April 2017

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?


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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.