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.