service is not what time the Church School will be, but rather can we get volunteers to cook up a breakfast before the 9 o’clock service.  This takes a tremendous burden off parents and especially single parents. At the Cathedral in Dallas, we found that kids can even help prepare and serve the breakfast. 

So, here is the consultant question.  You can send me a check if you use it.  “If we could start from scratch, how would we structure our Sunday morning, especially in Prime Time, to appeal to a wider group of individuals and families?” 

What about Christian Education and the present 8’oclock service?  See my next blog!

Monday, June 19, 2017

More on Tenures

In my last blog, I discussed the issue of tenure.  I mentioned that I thought 7 to 15 years was a good tenure for Rectors, but that after 15 years dynamics begin that often make the transition to the next Rector difficult.   I shared material that I give to Vestries following such a long tenure with the land mines highlighted.  I want to continue this topic and share a collection of thoughts about issues with tenure, long and short ones.

First, I want to start with an observation that will probably get me in trouble with a whole network of people, namely issues related to interim clergy.  

I have found that our Bishops put too much emphasis on the place of interims.  This doesn’t mean that I think they are not important. I just believe they are limited in what they can accomplish.  Of course, a well-trained and intentional interim can be a great help to congregations in transition.  But many if not most Dioceses have made one to two year interims almost mandatory for every congregation.  This is intended mainly to allow the congregations to grieve the loss of the past Rector before taking on a new one.

Two observations seem important at this point.  First, how much grief is there in a suburban congregation for a Rector who has been in place for five or less years.  Suburban churches have constant turnover of people.  This is very different from the town church losing a Rector who has served for 20 years.  However, in the former suburban situation, a two year interim is much too long.  In the latter, two years is way too short to deal with the dynamics of grief and loss.

In conflictual and problem congregations, a much better solution is the appointment of an “Acting Rector” who should continue to act with the support of the Bishop until signs of health and healing are apparent and the congregation is moving toward mission and vitality.  I inherited just such a situation as Acting Dean at St. Matthew’s in Dallas.  Under the right circumstances an Acting Rector could make a good future Rector for the congregation. 

We learned this in the Diocese of Texas under Bishop Payne.  There are times when the Bishop is better suited to select a new ordained leader than a wounded or dysfunctional congregation.  We did this four times during my 9 years there and each congregation went on with their appointed person to flourish and grow. 

And finally on the topic of Interims let me observe this, a clergy person who has failed in leadership in several congregations will probably not succeed as an effective interim NO MATTER HOW MUCH INTERIM TRAINING YOU GIVE THAT PERSON!   

Now that I have probably riled up a bunch of people including some Bishops, let me move on to other tenure Issues.

Tenure isn’t everything.  What one learns is often more important. 

An assistant principle who had been in place for 18 years once lost out for a position to another assistant principle who had served for only three years.  The first applicant complained.  The head of the School board gave this terse but telling reply.  We felt that you had 18 years of repeating the same experience year after year while the other candidate had 3 years of varied experience. 

My point is that Tenure can lead to stability, but it doesn’t demonstrate leadership.  For this, one needs to look at other issues.  So just being able to stay in place and tread water for 7 to 15 years means little.  Actually, it portends congregational decline and often leads to congregational dysfunction. 

I have over the years met certain Anglo-Catholic clergy who content that their job is to celebrate the Mass and carry out other liturgical and sacramental ministries and that is the only true work of clergy.  Not only are such clergy wrong, but they often function as more or less chaplains to fairly dysfunctional families who dominate small congregations.  In addition, such a contention about the role of Rectors is not what the Canons or the Ordination Service says. 

My observation is that healthy congregations have BOTH effective and capable ordained and lay leadership.  I would content that Anglican Polity assumes that both are essential.

Four years is now the average tenure 

I have met several clergy including one Bishop who assured me that “a Rector should move every 5 years because after that you have used up all your good ideas.”  (By the way, the Bishop served as Bishop for 15 years and probably did use up all his good ideas in his first five.)  But ordained leadership isn’t merely about having good ideas. 

One of the truths we used to share at the Leadership Training Institute in Evergreen, Colorado was this; “Most clergy greatly over-estimate what they can accomplish in the first five years and vastly under-estimate what they can accomplish in the second five years. 

What I have often taught clergy at conferences is that in the third to four year of a Rector’s tenure a kind o power shift takes place where the Rector moves from being one of the leaders to being the leader of the leaders.  One factor is that after the third anniversary, the Rector becomes the tenured member of the Vestry.  There are other factors, but that is for another blog.  The point is that at this moment there is often tension and sometimes conflict.  More clergy should persevere through this period, but alas many find another congregation.  The average tenure for Episcopal Clergy is around 4 years which says volumes about the importance of this period in establishing one’s leadership and how many clergy fail to do this. 

So, should I stay or should I go? 

So how should Rectors know when to leave or when to stay?  My first answer to this is to pray and to seek guidance from a Bishop or some other mature Christian mentor.  If through this prayerful discernment God tells you to leave then leave.  If God tells you to stay, then stay! 

One helpful tool when things are not that clear can be answered by studying the written history of congregations.  Here we find that chapters in such books often begin or end with the transition to a new Rector.  (Only those chapters titled “The Great Fire” take greater precedence over tenures!)  So I have often asked clergy trying to discern these three questions.

                  First, what chapter are you writing in your own ministry?

                  Second, what chapter is the congregation writing at this time?
                 Third, are you the leader to best help them write this current chapter?  If so, stay. 
                If not, let another take you place.

One last observation on tenure and congregational vitality
With many congregations in decline, the numbers of full-time clergy positions are also in decline.  This means many congregations especially in towns end up with part-time, bi-vocational or retired clergy.  This can be a good thing, but many in the Church are claiming that this is a general trend that should be seen as a positive opportunity for lay leadership and so-called “total ministry.”  They are generally wrong.  This is shown when we ask the question that most Episcopal Leaders seem unable to ask; “What would it take to develop such a smaller or declining congregation into a larger and growing one? “  Putting a part-time ordained leader in place (and especially several in a row with short tenures) will almost never develop a small church into a larger one.  What Kirk Hadaway once observed about the tenure of clergy is still true.  “The presence of a full-time, dedicated, and capable clergy person in a church is statistically been shown to be beneficial to a congregation’s health and vitality.”  To this observation, I would enthusiastically add “AMEN!” 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Congregational Development Issues Following the Long-Term Pastorate

 I am a big fan of long-term pastorates.  By this I mean 10 to 15 years.  However, after 15 years, there are some predictable issues that occur and because of these, congregations tend to make bad decisions in calling a new Rector.  Often new Rectors become unintentional interims.  So, what should congregations leaders and clergy know about the congregational dynamics following the long-term Pastorate?  Over the years, I've used the following info help congregations face the transition to a new Rector. 

I.                   The congregation is normally in decline and is most likely to continue this pattern.

A.    There will be a predictable drop in membership especially during the second year of the new Rector.

B.     A large number of “marginal members” will use the leaving of the old Rector as a time to change church attachment.

C.    A number of “historically rooted” members will feel disconnected by the old Rector’s departure.

II.                The departure of the former Rector will create a void which cannot be filled by a new person.

A.    The older the age of the former Rector, the more that person functioned as a “Patriarch or Matriarch” and less as a leader.

B.     The earned esteem, respect and emotional attachment, which the years provided, have little carry over to the new Rector.

C.    The former Rector has almost always been seen as a person of religious authority “older and more mature than us”.

III.             Congregations tend to make poor decisions due to the emotional attachment to the former Rector.

A.    Most write job descriptions based on “the skills not found in our former Rector.”  This only accentuates the differences a new Rector brings.

B.     The longer the pastorate, the more novelty seems like a good idea.  This could include such areas as age, theological orientation, personal characteristics and skills. ( i.e. An INFP followed by an ESTJ)

C.    The grieving process for a congregation – even when people believe the former Rector has stayed too long – is three to five years.  (Some long time members may never successfully work through their grief!)

D.    50% of all clergy who follow a tenure of longer than 15 years are forcefully removed before 5 years!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Leading Revitalization: What to Look For in the Next Rector

 Continuing my blogs on Congregational Revitalization, I want to return to the subject of leadership and particularly what a church should look for in the Rector selected to lead this change. 

In my many years of working with congregations, I have had the great privilege of working with many remarkable clergy.  I have found that it takes a significant combination of personality and skills for clergy who have successfully lead efforts of congregational revitalization.  What are these?

First, let me remind you that in my previous blogs on this topic I have outlined some important pre-conditions that help a congregation in this task.  It is important to remember that leadership is NOT just about leaders, but also about a congregation’s readiness for change and the context of the community surrounding the congregation.  Too many congregations especially in the Episcopal Church have lived with the illusion that “if we just got the right Rector this time” then everything would go well for them.  Often the image of this “right Rector” is that of a past beloved Rector of the 50s or 60s.

Having reminded my readers of this, I now want to suggest what a congregation should look for in the new Rector to lead Revitalization.

1.      I would look for a candidate with a proven track record.  Past performance is the BEST indicator of future behavior.  I would look for a leader who has demonstrated an ability to inspire church members and to attract new and especially unchurched people.  As fundamental as this may seem, it is amazing to me the number of search committees that fail to do their research on this.  Often they based their impressions on one or two of the following. 

a.     Their Bishop’s recommendation

b.     The physical attractiveness of the candidate

c.      The ability of a candidate to answer a few selective questions with no connection as to whether the candidate has ever done what they have written

d.     One example of a sermon by a candidate

e.     How a particular candidate stacks up against the other 4 candidates they have seen so far 

2.     I would look for a leader that has an infectious spirituality.  This leader is able to draw people to her or his vision of the church and its mission and who is able to communicate an image of God and of Christ that is inspirational and attractive.

3.     I would look for a candidate who is an effective communicator of the Gospel.  Here I put the emphasis on “communicator.”  Most Episcopal Clergy are intelligent and thoughtful people who share a certain intellectual ability assured by their seminary training and confirmed by the examination of a Commission on Ministry.  This does not mean that they are effective as communicators. 

When I evaluate sermons, I look at two important skills in preaching.  Fred Craddock called these simply “having something to say” and “saying it effectively.”  I can almost always give an Episcopal Clergy person high marks on have something intelligent to say, but I give few good grades on saying it effectively.  Unfortunately, most clergy use the same form for a sermon over and over again.  We wear the hearer out in our predictability of what we will say and how we will say it. 

4.     I would look for a candidate that loves people, accepts people where they are and yet is ready to challenge them to grow deeper into discipleship and into Christ’s mission.  I would look for an encourager and someone able to affirm lay leadership.  If a larger congregation, I would look for someone who can build a strong team of staff members and effectively delegate.

5.     I would look for someone who values and loves the Church even the local congregation.  Many Episcopal Clergy communicate a certain disdain for ordinary parish life.  We make fun of the Altar Guild or we are cynical about the annual Parish Fair.  We often fail to simply thank volunteers for their contributions.  We frequently chastise those who loyally show up and do the regular routine things that make a community work.

6.     I would look for a candidate who knows what she or he does well and who knows their own limitations.  An effective leader focuses on what that leader does best and delegates what that leader does not do well. 

I once told a search committed that “if you are looking for an inspirational leader who can communicate a vision in a passionate way, than I am your guy.  If you are looking for someone who is focused on details and repetitive tasks, look for someone else.”  Was I a good administrator?  Yes, if you mean by that visionary leader, team oriented, and problem solver.  No, if you mean by that someone who can organize the next parish supper.  I learned often the hard way that I worked best as a Rector when I had a strong administrative assistant on my right hand. 

7.     I would look for a person who models, as a leader, what it means to be a follower of Christ.  I would want a person who can admit a mistake. I would want a person who is able to forgive.  I would desire a leader who is generous in financial matters, tithes to the parish, and gives to other important ministries and organizations.  I have never found a parish where stewardship is strong where the Rector does not tithe.


8.     I would look for a Rector who is connected to other leaders.  I would want a full participant in the Diocese.  I would want a leader who has good relationships with colleagues.  I would want a leader who takes good counsel from other leaders.  I have learned that in the long run there is only one illness in a leader or a church and it is isolation. 

Narcissistic leaders stand alone.  They only have admirers or fans.  They do not live in relationships where they are help accountable.  I remind us that clergy are members of an “order” and not Lone Rangers.  These relationships help a leader remember that he or she is not the Messiah and that the Church exists apart from them, and they apart for their role.  In other words, I would want a healthy person and healthy people exist in relationship to other healthy people.

9.     Finally, I would want a person who is dependent on God’s Grace.  I once heard a clergy spouse respond to a question about the clergy family being “models” to the congregation.  “Yes,” She said, “we are to be models to the congregation.  We are not, however, models of perfection because we aren’t perfect and such an expectation is always destructive.  We are to be models of people who live our lives as if we are dependent on God’s Grace.” No matter what situation a leader or leaders find themselves facing, we can always model that we are dependent upon the Grace of God. 

Notice that I haven’t said anything about programs, or systems, or theories of parish organization.  Certainly these can be important, but without the above, they are of little use. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Declining Congregations Need to Use the Appropriate Strategy

In my last two blogs, I began a series on Re-vitalization.  I started with an emphasis on leadership.  In my second one, I shared my concerns about assessing a congregation’s readiness for the task. In this blog, I want to explore the three types of strategy that our declining congregations need to be healthy and vital.  
I have always found The Congregational Life Cycle to be a helpful tool in teaching Congregational Development and in understanding what a declining congregation needs.  Many of my readers would be familiar with this model.  A congregation is birthed.  It grows and, at some point in its initial history 15 to 20 years it reaches a stage of stability.  If leaders do nothing at this stage, a congregation will begin to decline.  This decline points to three necessary responses.

First is “Re-Visioning”
 This is what congregational leaders need to do during the initial turn down at the end of the stabilization period.  It is often hard to do, because in many ways the congregation is operating at its best in most areas of congregational life.  It takes gifted and dedicated and mission minded leadership to challenge others to think ahead and push forward. 

I learned some time ago by studying larger congregations that their history is often seen in as a series of growth spirts followed by plateaus that lead to a new time of further growth and greater vitality.  In other words, just as growth in the natural world is seldom a straight line, growth in a human community isn’t either.  Those who study such things now think that these moments of stabilization reflect the organism’s need to integrate the proceeding development and prepare for the future.  Failure to do this, leads to decline.  The scientific term is “atrophy” – things left to their own devices tend to run down.

Unfortunately, many congregations never move to this new level because the status quo is seldom challenged.  A typical pattern is a new plant grows until it can afford a full time Rector and then clusters around the Pastoral Size with an average Sunday attendance between 75 to 140.  This remains standard until either a crisis or the inevitable aging of the congregation starts the church toward decline.  Sometimes a new Rector brings new energy and new growth, but the congregation never moves beyond the Pastoral size and its limitations. 

What I am saying is this; Re-Visioning is the best time to re-evaluate and create a renewed vision, but satisfaction with the status quo keeps this from happening. Often Re-Visioning involves clarifying or refining the current sense of mission.  Writing a mission statement can be a helpful tool especially if new and expanded ministries are planned and executed.

Once decline is clearly evident, the congregation needs “Re-vitalization.” 
This is a harder and more costly process because it demands change that is not congruent with what has gone before.  The Leaders often feel that the problem is simply a need for a few newer families with children rather than realize that this is merely aimed at maintaining what is known.  So let me say this as clear as I can.  The almost universal suggestion by Dioceses that congregations write a mission statement is almost useless in a congregation needing Re-Vitalization.  When the leaders write one, it will mostly be a maintenance statement disguised as a mission statement. 

Re-Vitalization takes place best when a clergy leader with skills in congregational transformation in in place.  Many will not like to hear this, but the leaders who got the congregation to the stage of needing Re-Vitalization are not the ones to get you out of it.  In my next blog, I will discuss some of the skills and characteristics of such clergy and lay leadership, but for now I want to focus on the process needed.

When we did intentional Re-Vitalization in the Diocese of Texas during Bishop Payne’s tenure, we would do some or all of the following.

1.      We would take an active role in recruiting the right kind of ordained leader for this work.  Declining congregations make very poor choices in a search process.

2.      We brought new resources in both capital and operating assistance usually for a period long enough to make a difference – 3 to 5 years.

3.      We reduced the size of the vestry to 5 to 7 leaders.  Our request to the congregation was simple and direct, “Put your A Team -best leaders - on the field."

4.      We would keep that Vestry in place for the 3 to 5 years of the partnership.

5.      We often kept the same Senior Warden in place during this time too. 

6.      We expected the clergy and lay leadership to review current ministries and stop those that were no longer viable. 

7.      We provided training in Leadership, Congregational Development, and Stewardship.  (For example: Congregations in the Re-Vitalization process were required to send a majority of Vestry Members to the Annual Diocesan Stewardship Conference.)

8.      We trained lay leaders in New Member Ministry (the genesis of Mary Palmer’s “Invite, Welcome and Connect” seminars.  And we shared best practices from similar sized congregations.

9.       We would ask the leadership to prepare a series of goals and timelines and made clear that continued funding was dependent on meeting them.

Of course, we were a large Diocese with plenty of staff to assist making these things happen.  Did these strategies work? In my 9 years with the Diocese, it worked in every intentional Re-Vitalization.

Once decline has reached a critical point, what is now needed is “Re-Birth” or frankly Resurrection.
A dying English speaking congregation of 15 folks becoming a growing Hispanic congregation is Rebirth, it is not revitalization.  Hence a dying English speaking congregation that starts a Spanish speaking service in hopes it will bring about revitalization to the English speaking side of a congregation is headed for trouble. 

In my experience, almost all Re-Birth events in congregations involved finding a new target for the future.  Sometimes this is ethnic.  Often times it is generational.  In dynamic places it often involves both.   I am also convinced that congregation Re-Birth is almost always a God thing and looks very much like a miracle.  I guess Resurrection is like that.  However, it is also important to remember that for a Resurrection to take place, something has to die.  And, of course, some congregations will simple die. 

Now with these three terms in front of us, Re-visioning, Re-Vitalization, and Re-Birth, I can now make a couple of final observations.

First, most congregational leaders wait too long to take initiative in each of these stages and often act in reactionary ways. 

Second, being in denial, the leaders often underestimate which stage they are really in.  Hence the congregation needing Re-Visioning just focuses on operations.  The congregation needing Re-Vitalization focuses on writing a new Mission Statement.  A congregation moving toward death believes a new Rector and new programs will turn things around.  And finally, a congregation in the throes of death believes that “Jesus will never let his Church die.”  As is often said, Denial is not a river in Egypt!

And third, Diocesan Leadership seldom intervenes with the right strategy at the right time even though they actual know better than local leaders the true state of the congregation. 

Now in my opinion, most of the 70 to 80% of our congregations in decline in TEC are in the Re-Vitalization stage and we need to train both clergy and lay leaders in the necessary steps to bring about this Re-Vitalization.  I would love to put together a two week continuing education at one of our seminaries on this and invite folks to attend.  I am still awaiting an invitation. 

In summary; A congregation in decline needs to understand what stage they are in and apply the appropriate strategy to meet it.  This often involves new leadership, especially clergy, and new information by way of training.  Re-Visioning can be done largely on the local level.  Re-Vitalization and Re-Birth need intentional Diocesan support. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Readiness for Revitalization

In my last blog, I began a series on revitalization.  I started with an emphasis on leadership and I will return to that topic in a further blog.  In it I will explore the characteristics and behaviors that I have seen over the years with clergy who are able to help a congregation revitalize their life?

In this blog, I want to change focus for a moment to move toward what I think is one of the most important issues in congregational revitalization, namely the congregation’s readiness to undertake this process.  Far more Episcopal congregations need revitalization than are willing to take on the process in a healthy manner. 

Often new clergy are recruited or sent to congregations to lead this process without the congregation and especially its leadership buying in to the need for change.  The congregational leaders are assuming that if we just had a new and younger ordained leader who will help us recruit some new families with children, we will be alright.  Once the price of revitalization becomes apparent (it is always CHANGE) then the congregation reacts, then frequently resists, and even can sabotages the process.

My first experience as a Rector was exactly this kind of situation.  I naively thought that given the desperateness of the situation, members would understand the need for change.  At my first Annual Meeting, I plaintively said, “Many of you don’t seem to understand that this congregation must change or it will die.”  A long time member stood up and responded, “No, you don’t understand.  We would rather have the congregation die than change.”  He was right.

So, what are the signs that a Church is ready to seriously undertake revitalization? 

I would list these:

  1. An honest and frank assessment of their true situation that is shared broadly with the membership. 
  2. A willingness to engage with new ordained leadership in a 5 year process of Change.  This means no terminations.  When a congregation engages a new clergy person for the purpose of revitalization, I would establish a 5 year contract between Priest and Congregation.  (It is one of the only times that I agree with having a contract.)  If you fire the clergy person, you will pay that person for the full 5 years.  This gives the new ordained leader leverage. 
  3. A willingness to engage with the Diocese by establishing key points of accountability.
  4. A willingness to establish a consulting/coaching relationship with an outside person who helps the local leaders persevere through the process and predictable obstacles they will face.
  5. A willingness to reduce the Vestry to 5 to 7 Key leaders who will not rotate for at least the first three years of this process including establishing or keeping the current Senior Warden for the 3 year period.  The congregation needing revitalization needs continuity.  Bishop Payne used to say, “Put the A team on the field.  This is a critical time for the congregation and we need its best leaders to step up to the work.” 
  6. If the diocese provides financial support, it continues only as long as the congregation keeps to the agreed upon steps of accountability.  I am astonished at the money some dioceses give to subsidize declining and dying congregations even when local leaders are sabotaging revitalization efforts.

Now while all this seems daunting, the good news for Bishops and Staff is that not very many of our declining congregations are ready for this intensive work. Many just need someone to maintain them and help them get to the point of readiness.  This also means that a diocese doesn’t need a whole bunch of ordained Leaders capable of leading revitalization.  These are hard to come by these days.  They just need the right one for the next ready congregation. 

So Revitalization demands a congregation’s readiness to enter a process of change with accountability and intentionality.  If this is present, the Diocese and Congregation can enter a partnership for the revitalization of the congregation that has a reasonable chance of succeeding.  Without this readiness and a cooperative partnership, revitalization has a much smaller chance of ever happening. 

In my next blog, I want to revisit the three types of strategic action that are necessary for congregations that have begun to decline.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Christianity: Movement, Organization, Community, or Institution?

Because the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church uses the phrase “The Jesus Movement,” the phrase is catching on around the Church.  I am glad because “The Millennial Goals” and “The Five Marks of Mission” are phrases that have not communicated such energy.  However, the phrase raises a number of questions.  I think the most important one is whether Christianity is fundamentally a Movement, an Organization, a Community, or an Institution?  Of course, historically one can argue that it is all of these things because a religion that has been around for a couple of thousand years would have all these dynamics in it.  The phrase becomes more important for me when applied to the current situation in The Episcopal Church.

When Bishop Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Church was in serious trouble.  Despite loyalist, particularly Progressive ones, trying to spin an optimistic view, the numbers told a more critical story.  The number of members, attendance, and congregations were all trending down.  On top of a historic 30 year decline of 1/3 of our membership by 2000, since 2000 we have lost another 1/3 of our membership.  Significantly, the major discussion and debate in the year previous to Bishop Curry’s election was over restructuring which was really a kinder way of saying downsizing. 

Bishop Curry seemed to instinctively realize that the problems facing TEC were not in adapting to these historical trends, but in infusing new life, new vision, and positive leadership.  Like any new visionary leader, he brought change in both perspective and in language.   Here is where the phrase The Jesus Movement becomes significant.  It communicates two significant and important truths to Church members.

First, Bishop Curry is reminding us that we are about Jesus and not just good intentions, progressive politics, and inclusion.  By his own account, he learned of this Jesus from his grandmother, and he has never forgotten that the Church and its mission are inseparable from the person, work, teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is from this Jesus that we draw our identity, our purpose, and by His Spirit, the power to accomplish his work of redemption and reconciliation. 

Second, by this phrase he states clearly that the mission of the Church and its organization and institutional life are inseparable.  The fundamental problems facing TEC are not about our General Convention structures, nor our low birth rate, nor our aging membership, nor our lack of gender inclusiveness, nor our loss of mainline status, our problems are fundamentally theological and missiological.  By re-phrasing our identity as a movement, Bishop Curry has changed our paradigm.  This is what a revitalization leader has to do, redefine reality, and all clergy called to such revitalization on a local level should take note and learn from him. 

In further blogs, I hope to extend a conversation about congregational revitalization, so I will leave that last statement hanging, because I want to address the question about a Movement versus an Organization, Community or Institution.  Many years ago, one of my favorite history professors said something, almost in passing, that I have never forgotten.  It is this:

The history of almost every organization or institution whether it is an Empire, a Country, a Political Organization or even a Corporation is the same.  Namely, people discover that they have a common experience or concern.  They gather to draw from one another and start what we would call a Movement.  This Movement generates leaders.  Over time, these leaders create structure and organization.  This Organization creates hierarchy and this hierarchy then generates over time a bureaucracy.  Finally, this bureaucracy creates rules and regulations to assure that the experience that created the Movement is controlled and suppressed. 

He went on to note that this is the history of the most Empires, the Roman Catholic Church, the Communist Party, and will be the history of The United States.  The only thing that can delay this inevitable process for any organization or institution is the leaders’ ability to reinfuse and recapture the essence of the Movement often expressed within a new context.

I believe the history and continual viability of the Church rests the multitude of leaders and movements that have happened within the life of the Church.  When you read the history of Benedict, Francis, or Wesley for examples, you are reading about movements initially held in suspicion by the hierarchy and its bureaucracy. 

The Anglican Church can be seen as a part of the Protestant Movement.  Within Anglicanism, the Evangelical Awakening, the Oxford Movement, and the Social Gospel Movement can all be seen as movements within the organization to rekindle the initial flame and life of a now decaying institution concerned primarily with its own organizational life and institutional survival instead of its mission.  One could say, I would certainly say it, that Anglicanism itself represents an umbrella Organization under which a number of sub-movements and their adherents exist.  Until 2003, I would claim that TEC was a Church that held together at least 6 sub-movements that had generated new life at some point in our Community. 

I would suggest that if everyone reading this thought about it, he or she would realize that our own identity is made to some degree by various movements that have influenced and framed our life.  For any Episcopalian, this means movements in and outside the Church.  I know that I am and remain an Episcopalian because Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Progressives have all had, brace yourself, a positive influence on my life, and as a Southerner, I have also been deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. 

Sydney Ahlstrom of Yale said that one cannot tell the history of Christianity in America by way of denominations, but rather by way of the leaders and movements that have touched each denomination.  Some denominations formed in the last 150 years owe their very existence to one of these leaders or movements. 

Will Bishop Curry’s attempt at reinfusing our calcifying and decaying organization result in revitalization?  It is certainly too early to know.  This one thing, however, is true.  If TEC will have a future, it must begin with Jesus and have his mission and ministry at the center.  If Bishop Curry can help accomplish this, he will have accomplished something significant. 

Remember this; revitalization for Christians in never merely about structure, programs, or strategies.  It will involve these things, but it is first about Jesus and his movement.  All else is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  This is as true on the local level as it is on the Denominational level.