Fishbowl Thinking: Part 2
The Resurrection Story Should Not Excuse Church Failure

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Every Congregation Has A Life Cycle

Last week I started a series intent on exploring language used by clergy that goes unchallenged because it is shared only in sympathetic and often sycophantic leadership circles.


Yesterday’s celebration of Easter brings one of the most prevalent and dangerous “buzz” ideologies to mind. It is featured in a major church blog. Making the most of the Resurrection season, Alban Institute reposted a blog from 2006. (Alban Institute: From Birth to Death: Exploring the Life Cycle of the Church).


Church leaders love this topic. It fuels the movement to close small membership churches. This is an important topic. 80% of all churches are considered small churches.


The movement started out with the best of intentions. Many churches struggle with changing demographics—a new norm. Church isn’t set up to deal with change. Church life concentrates on “settled” populations and long-term pastorates. Now, homogenous communities are breaking apart. The thinking complemented corporate trends of the times. From the 1960s on, consolidation was all the rage in education, business and among service providers. But church is different.


Congregational Life Cycle started as an idea worth exploring. However, it wasn’t long before it was noticed that small churches often have endowment funds and valuable paid-for properties. Sometimes they have more cash on hand than the regional bodies. And that’s added an ugly dimension to a well-intended church strategy. Securing assets for the regional bodies became part of the goal. Yet few questioned the wisdom of leaders, and congregations weren’t part of the dialog.


The Alban Institute article reposted this Easter Monday dates to August 2006. It references other articles, also published by Alban Institute, dated 1986 and 1999. You see what I mean about how ideas circulate for decades unchallenged among church leadership?


plant itweb

Plant it. Water it. Watch it Grow. This was the theme of our regional body during the years they were challenging our congregation in court. We added a frame to illustrate our reality.

The buzz phraseology always starts with “Every congregation has a life cycle.” The five steps—Birth, Vitality, Equilibrium, Decline, and Death—will be glossed over, if mentioned at all. These articles rarely explore the shift from Vitality to Equilibrium or from Equilibrium to Decline. The focus is facilitating Death.


Church leaders are so immersed in the unchallenged ideology that they are taken by surprise when congregations resist. Laity and clergy, who are supposed to be working together, are suddenly adversaries. Issues oftenend up in secular courts that don’t want to deal with church issues. (There is a reason the Bible advises staying away from court).


Within the Church, published reports are always about successes: Dying Church Gives New Life to [some other faith community or community service] is the typical headline.


What happens to the displaced people? Who cares?


Clergy advocates reference two scriptures to support this trend. Ecclesiastes—a time to be born and a time to die—and the Resurrection scripture. You know the Easter story—about how Jesus overcame death so that we might live. Both scriptures are taken out of context and used in ways never intended. Together, they become an excuse for failure.


There are other scriptures that should be part of the discussion:

  • the Ten Commandments,
  • the book of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the Temple wall with no support from religious leaders,
  •  the parable of lost Sheep,
  • “where there are two or three gathered in my name”—
  •  and a significant gospel admonition—Matthew 18:6. “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”


Make no mistake. Legitimizing the “Congregational Life Cycle” as an excuse to force small congregations out of existence causes a lot of stumbling.


In fact, the Congregational Life Cycle has myriad scenarios. Some congregations exist for centuries. Others don’t outlive the first charismatic founder. There are all kinds of examples of ups and downs over the course of centuries. The five steps are not “givens.” If they were, who would put any effort into building neighborhood churches in the first place?


Nevertheless, our current bishop took a turn drivng this bandwagon before she became top regional leader. She co-authored an Alban Institute book in 2001 that advises regional leaders to allow churches to die.  In 2001, The Congregational Life Cycle was already an accepted concept. Her advice to regional leaders: Do not waste resources on congregations that will die a natural death in ten years.


Leadership is entranced by this idea of congregational death. It gives pastors permission to fail. They dutifully resist the temptation to waste resources on God’s people.


At about the same time this book was published, our previous regional leader followed her advice. (They worked in the same office/fishbowl.) It was the year 2000. He was refusing to help us find a pastor. He said, “Without leadership, your congregation will die a natural death in ten years,” Yep, he used the same words that would be in the 2001 book, Transforming Regional Bodies. Ten years of neglect was already part of a leadership formula!


Here’s the problem. In most Protestant denominations, resources belong to the people. How do regional bodies make sure the assets of small congregations aren’t wasted by small congregations spending their money on their projects (efforts the regional body is not supporting because they are waiting for death)?


The desire to control assets leads to “replanting” strategies. Replanters insist that all current members must leave their church so that church replanters can work “without baggage.”The people, who constitutional have a say in the use of congregational assets have to go.


Replanting strategies are another fishbowl topic to explore later.


The Congregational Life Cycle thinking as it focuses on church closures may have started with good intentions. However, after years circulating in the clergy fishbowl without challenge, the good intentions became one-sided.  Laity living with the consequences, have little voice. Rank and file church professionals are clueless at worst and apathetic at best—until their congregations are affected. No one revisits the decisions. Closed is closed. Too late to rethink.


The laity are dismissed with condescension. “They are grieving.” Clergy will plan a grand closing ceremony and remember to put tissue boxes at the end of every pew. There. The laity are taken care of.shutterstock_483934057


Our congregation lived through this thinking several times. We are true veterans. Grief is low on the emotional totem pole. Church leaders ignore the feelings of abandonment—years working not realizing that the regional body had no intention of helping you succeed, squandering of member efforts, the sense of violation, worthlessness, distrust, loss of faith, deep hurt and anger. Church closures have long-term consequences. Those consequences are not studied. The clergy find new calls and their is an expectation that laity move on just as easily. They are wrong. If limited to one word “betrayal” far outranks “grief.”


The Resurrection story is not about closing churches. There is no “Church Life Cycle” in the Bible. The Bible seems to like small. Scripture empowers individuals and small groups. (That’s where we took our name. Jesus sent disciples out in groups of TWO.) The only thing small can’t do well is support an unwieldy and ineffective hierarchy.


Most churches that have been dealt the church closure hand simply disappear. Affected members lose voice and status within the church, assuring that these management strategies will continue unchallenged.


But our congregation started this blog. We want the issues facing small churches to be discussed with laity as part of the conversation. Together, we might be able to solve some issues facing today’s church.

The Fish Bowl Leadership Model
and How It Needs Fresh Water



I have a unique viewpoint of the Church. I have been surrounded by clergy my entire life. I’ve lived with clergy, worked for clergy (of several denominations), worked with clergy (also of several denominations).


But I am also a lay person, content to be a lay person. Lay people are important!


The Church is perhaps the last relic of top/down power structure in the free world. The role of laity is to support clergy. Lay observations carry little weight.


I’ve been studying “church” as a lay person for decades. I’ve read dozens of books. I follow a few blogs written by clergy. I have provided decades of lay leadership to small congregations.


Last weekend I cleaned some bookshelves and came across The Once and Future Church by Loren Mead. This book was ground-breaking thinking in 1991. Twenty-six years later, the application of its wisdom has proven to be a challenge.


1991 was early in the societal revolution created by the internet. In just 25 years, we abandoned century-old societal patterns.


The Church, however, remains behind.


The 21st century is very, very different from anything we’ve seen before.

1. More people are educated at higher levels.
2. The pace of change is ever-accelerating.
3. Diversity in the secular world is the norm in most western population centers.


And then their is the big one—the internet. Wow! What is possible today that we never dreamed possible 50 years ago!


The church doesn’t seem to understand it. Even the writings of clergy advocates are rooted in hierarchical thinking, asking only—How can the internet help us do what we already do?  We just can’t get our heads around the potential.


What is stopping us?


Fish Bowl Leadership

Church leaders lead from inside a fish bowl. Leaders swim together and get along grandly in their glass encased world. They share similar experiences and ideas day after circular day.


That glass bowl muffles outside voices—in both directions. The curved glass distorts the view—from both directions.


As long as the temperature is right and someone sprinkles enough food in the tank, church thought leaders keep circling the tank, revisiting the castle and treasure chest they just passed, over and over.


In the fish bowl of church leadership, clergy talk to clergy.  The fish bowl is a leadership ecosystem that never quite connects with the outside world.


Laity are frustrated hobbyists who dutifully attend to the fish without the agency to do more.


Until now.


The signature achievement of the current era is the shift of power. We see this in every aspect of our lives—entertainment, education, government, business, family and commerce. People expect to be involved. This is important for church leaders to understand. Future generations will never know a world where they couldn’t be involved. They will not be interested in sustaining a church that does not realize their potential.


Is it too late for the Church?


Change begins with challenging fish bowl thinking. Perhaps this year, the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation is a good time remember this has happened before.


But how? Where to start?

Let’s start small.


Here’s one example of fish bowl leadership thinking that has been around for a while and is rarely challenged.


I”ve heard pastors use this in sermons and at congregational meetings. I’ve read it in blog posts. Perhaps you have heard it too.


“Statistics indicate that most people become involved in church as a result of an invitation from a church member.”


This is usually presented to laity with the intent to inspire. But fish bowl leaders deliver the message unaware of how it sounds to the listeners on the other side of the glass barrier.


This is what they hear?


So, it’s our fault our church isn’t growing.


If pastors think they are empowering members by quoting this statistic they are wrong. They are guilt-tripping members while exonerating themselves of responsibility. At least that’s how it seems from this side of the fish bowl.


So let’s challenge the statement.


What does this statistic represent? How was the data gathered?

I suspect that the question was posed survey style. Something like this:


How did you come to join the church you currently attend?

  • I saw a welcome sign on the door.
  • I was born into a member family.
  • I was visited by a pastor.
  • A friend invited me.
  • None of the above.


We cannot tell from the answer if a pastor actually asked them?


Between 2011 and 2013, I and a few friends (some clergy, some lay) made a project of visiting neighboring churches. In three years and more than 80 church visits, only one pastor followed up. By postcard.


No doubt pastors use this statistic hoping to motivate members to be proactive in outreach. Do they know what we face?


Today’s laity feel pretty lonely. There are a lot fewer of us!

  • Frankly, we are embarrassed much of the time. Society has mocked “the church lady” for years.
  • The worship experience is alien to most of our neighbors and it isn’t PC to bring up religion in many venues.

Let’s assume people are better potential evangelists than pastors. How does church leadership help?


  • Does it model invitational behavior on Sunday morning and during the week?
  • Are members trained as evangelists?
  • Does it create an environment that members are eager and feel comfortable to share?
  • Is church involved in community to create the necessary opportunities for interaction?

Answering theses questions affirmatively is the responsibility of any church leader who expects members to be evangelists.


All of these require of leap of faith from the fish bowl.

This is the beginning of an extended look at fish bowl leadership and how it is silently toxic to church growth.

We’ll start with things to think about and see if some answers and strategies can be found to help us step out of the last two centuries and into a bright future.


This summer 2x2virtualchurch is launching a companion website, Small Church Toolbox, a resource site to help small membership churches minister in today’s world. 

Wishful Thinking May Create Predatory Practices in the Church


Read this post, written by a church consultant.


It is well-intended but troubling.


Consultant Sarai Rice has benevolent interests for the congregations she serves. The love comes through.


She is probably unaware that her innocent musings feed dangerous Church trends. The trends make Christianity dangerous for laity.


Her rationale sounds good. But it encourages church leaders to think of congregational assets as their own. A slippery slope. We can’t know what offering-givers are thinking, but it is probably not to enrich hierarchy.


I’ve read similar posts from other church consultants. Church leaders enjoy relatively unchecked power. This magnifies the danger.


Ideas shape policy. Church leaders have power to make their dreams come true!


Some denominations have every right to consider the best use of congregational assets. Catholic and Episcopal traditions have long assigned property/asset ownership to the judicatory.


Not so with many Protestant denominations, including Lutheran congregations.


Lutheran polity assigns ownership and administration to congregation members. They can purchase and sell property. Even if a church decides to close, members have the right to dispose of assets following charitable guidelines.


For decades, maybe even centuries, this was unchallenged.


But this is the 21st century. The troubling economics of today’s more affluent world are difficult to understand. (That’s another post!) Regardless, encouraging church leaders to ponder how struggling churches should spend dwindling resources adds to challenges.


Regardless, encouraging church leaders to ponder how struggling churches should spend dwindling resources adds to challenges.

Guilt-tripping congregations who want to spend their resources on their  ministry is cripples potential.


This sense of entitlement tempts the breaking of commandments and the abuse of power.


But Consultant Rice probably thinks she is writing only to clergy. That’s where these discussions usually start and stop. Dedicated lay leaders should start reading the blogs of the people who shape the policies we end up dealing with.


Sadly this thinking is already an influence. Judicatory leaders judge congregations by THEIR  view of a congregation’s prospects. It’s natural that they weigh what’s in it for themselves. Decisions will be made that have nothing to do with the congregations in question. They will call it discernment. Prejudice might be a better word.


This affects how they lead. Why assign the most capable pastors to churches you have no hope for? Attitudes develop among clergy that a call from a small congregation is beneath them. Poor leadership only accelerates decline—in line with their vision. People who stand to benefit but who know nothing about the congregations in question assume power they were never intended to have.


Case in point: Suburban leaders look at urban congregations and decide they cannot thrive without parking lots. Makes perfect sense to suburban Christians who rely on cars for everything. Not so in the city! If they were just wrong, this would matter little. However, their view determines the allocation of resources/talent and the influence small churches have on boards, etc. Suburban church people start making decisions for urban members.


It doesn’t end there. Lay people may not be aware of the leadership concept “caretaker pastors.” Clergy know the term. Caretaker pastors are expected to do no more than care for existing members until resources fail and the church closes. Since this term is not used in the call process, the stage is set for conflict. Lay leaders wonder why the pastor isn’t doing what they expect a pastor to do! They aren’t in the plan. They are just paying for it.


When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed in the 1980s, congregations were promised control of their properties. But since then, bylaws have been added that are in opposition to these founding promises. (This would be illegal in the secular world.) They have listed conditions that allow judicatories to take control, but there are no standards to measure these conditions. Anything goes! Furthermore, they have added wording that allows them to administer a congregation’s assets for their own benefit. If a synod is running a deficit budget, an asset-rich, small congregation can kiss their ministry goodbye.


This post innocently feeds into current predatory practices.

Taking the property of others and administering it for your own benefit is the definition of theft.


Church consultants and pastors are accustomed to discussing issues in private clergy circles. But blogs can be read by anyone. Lay leaders, start reading the blogs which shape the church you serve.


Lay leaders with a vision for ministry in their neighborhoods need to beware. Other people want what you have. Church people have a way of making coveting sound noble. It’s not.


photo credit: Soren Wolf Serval via photopin (license)

What Small Churches Need to Know About Hiring Church Consultants


When things get tough—

  • when a pastor leaves without preparing the congregation,
  • when an economic recession plays havoc with the budget,
  • when demographics change but leadership strategies don’t,
  • when volunteers stop raising their hands,
  • when all of this affects attendance and offerings,

it is natural to seek help.


Often small congregations feel distant from their regional bodies—feeling off the radar—especially If they have had only part-time ministers for years and little interaction at the regional level.


Congregations seeking help are usually trying to find a way through a troubling time. That may not be what your regional body has in mind.


Puzzled lay leadership—often at odds, sometimes totally at sea—are tempted to look outside for help.


In come the consultants.


The Politics of Church Consulting


Congregations know their situations well. They may be less aware of how they are viewed by others, especially those they assume serve their interests.


It may be hard for consultants to see your congregation as anything but part of a trend of closing churches.

It may be hard for consultants to see your congregation as anything but part of a trend of closing churches. Spiritual/mission needs are tabled. Monetary and property assets are the focus.


Protocols and strategies to bring congregations to a decision to close are part of a consultant’s toolbox these days. They work with failing churches all the time. Sometimes, they are finding a way to make the best of failure. You may be just another congregation hesitating to face a dismal reality.


Read this recent blog post from a congregational consultant and notice the point of view and how often the congregation’s purpose is referenced as serving the needs of clergy and regional interests. Congregations are scolded for not giving up while they are viable! Looking toward their own sense of mission is depicted as selfish. Many small church lay leaders have experienced this ecclesiastic guilt trip.


Most churches entities—congregations, agencies, seminaries, and governing bodies— have a hard time with benevolence giving in today’s economic climate. Hungry eyes turn toward the weakest—most expendible in their reckoning.



Denominations face the same challenges congregations face. They need offering dollars and volunteers, but most of all they need to place pastors. Small churches compete for talented leadership and resources with fewer but larger, more resource-rich congregations!

Consultants, lacking vision for mission potential, are biased toward closing congregations as a resource protection strategy. Is that the kind of help you need?


How to Find A Consultant? 


Regional bodies can provide referrals. These consultants may be independent of the denomination, but they are likely to have some bias toward denominational interests that feed them referrals.


With parishes closing at record speeds, consultants are often clergy with no parish call. They talen additional training to serve as consultants known as interim pastors. (Some become interim ministers after leading congregations that failed.)


The advantage of having an interim pastor is they have close ties to your dominations. It is also the disadvantage. In many cases the interim minister is assigned with no congregational search process. They report to the regional body. Their role is different from pastoring! This can confuse lay members who may relate to them in the only way they know pastors. If you work with an interim pastor make sure your congregation is represented in talks with your regional leader. Insist that at least two congregational members attend any meetings. Make this expectation known from the start. While you are at it, try to have some say in the choice of interim pastor/consultant. (This was the recommended protocol when the interim pastor concept was developed, but it has been abandoned by some leaders. Read the writings of Loren Mead.)


Today’s congregations have another source. Professional church consultants are plentiful on the internet. How do you choose?


Do some research.


Know the background of the consultant. Are they familiar with your denomination or tradition? What is their speciality? Finance? Conflict resolution? Program Development? Mission?


Judge them by their website. If they understand the potential of the internet as a ministry game-changer, they will be using it!  Look for consultants that blog and demonstrate their understanding of parish issues from a congregational view.


Learn what they know about small churches. We are very different from larger, more corporate churches. Strategies that work for larger congregations can be folly in the small church setting.


Check their track record  


Check OLDER references.

How did  their advice play out over time?


Talk to more than one person in any church you approach. Concentrate on finding references from lay leaders. This might take some online research or even a visit to the congregation. If you find the church closed within a few years, beware. 


Some noted consultants have never served in the small church setting. They grew up in large churches, did their seminary training in large churches, and sought calls in large churches. Their vision of success is likely to be defined against large church standards.

Have they worked with small churches?

Did they ever serve as pastor in small congregations?

Did they ever belong to small congregations?

TRUE STORY: One church consultant boasted about success replanting a struggling congregation. She convinced the congregation to close—turning over all assets to the denomination and excluding existing members from decision-making roles. The denomination canvased the neighborhood to rally a founding membership of nearly 100 members. The church reopened under a new name with considerable pageantry.

The consultant was eager to replicate this success.

A congregation considering her proposal visited the congregation she referenced. They found, barely ten years later, its membership had dropped considerably and had an average worship attendance of only 20.

This consultant had served only one congregation—a large suburban congregation—for five years before beginning a consultant’s career.


Beware of what you say.


Point of view is a critical factor in working with a consultant.


Consultants look at congregations from a management point of view.


Your members are likely to be trusting and willing to share their passion for ministry. They will be surprised when their candor is interpreted in ways they never intended.


TRUE STORY: The regional body recommended a consultant to a small church where a pastor had recently moved on, leaving a divided congregation. The pastor had used his influence in the regional office. As a result, the congregation had become suspicious of their own regional body. In this atmosphere of distrust, the turnout for the meeting with the consultant was low.

The consultant saw a disinterested membership. The congregation knew that wasn’t the case but gut impressions are difficult to change.

The consultant was surely given some background about the church—from the regional body’s point of view, which they learned from the axe-grinding pastor.

The congregation was interested in reaching new populations in their changing neighborhood and asked the consultant for advice, eager for a fresh start.

Towards the end of the discussion, one church member sighed. She was 85 years old—a pillar of the congregation. She had unsuccessfully invested a lot of energy in healing the fractious relationship with the pastor. She was understandably tired. After her long sigh, she commented. “I just want the church to be here for me when I die.”

Of all the optimism expressed at the meeting, guess which comment headlined the consultant’s report to the regional body—and later, the regional body’s assessment of the congregation’s potential—and continued to be quoted for years. The spin, based on this comment, was that the congregation couldn’t see past their own selfish needs and should close.

The congregation that had asked for help forging a future felt betrayed.


Making the best use of your consulting dollars.


It is good to enter any relationship with a consultant slowly. If your chosen consultant is traveling to meet with you, consider having a first meeting with your governing leadership online (Skype, for example). This may eliminate travel costs and reduce the hourly billing.


Prepare your congregation for any meeting with the consultant. Provide a detailed agenda. Your consultant will then be working with a prepared and engaged membership. There is less chance of your congregation feeling blind-sided.


Make sure your consultant is working for you. 


Compare the work of consultants to the work of advisors such as coaches, physicians/therapists, or counselors. By tradition, and in some cases by law, they work for the entity that pays them. Consultants should be working for the congregations that pay their bill even if they are referred by the regional body.


This is often not the case.


If you want your work with the consultant to be confidential, make sure you say so up front.


Consultants Can Be Wrong


Consultants make mistakes. There is danger in following management fads. The problem: it is hard to recognize fads until time proves them wise or foolish.


TRUE STORY: A small church in the 1960s was busting at the seams with activity. A developer donated a few acres of undeveloped farmland sitting on a hill visible from the main highway just outside the village. The congregation drew up plans for a new larger facility. The regional body sent a consultant to review the plans. He nixed the plans saying the new building had to be on the main highway barely 100 yards from the donated land.

The church never relocated.

The community shifted. The congregation’s site, once prominently situated, is now a little-traveled side street. The donated land, still overlooking the major highway, sits in the middle of a huge housing development.


Consultants in the Modern Age


Make sure your consultant is living in today’s world.


Today’s small congregations are living at a time when much can be done with little. We should not despair. New opportunities abound.


Internet skills level the playing field. Many consultants discourage internet ministry. Why? Because many pastors lack modern communication skills. An understanding that the internet ministry is vital is lacking in Christian ministry. They cite ineffective results largely because skills are lacking. The internet, properly used, is a powerful ministry game-changer.


When interviewing consultants, ask questions about internet ministry. Find someone with strategical social media expertise to ask the questions. If the consultant puts you off,  It is a sign that modern communications techniques are not part of their experience.


Finally, wait at least a month before you fill out any evaluations forms.


Have you ever had a service provider ask you to fill out an evaluation before they leave—before you know whether or not their work is any good? Wait until you’ve tested their advice before praising it!


A Little Pep Talk

Trust your instincts.

Remember. God encourages the small. Always.


photo credit: zeligfilm ESoDoc 2012 – Session 1 via photopin (license)

The ELCA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The congregation and the people of East Falls were locked out of God's House by SEPA Synod on September 27, 2009. A long and complicated legal battle has ensued.

It’s the Ninth Anniversary of an Ugly Day in Lutheran History

The disciplines of religion and history rarely mix.

First, theology gets in the way. Anyone can find justification for any whim by finding a crack between the lines of Scripture.

Then tradition gets in the way, followed by human nature. It makes life easier to just follow the leader.

Perhaps Christianity’s biggest failing is the tendency to never, ever revisit the past. New ministry initiatives are touted in the unchallenged church press. When they fail ten years later, no one notices.

Leadership gaffes happen every day on many levels. Even small missteps that appear to affect few can have long-term consequences. The Church won’t notice. Individuals and neighborhoods do.

Christians are suckers. We like to play nice. We like to believe that leaders have pure motives. It can be hard to tell.

Christians are sucked in by language. How do you question the proposals of leaders who preface every presentation with “After prayerful discernment”?

The Church rarely revisits its actions. Nothing new. The Crusades are still remembered as noble warriors gallantly fighting for the faith. Most were patsies for rulers, hoping success would earn status and land at a time when the common people had no way of achieving either. Result: Christianity and Islam are still at loggerheads centuries later.

Most church gaffes are more isolated and smaller—bad choices. They, too, can have long-term effects that go unexplored, thus paving the way for replication of bad ideas.

Here is the story of one such monumental gaffe. It is the story of the ELCA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Take a break here and read the story.

In this true story, a bishop comes into office facing a financial crisis. Deficit spending has gone unchecked for years. Where can money be found when even affluent churches are no longer giving at needed levels? The Great Recession is on the horizon. Money problems everywhere! AAAUUUGGH!

Things could have been worked out except for the ELCA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The bishop didn’t want to work things out. She wanted what this congregation owned—everything. Standing in the way were two things: Lutheran law and the membership of the targeted church.

Where were the clergy that should have known better? Where were other congregations that could be (and some have been) in the same position? Prayerful discernment steps had been taken and

Lutherans were primed with “alternative facts” and “fake news” that justified looking the other way.

It wasn’t for lack of time. The dispute was in the courts for six years with the ELCA shamefully using attacking church members individually.

Question: If two sides of a dispute engage in prayerful discernment and the answers are God-directed, shouldn’t the two parties end up working together?

The events of this day, moved the still new issue immediately in the courts. This created an “us against them” environment with leadership using every power to defeat a small congregation.

The six years of legal actions resulted in a decision which has the potential to overthrow all Lutheran tradition and jeopardizes all lay leadership:

RULING:Although the congregation was within its rights to protest, secular courts cannot enforce church law. 

This means lay leaders (of all denominations) are protected only by the integrity of leadership, which is not guaranteed by ecclesiastic electoral systems or the vested interests of hierarchy.

The result of this one day in church history puts every congregation and every faithful church member at risk if they dare to defy any decision of church leadership.

It is worth revisiting on the ninth anniversary.

PS: As a result of this decision, all members of Redeemer Church were locked out their building. The property was seized by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and sold after standing empty for seven years. The popular, 25-year-old, Lutheran-related day school closed and the educational building was razed for townhouses. The sanctuary, never desanctified, is being gutted for apartments.

Ironically, the neighborhood is experiencing a renaissance. The property Lutherans provided at considerable sacrifice for mission and witness at the main corner of town is now gone, Mission for Lutherans in all Northwest Philadelphia is all but abandoned. Oh, and we started our online ministry which has a wider reach than most Lutheran churches that took from East Falls what is not theirs.

When Failure Is the Desired Option

Christianity is based on one single momentous and miraculous event. The Resurrection.


Christ died, once and for all, that we might live. There is no need to repeat this event—even if we could. What a gift!

Yet the Resurrection story has become the fundamental argument in church circles for—of all things—failure.


Here is a characteristic logical progression.

  • Every congregation/ministry has a lifespan.
    This may be true, but what does this mean? Some congregations have been around for centuries with all kinds of ups and downs. Some last a few years. Without an analysis of what this means, it is deflection designed to intimidate.
  • Quote Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. Sometimes a New Testament analogy is called upon—new wine in old wine skins. Christianity is the new wine.
  • Remember the Resurrection. Only by dying can there be new life.
    New life doesn’t always require a corresponding death. The miracle of the Resurrection is all about us not having to die.


The teaming of these passages creates justification for ministry tactics that otherwise are not biblical. The Bible condemns any effort to discourage the faithful. Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2.


The Resurrection and Ecclesiastes passages are about hope—realistic hope and miraculous hope. Belief in the miraculous should energize the realistic.


The arguments can be used appropriately. Take an article recently published by Rev. Graham Standish, “Why Some Ministries Need to Die.”


He argues that congregations sometimes need to look at the effectiveness of existing ministries. He never argues that change should be forced. Instead he argues that those who appreciate the ministries should take responsibility for their continuation and allow others to experiment with different ideas. Makes sense.


But the extension of the logic gets a bit dodgy. Read this post by blogger, Rev. Ed Stetzer, Some Churches Should Die and Stay Dead.


He argues that troubled congregations be helped along in their dying so that re-planters have better odds of success without those troublesome laypeople. It sounds very practical in a world where clergy and lay leaders rarely reason together. In truth, the arguments are attractive to replanters for one reason. They want no one standing between them and church assets.


Theory hits the fan when it comes to implementation. Sometimes congregations don’t agree. It gets ugly and hateful. Communities (church and neighborhoods) are damaged long-term. While clergy come and go, church members still live in the neighborhoods where the strong-arm tactics were employed. The Church rarely revisits actions taken popularized theories. It is easier to leave the blame for failure with church members.


Our congregation heard these arguments. Oddly, we were growing quickly, but our regional body hadn’t been around to see our growth. They were practicing intentional neglect. One bishop said, “Ten years without a pastor and you’ll die a natural death.”  His successor didn’t bother to check if that was the case or not! Both were blind to reality and hope by their own financial needs.


Church leaders buying into this cockeyed logic are betting on failure, squandering the sacrifice Christ made for all of us.


These arguments are lazy theology. They prey on trusting lay people. Regional bodies exist to assist congregations. That begins by listening. It continues by collaborating. It thrives on empowerment of lay leadership.


Denominations rarely revisit controversial decisions. They continue despite failure. The damage endures—mission opportunities squandered for decades.


Most lay people want to believe professional leaders know what they are doing.


Reality: Often regional bodies haven’t a clue how to lead in the modern spiritual zeitgeist, have failed to train the leadership for the realities of today’s ministry—and most dangerously—are struggling financially themselves.

The Lutheran Grinch Ponders His Evil Ways—or NOT!

grinch8Eight Years Locked Out of Church on Christmas Eve

and every other day, for that matter.


Every year for the last seven years, the Lutherans of East Falls—locked out of our own property by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod  (ELCA) in a budget-balancing land grab—checked in with the Lutheran Grinch to see if conscience had yet to kick in.


Year eight. An opportunity to do the right thing in a way that was right and feasible and perhaps in keeping with mission is now gone.


But Redeemer Whoville is still here! We’ll gather around the relics we saved from the church—not allowed by the synod but by the developer that purchased our land for a song.


The Grinch of Whoville was able to breach the wall between evil and good. That Grinch pondered the effects of his greed and changed his ways. He at last could stand with the people of Whoville and sing with joy and a growing heart. It’s supposed to make us think of the Christmas message if the Bible doesn’t hit home.


Neither is likely to happen in Lutheran Whoville.


There will be no reflection. The Lutheran Grinch sits on the hill overlooking their 150 or so congregations and never sees the people of their Whoville.


Reflection is not part of the popular “discernment” process. The need to win and save face stood in the way of reason and principle. There were no doctrinal differences, no issues requiring church discipline, no financial distress necessitating intervention. There was plenty of “fake” news—unsubstantiated stories about horrible things that simply were untrue. We were probably the fastest growing church in a synod where numbers are down in almost every congregation. The synod had ignored us since 1998, following their published strategy of ignoring small congregations for ten years to facilitate decline. They didn’t know anything about us in 2008. They cited 1990s statistics to the rest of the synod. We pointed out the “big lie.” No one was listening. No one was asking questions—nor were they encouraged to.


SEPA was successful in their land grab.  At what cost? Six years of lawsuits—during which the building deteriorated in appraisal value from $1.5 million to $350,000—ate up the coveted pie.


Leaders without a strategy, tend to rely on destruction to demonstrate power.


The long-term effects set an unhealthy precedent. Much needed innovation will not happen in congregations for fear of intervention.


SEPA’s tactic to sue individual church members should be very disturbing to all church leaders. A desire for safety and security clouds the sense of right/wrong.



In most historical contexts, there are people who look back at the decisions of leadership and measure the results to see if popular decisions ended up to be foolish or wise. Leaders with perceived mediocre promise (Harry Truman) end up wearing history’s halo. Popular leaders (Hitler) are condemned.


Churches don’t examine church history in the light of self-discovery or improvement. Did that pastor that everyone loved move the congregation forward or were those happy years the onset of decline? Were those lay people who raised questions trouble makers, or did their concerns prove to be valid?


The Redeemer decision—made with overwhelming acceptance of a synod assembly acting outside their constitutional powers—wise or even Christian? Only one church asked back then (Old Zion). None have asked since. It became Church at its worst, something akin to a Lutheran Hunger Games, with fluid rules and and tactics designed to inflict maximum damage.


The now eight-year-old decision that SEPA won in a weird way should give all Lutherans pause. The final court decision was that if the law were applied Redeemer’s arguments have merit, but the courts cannot enforce church law. In other words, Redeemer was right to challenge SEPA! SEPA’s actions were questionable. Our fellow Lutherans failed in their duty to provide the checks/balances.


Let’s look back at a few of the results of a power run unchecked.



SEPA Synod was routinely operating on a significant deficit budget. Closing churches in a way that guaranteed the assets went to the synod became a goal. Problem: it violates the founding agreement between the synods and congregations. Congregations have the right to vote on their future and to disperse property as the congregation wishes (within charitable guidelines). SEPA Synod usurps this right by invoking an unconstitutional tactic they call Involuntary Synodical Administration. This violates the agreement member congregations that joined the ELCA made only 27 years ago. The founding constitution allows for VOLUNTARY synodical administration, done with a vote of the congregation. But SEPA made up an INVOLUNTARY form to side-step congregational rights and take control of congregational assets. It is a form of theft. Even the wording: Taking the control of property and assets without the consent of the congregation and administering assets for the synod’s benefit is the definition of theft. Use fancy words. No one notices.


POTENTIAL IMPACT: Sooner or later, church leaders can expect to be challenged. This happened in East Falls. Christian beliefs and teachings ceased to matter. Winning mattered.



The leadership theory that was published in a book by Bishop Claire Burkat a few years before she put it into practice in East Falls states that the best way to manage a struggling church is to close it for a few weeks, remove signage, and reopen under a new leadership with NONE of the existing members permitted to participate. Where did they get such nonsense?

Church leaders see things from a clergy point of view. When a pastor leaves a church, they are advised to stay out of their previous parish to avoid conflicts with new leadership. This theory does not transfer to church members. Church members still live in the community and church leaders are likely also to be community leaders. Banishing them is easier said than done. Interestingly, another such SEPA experiment in which the synod closed a church and took possession of congregational assets received acclaim in the early years. They reopened to great fanfare with 70 or so charter members. A few years later, the parish statistics reflected far fewer members. No fanfare about this. Reported success. Unmentioned failure.


All the theory obscures the real reasons to wish church members gone.



UNFORESEEN IMPACT: Leaders fail to understand the value of land and tradition. They also fail to realize that in small churches, a lot of people are related by both blood and social circles. Scratch off a few problem lay members and you’ve riled a whole neighborhood. Working class East Falls residents sacrificed to provide prime real estate in our community to ensure a faith presence beyond their own lifetimes. They didn’t just build a shack. They invested their labor and wages to create beauty. Bishop Burkat’s attack on our congregation ended up predictably with the sale of the church. They sold it at least twice. An early sale was to a nonprofit that was willing to work with Redeemer members to establish Christian day school in the space they once owned. When the synod found out, they used tactics that would embarrass faithful Lutherans to regain rights to the property. Then they sold it to developers, of course. Urban land always has greater commercial value than monetary mission value. These developers were also willing to work with Redeemer members. Remember, we still live here! We were close to raising the money, but it was difficult. After all, SEPA took our endowment funds, too. We had only a few months and came very close. The land so carefully provided for mission in our community will be apartments. Our school has already been leveled for town houses. That’s the impact on Redeemer. For all regional Lutherans, it will be almost impossible to influence all of northwest Philadelphia (population 200,000+ and where SEPA is headquartered) will soon be next to impossible.


The loss to the community is even worse. The school we had planned is needed far more than five new houses. Our land as a cultural hub for many community groups is now gone and difficult to replace as available land in urban neighborhoods is now economically steep.



Our experience is representative. Most of our members were life-long Lutherans—some in America, others from Africa. We remain Lutheran in a neighborhood where other Lutherans have been unkind. We are still active in our community and we speak up for our continued presence, our history and our traditions. We are learning a lot. We are seeing what the future of faith communities in urban neighborhoods are likely to look like. We learned we were dong a lot right. We were growing diverse in a natural, organic way. Our membership was young in a church body that is adopting a new liturgical color of gray. We would not have been growing had we followed the advice of church consultants. Their predictions made in the 1990s—that demographics did not favor mission—we now know were baloney.


Redeemer was here long enough to experience, understand, and be part of real societal change. During this time, the Lutheran church was unable to provide adequate leadership. The suburbs called. Redeemer, largely lay-led, worked through the problems. East Falls is now a melting pot of diversity. We have experience we could be sharing.



East Falls, along with neighboring communities of Manayunk, Wissahickon and Roxborough, are among the fastest growing neighborhoods in Philadelphia. They are also the youngest neighborhoods. SEPA’s leadership has positioned Lutherans to miss a true opportunity for long-term mission. The era of White Flight was a challenge! We turned the corner, partly because we stayed in the city. For the first time since the 1970s, people are finding urban neighborhoods attractive places to raise families. Redeemer would be in a position to be truly helpful as our neighborhood continues to transform. But SEPA administered our assets for their benefit.


The Lutheran Grinch still sits at the top or the hill in Northwest Philadelphia carefully waiting to sled down the hill and take as much as they can carry. Just three churches left. Probably not for long!


Church Leaders Can Learn from Our Nation’s Leadership Crisis

church-shipWhew! We just survived one of the most divisive elections in our young nation’s history.


The challenge now seems to be for newly elected leaders to unite a divided following. There is always another election to think about.


Despite passionate differences, our nation is likely to survive. The challenges facing the Church might be more formidable.


Oddly, small issues are surprisingly lethal to both congregations and denominations. Peaceful resolution is something church leaders preach but have difficulty practicing. While small issues are problematic, large issues are catastrophic.


Perhaps comparing Public Leadership and Church Leadership can shed light on why the Church struggles with leadership on both clergy and lay levels.




Public leaders are elected by a process that is well-regulated and overseen by both elected and volunteer groups.

Church leaders are elected by a process that is controlled by clergy and tradition and are difficult to challenge.

Public leaders are drawn from a deep and ever refreshed pool of potential candidates with varying backgrounds.

Church leaders are drawn from an increasingly shallow pool that tends to be homogenous. Laity who become involved at decision-making levels usually have proved loyalty to existing leadership.

Public leaders are elected after a long campaign. Those voting have a chance to research and follow a candidate for months. The rules are generally well known—part of a grade school education.

Church leaders are elected by an electorate with little opportunity to research decisions. Many of the electing body know nothing at all about the slate of candidates or church procedure.

Public leaders must respond to an elaborate check and balance system that includes independent media.

There is no independent media critiquing the views of church leaders as they rise to power. Most church “journalists” are paid by the people they write about.

Public leaders are elected by a process that includes a diverse electorate.

The church electorate consists of clergy and a few representatives of each congregation—many of them have no background in church governance and are unfamiliar with church issues.

Public leaders are part of a process that is divided by party lines. Dialog is guaranteed.

Church leaders can be viewed as just one party—or as having each congregation acting as its own party. Either way, the opportunities for effective dialog are limited.

The dialog continues after election. Public officials must remain engaged with all the electorate.

Church leaders can operate with little or no engagement with member churches or members until the next assembly (the structure of which they control.)

Public leaders must operate within the law or face legal consequences.

Church leaders operate with considerable distance from the people they serve. They can (and do) claim exemption from secular courts under Separation of Church and State. Secular courts do not want to be involved in church law. It is up to the church electorate to keep church leaders honest. In many cases, the people charged to oversee church legal matters are on the church payroll. Church leaders can abuse power for a long time before being challenged. The clergy segment of the electorate relies on friendly relations with church leaders for calls. Lay people don’t like to think the leaders of their church might stray!

Most public leaders face reelection and/or term limits.

Rules vary, but many denominations consider calls to be permanent.

It is difficult to leave your country when unhappy. There are ways out of messy situations.

It is difficult for devoted Christians to leave the Church. Often, it is the only option as there is no effective course for redressor grievances.


Checking “None” Is No Indication of Atheism

atheists believersBill Maher, host of Real Time with Bill Maher, interviewed President Obama recently. One of the topics that appeared to be nearest and dearest to the comic’s heart was the topic of religion—or more precisely atheism. He questioned President Obama on the role of religion in politics.

Maher is an atheist who feels treated as a minority in society. He seemed eager to promote his position by citing statistics he feels reflect a growing number of atheists. One statistic he quotes has to do with the number of people who check “none” when asked to identify with religion.

There may be some confusion.

“Nones” are not necessarily atheists.

Many “nones” are a growing group of Christians who believe in God but feel shut out by today’s church. In this case, “none” means they feel they don’t fit in. They may very well be passionate about faith.

“Nones” have been hurt. They may feel labeled or excluded. They may feel judged or marginalized. They may feel bullied by church leadership. They may disagree passionately with views voiced by clergy without an equal platform to speak. In the case of our church, our denomination locked our entire congregation out in a land grab. Many of our members are lifelong Christians who are now “nones”—by edict of a bishop that wanted to benefit from the value of our land.

“Disenfranchised” may be the better word.

The growing number of “nones” should concern denominations. However, denominations are often too busy plugging the dike of membership loss to address the problems that cause the leaks.

Clergy were once able to shape church policy, but recent troubles have increased the numbers of sycophants—an oddity among Protestants and especially Lutherans who owe their identity to leadership that showed no fear in challenging the church of its day. Luther fought hierarchy in an age when church leaders actually wielded power in society. It’s harder to challenge power that exists in a system that has little power outside its own carefully defined worlds. It is much easier to discourage malcontents and keep the dwindling number of happy people happy.

Those in the church who don’t want to spend their lives whipping dead horses find it easier to adopt the label “none.” It’s sad. The church’s loss. The church needs to be challenged from time to time.

Most Churches Are Small for Good Reason

When urban mission opportunities are served on a platter, leaders often don't know where to begin.

When urban mission opportunities are served on a platter, leaders often don’t know where to begin.

Small Churches Are Next Year’s Seed

Today, I’m referencing a post from Christianity Today’s fairly recently appointed blogger, Karl Vaters, on small church ministry. He covers many of the topics we discuss here from the clergy point of view, while 2×2 usually addresses the lay experience.

Voters correctly points out that denominations play favorites with larger churches—an oddity since as many as 80% of all churches are small. We are like one big family—eight of the ten children are stepchildren.

There is only one reason mainline denominations emphasize mid-to-large churches. A church of 300 members or more theoretically provides financial security for professional leaders. In a sense, the primary mission becomes the support of leadership. But small churches provide unparalleled mission opportunity.

All churches start small. Most churches stay small. Most talk about growing but know that they will never be big. When they think of growing it is more in terms of being better able to serve where they are. They aren’t looking to migrate to the suburbs and the luxury of parking lot space. They want to witness where they are.

There was a time when small churches could expect to find adequate professional leadership. Today, not so much.

I was reminded of this over the weekend. Redeemer Lutheran Church’s property was seized by the ELCA synod and sold to a developer. There was a never a congregation vote as required. They plotted to bypass their own rules and locked out the congregation.

We are still here and still have a sense of mission.

Our denomination has a bad case of arrested development. They are stuck in a time warp that dates to the social changes of fifty years ago. Churches were among the leaders of the urban exodus known as White Flight. Some congregations simply relocated to the near suburbs. Others lost their younger members as they set out on their own. Denominations were ill-equipped to provide leadership for changing neighborhoods. They still are.

Make no mistake—changing neighborhoods are now the norm—everywhere.

Our locked out congregation was part of a neighborhood festival this weekend. With the help of volunteers, we restored our 30-foot wooden sliding board for the community Oktoberfest. We also had a bake sale and this gave us an opportunity to talk to new neighbors and visit with Redeemer veterans.


Two thirds of Redeemer’s 30-foot slide.

One Redeemer member recalled a search for a pastor that had to date to the 1960s. She told of how the congregation showed the parsonage to a candidate. The parsonage was a row house on Midvale Avenue — one of the most beautiful blocks in the neighborhood. These houses sell today in the mid $300,000s. The candidate said he could never live in row house and likened it to living in a slum.

Most of Philadelphia lives in row houses.

Clergy often look for calls that promise a lifestyle they envisioned when enrolling in seminary. If their heads have been filled with suburban prejudices about cities, the city can be viewed as undesirable.

A funny thing has happened since the turbulent 60s, 70s, and 80s. City neighborhoods are now viewed by young people as the place to be. Our neighborhood—East Falls—is booming!

Saturday’s crowd was young. Many of them shared their faith experiences and their hopes for a long stay in the city. There is great potential for ministry. But the potential has been largely squandered by leadership that made decisions about our neighborhood with self-interest in the forefront.

Our situation is not isolated. The same leadership that squandered Redeemer’s ministry just “celebrated” the closing of St. Michael’s in neighboring Mount Airy—one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Church closings have their own rituals and liturgies. Clergy dress to the nines and process down the aisle in celebration of—well—failure. A lot of nice words will be bandied about, but they are celebrating failure—their failure.

When mission opportunities are served to today’s leaders on a platter they haven’t the slightest plan where to begin.

Then there are those of us who stayed. We are here today, ready for mission. Our leaders took our seed assets (their seed assets, too)—endowment funds and property. They squandered the physical assets that Lutherans of East Falls sacrificed to provide for the future. They viewed lay members as enemies rather than local leaders.

Good stewards protect seed assets!