Dying congregations

What’s Missing from the Church? Emotion

“We are not thinking machines that feel;
rather, we are feeling machines that think.”

—Antonio Damasio

What does it take to mobilize a congregation?

The answer to this question is elusive. It is usually answered with formulaic responses presented by distant church leaders, many of whom have limited hands-on pastoral experience.

  • Get a good pastor. (Definition of this is never clear).
  • Write a mission statement. (The push to have mission statement is now a decade or more old. Has it made a difference?)
  • Target certain demographics. (Rather exclusive!)

Sometimes these approaches work. Not usually.

A congregation will not be mobilized until it feels. Emotion is fuel for action.

People don’t act based on the analytical part of their brains. They act based upon the emotional parts of their brains. In head vs heart, heart wins.

Churches are not good at handling emotion. Emotions can be so messy!

The cerebral approach permeates church life. We tend to turn up our noses at more demonstrative styles of worship. Soon, even hymns of joy are sung cerebrally, with every nose in the congregation buried in the hymnal!

Pastors are often cerebral in their approach to ministry. They are trained to read and analyze scripture. Applying that training to action is s rarer skill.

To appeal to the emotional is daring and dangerous, but it is the only way to get a congregation moving.

Congregational leaders must find ways to help worshipers feel again.

Too often in its history, the Church has relied on two emotions: FEAR and GUILT.

And we wonder why people stay away!

Here are some emotions that could change your congregational life for the better.

LOVE is powerful. Love is a verb. It is easy to talk about love and do nothing.

ANGER is a powerful emotion. Make sure anger is directed in unselfish ways, but don’t be afraid to encourage appropriate anger.

HOPE is an emotion. Hope is lost if people come to church week after week and nothing happens.

JOY is a powerful emotion. It demands expression. Foster joy. People are eager to come together when they can expect true joy. (View the boychoir video in the last post. Those boys come faithfully to rehearsals because they are encouraged to express joy. Compare the faces of the boy singers to the faces of the typical church choir!)

Warning! A church that takes an emotional approach to mission will experience conflict. It goes with the territory. Conflict, well-managed, can be a good thing. Both the Old and New Testaments are infused with conflict. If transformation is to be more than a buzzword, it must be expected, respected and embraced.

Learn to foster emotions—and the conflicts that go with them. Be prepared to use the dynamics of emotion to teach, motivate and change lives — including your congregation’s life!

How Many People Heard Your Sermon This Morning?

In dozens of churches near Philadelphia and hundreds or even thousands of churches across the country, hard-working pastors stood before their congregations this morning and delivered sermons to fewer than 50 people.

A conscientious pastor probably worked for days on that sermon. He or she probably spent the same amount of time on his or her sermon as far fewer pastors who delivered sermons to larger congregations.

Preaching is a major investment for every congregation whether they have 50 members or 1000 members—probably half the annual church budget.

Yet churches resist using the tools the modern era provides to preach the gospel to every corner of the world.

2×2, the web site that grew from Redeemer Lutheran Church’s exclusion from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, began with little experience with the internet. We had only a static web site which we rarely updated — just like the vast majority of churches who are concentrating on paying a pastor.

2x2virtualchurch.com became our new site.

2×2 studied the medium and followed recommended practices. We had no money to invest in outside help, so we learned how to do this ourselves.

Perhaps we were the perfect candidates for this evangelism frontier. We discovered that a small church can swim with the big fish!

Here is a mid-year report from the congregation SEPA Synod claims doesn’t exist (because they say so).

  • Every DAY 106 followers read our messages with our posts delivered to their email addresses. Huge potential for growth here!
  • Every WEEK an additional 250 or more come to our web site for information.
  • Every MONTH more than 1000 new readers find our site.
  • We’ve had 7000 visits this YEAR (in addition to our daily readers) and are on track to double that by the end of the year.

(Editorial update-Jan 16, 2013): All of these numbers have doubled since this was published five months ago!)

2×2 started strong in the Middle Atlantic states and California. In recent months our readership in Southern states is spiking. We’ve had readers in every state and regular readers in a dozen countries. Six congregations write to us weekly and share their ministry challenges and successes.

Topics which draw readers to 2×2 are (in order of popularity)

  • Object Lessons for Adults
  • Social Media
  • Small Congregation Ministry
  • Broader Church Issues
  • Vacation Bible School

We’ve learned that it is impossible to predict the popularity of a post. We had a Whoville theme party last January and the post about that still attracts search engine traffic several times each week. A post about a visit to a small church in a Philadelphia suburb and its pastor’s “brown bag” sermons for adults began attracting new readers daily, which led us to develop object lesson sermons.

Several seminaries have sent students to 2×2 for discussion topics.

2×2 has established both a mission voice and reach that rivals or surpasses mid-sized churches. We’ve done it on a shoestring budget. Another year to 18 months will no doubt add to our reach.

We will continue our experiment in modern evangelism.

How many people heard the sermon your church paid for this morning?

photo credit: Photomatt28 via photo pin cc

Leadership in the Modern, Changing Church

“I don’t understand why a person with a college-education has trouble finding work,” the older pastor commented after encountering a middle-aged parishioner, struggling with a mid-life job search.

The Church may be the last organization on earth to understand the changes facing the modern work force.

The Church, entrenched in the past, is dealing with the same problems with less success.

For countless decades or even centuries, mid-life was the pinnacle of a skilled worker’s career. Knowledge and experience positioned them as authorities. They commanded handsome wages. Life was good and the retirement years were looking sweet.

Today’s middle-aged, college-educated, skilled workers face a different world. Their skills are less valued. Newer skills of the connected age are not difficult to master, but they take time, effort and a continuing investment. Unlike youth, who can set aside the demands of independent living for four to eight years, the middle-aged workers are retooling while caring for teenagers, aging parents and still paying mortgages. Retirement is far less certain.

How does this affect the world of Church?

The Church still honors the system of hierarchy to some degree — even if they don’t call it “hierarchy.”

The people currently elected or appointed to leadership positions earned  their credentials the traditional way. Their positions are less market-driven. It has been enough in many cases to foster a reputation among a very narrow group of similarly trained and credentialed colleagues. They have been able to avoid the demands of the rest of the world — but not without consequence.

Change is every bit as imperative, but can be avoided until situations are dire with no damage to reputation. There are plenty of places to deflect blame for poor performance (economy, demographics, media, culture, lay people).

The great influx of second-career clergy may be adding candidates to the clergy roster who find the ever-changing demands of the secular world to be daunting. A major role of hierarchy is to keep the pool of available leaders active in ministry, regardless of their skills. Bottom line: the Church has incentive to stay the same to complement the skill sets of leadership–most of whom have very similar training and experience.

Sustaining clergy is a purpose of hierarchy, although it is rarely presented that way. Hierarchies want the available jobs to match the skills of available clergy. The Church is going to have to do a good bit of wiggling to loosen that stick from the mud!

This creates a division in expectations of laity and clergy. Laity, who must change or perish in their secular lives, grow impatient with clergy leaders, who roll out programs based on ministry models that used to work. The people at the top, most likely well into middle age, are disconnected from the lives of the laity. Empathy has not been the Church’s strong suit, especially since there is a LOT less money to work with.

Survival becomes the standard for success. Laity are not flocking to sacrifice for an organization in survival mode–especially one that threatens the local expression of faith with the strong arm of ecclesiastic power.

Survival standards are used to judge congregations. “We just don’t see how you can survive,” they are likely to say, even as they are dealing with the same or even more severe challenges.

There are ways to survive. There are ways to thrive. They are ways to reach out. But they will require new methods, new technology, new vision, a respect for younger blood and  lay talents and lifelong learning for Church leaders. Church leaders cannot ask congregations to make changes if they, themselves, are unable to change.

Laity are pretty busy making changes in their own lives.

The Power of Negative Thinking

Label a problem “impossible” and you have an excuse for failure.

This temptation faces today’s Church. In many cases, Church leaders have given up on the Church!

“Neighborhood ministry can’t be supported.” Just declare it! That makes it true.

What happens then?

We stop trying. After all, we have given ourselves permission to fail.

The first to be defeated are the clergy. They throw up their hands and devise ways to make it look like they tried. Assign a caretaker pastor here, an interim pastor there, and pray. Christians support one another in failing ministries. Just look at the statistics.

The laity can only wonder what is discussed at ministerium gatherings of “caretaker” pastors whose assignments are to slowly and quietly bring ministry to a close. It must be deflating. Any pastor who walks in with a new idea is likely to have the conversation quickly changed. The idea is to fail as gracefully as possible.

How can you rebuild self-esteem in a Church where these conditions prevail? Hold grand worship services celebrating Church closures (failures).

Lay people who have more invested in their neighborhood ministries keep working, often under the leadership of defeated pastors, who are called with the tacit understanding that they are to keep things going as long as the money can flow.

Lay leadership is puzzled at the attitudes they encounter, but they soldier on, trying to avoid the conflict brewing from exasperation and a conflict in mission that is never defined — so it can’t be handled.

A  defeated attitude spreads like a bad rash. It chafes at the message that is preached from our pulpits. We worship a God of the possible. The Bible is filled cover to cover with accounts of insurmountable obstacles overcome. Some problems are fought with patience, some with trust, and a few with power. The deeper you go in the New Testament, the more faith is relied upon, and thank God for the Book of James, who reminds us that it might take some work.

The Church faces problems today that can be overcome but not if we must first meet all the standards of yesterday’s church. It is time to clear the slate and approach our congregations openly and with the knowledge that with God, all things are possible. If we do not believe that, why bother?

Walk in the shoes of the laity. Would you support a church with no momentum? Would you join a Church that doesn’t believe in its ability to succeed? Would you subscribe to a faith that doesn’t believe its own message?

photo credit: morberg via photopin cc

Closing Churches Creates Pariah Parishes

The announcement of church closings is a common scenario in the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholic church structure places property ownership in the hands of the bishop.

Not so for Lutherans. Yet in recent years, Lutheran “bishops” are assuming the powers of the Roman Catholic “bishops” and declaring churches closed without the participation of the congregations. As resistance builds, the process becomes uglier and more heavy-handed.

The true measure of a denomination's strength may be how it treats its smallest congregations. Declaring churches closed is asking for trouble. Churches with any life must resist if they are to act on their faith and beliefs — which is what religion is all about.

Once lines are drawn, parishes that resist become pariahs. Gossip starts. No one wants to be involved.

How does a denomination guarantee that determinations of viability are about the parish and not about the denomination?

More congregations will face the mysterious “viability” test. They may not even realize they are being tested.

The signs that this may be happening are

  • no cooperation from the denomination in finding pastoral help
  • pastors sent as caretakers who do nothing to grow the congregation
  • failure to communicate with the congregations (letters unanswered, phone calls not returned)
  • in general, the absence of the denomination until . . . .

Once a congregation is labeled “not viable” word spreads. There is little a congregation can do to change minds. Pastors will disappear and the congregation will find themselves limited to working with lay talents and retired pastors whose careers can no longer be influenced by the denomination.

Any measure of a congregation’s strength made by a denomination, itself in fiscal crisis, must be questioned.

Redeemer is notorious at this point.

One clergy member commented that closing Redeemer doesn’t matter. “There are plenty of churches in that neighborhood.” There were plenty of churches. The Congregational Church on Midvale closed and the building is now the office of a Lutheran Social Service agency. The Methodist Church closed. The Baptist Church closed. The members of St. James the Less were evicted by the diocese. St. Bridget’s is endangered.

The Presbyterian Church faced challenges but has managed to revive their ministry with the support of their denomination. The Episcopal Church, located on a remote street, was assisted by SEPA Synod in creating a ministry plan. Yes, the same synod that determined their own ministry in the heart of East Falls was not viable was assisting the Episcopalian congregation on the fringe of the neighborhood.

At the time Synod declared “synodical administration” on Redeemer, it was the fastest growing church in East Falls.

Decisions are being made about neighborhood ministries by people who know nothing about the neighborhoods.

Money is the issue in East Falls. Redeemer was a small congregation with cash. When Bishop Almquist targeted Redeemer in 1998, we had received a $300,000 endowment a few years prior. We resisted his action successfully, but we became a pariah parish.

In 2007, after nearly a decade of Synod neglect. we still had operating funds and a rented property. The congregation was active and growing. Synod was operating on a recurring six-figure deficit budget. With giving down, the only way out was to look for congregations to close.

Five years after being declared not viable, and more than two years after being physically locked out of their house of worship, Redeemer still meets weekly for worship. Redeemer still develops mission projects which are gaining national interest, if not interest from the denomination. Redeemer remains viable. Imagine what might have been done with the support and respect of church leaders.

One might think that mission and scripture play a role. Love, helping the needy, reconciliation, forgiveness, sacrifice . . . just words when denominations attack their congregations.

Synods must solve their own fiscal problems . . and not on the backs of its small neighborhood churches. The true measure of a denomination’s strength may be how it treats its smallest congregations.  

SEPA member churches, find a voice . . . or you may be next.

Reviewing the Concept of Transformational Ministries

A review of the book
Transformational Regional Bodies,
by Roy M. Oswald and Claire S. Burkat

This review, written by Judith Gotwald, is offered from the viewpoint of one congregation experiencing its leadership philosophies.

In 2001, Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod co-authored a book with Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute. The book, entitled Transformational Regional Bodies: Promote Congregational Health, Vitality and Growth, is a puzzling book, filled with typos, conflicting premises that go unnoticed by the authors, and a few good ideas. It gives the illusion of being scholarly but in fact builds on hypotheticals and limited firsthand parish leadership experience.

Ten years after publication might be a good time to evaluate this book.Why review this book ten years after publication? The co-author, Claire Burkat, was elected to lead a judicatory in 2006, five years after this book’s publication. The advice she gives in this book has been put to the test under her leadership with results the book does not foresee. While the book uses many “success” illustrations, there are notable failures which go unrecorded.

The opening pages contain a detailed analysis of two opposing judicatories it says are in the American Northwest. Pages of statistics of one’s failure and the other’s successes are impressive,  . . . but both examples are entirely hypothetical – statistics and all!

The book is written for middle management in the church. From the beginning the authors recognize that some denominations have no such thing as middle management and the book assumes middle management has powers its judicatories may not allow. The book spends no time discussing the judicatory’s relationship with any controlling influences, whether they be constitutional or structural. In this book, middle management IS the highest authority.

For example, the Lutheran Church (ELCA), by its own definition, is comprised of “interdependent” organizations. There is to be equality and respect among Lutheran congregants, congregations and leadership at every level. Constitutions mention congregational consent frequently. Although this is still the premise of Lutheranism, this book is a blueprint for ignoring its traditions and historical structure. Currently and perhaps following the advice of this book, middle judicatory is running roughshod over member churches, forcing closure against congregational wishes and seizing property and assets — all in the name of “transformation.”

The foundation of the book appears to accept a church view that is sharply divided into unnecessary factions — clergy vs laity. Much of the focus is on congregational relations with clergy, making it seem that congregations exist to support clergy, first and foremost.  Most congregations think pastors serve congregations. The premise is in conflict with reality from the start.

The management of church relations as described by this book assumes a congregation’s dependency upon clergy that is not healthy. The book teaches casting the weak and troubled to the side for the sake of judicatory health and staff/time/resource management.

 Do the many interim/redevelopment/bridge pastors operating in congregations work for the congregations who are paying them or for SEPA?“You do not have the luxury of giving everyone who asks for help whatever time you have available. Some tough decisions need to be made as to where your Regional Body is going to invest time, energy, and resources. Thinking in terms of TRIAGE is a most responsible thing to do at the present time. Congregations that will die within the next ten years should receive the least amount of time and attention. They should receive time that assists them to die with celebration and dignity. Offer these congregations a ‘caretaker’ pastor who would give them quality palliative care until they decide to close their doors.  It is the kind of tough-minded leadership that will be needed at the helm if your organization is to become a Transformational Regional Body.”

Turn your back on people asking for help is their advice for church leadership. Should this philosophy spread from the church to all struggling people in the world, the advice would be catastrophic. Expect the same within the church. This outlook is devoid of Christianity and the biblical imperatives to love one another. Should the Regional Bodies share this philosophy with the hundreds of small churches who vote for them and send them support offerings, they would surely be sent packing. Do the congregations targeted for death know that the pastor they are paying is there only to help them die? If not, the judicatory is behaving in a deceitful manner. The atmosphere created in a judicatory that practices this philosophy is bound to be fraught with distrust. The purpose of a Regional Body is not to make their jobs easier. Congregations must be confident that they can turn to their Regional Bodies for help. It is a key reason for them to be in relationship with any Regional Body.

The authors spend a great deal of time sympathizing with over-burdened clergy. A long list of statistics details burdens borne by clergy, including long hours, stress on family, burnout, etc.

There is no corresponding list or study cited on the burdens of the laity who work, uncompensated, under the same conditions and with no support system in the church. There are only passing references to the harm clergy can cause in a congregation. There is little recognition that whatever damages might occur will remain problematic for the laity for years, long after clergy pack up their problems and move to greener pastures.

The language of the book reveals something akin to distain for church members. For example, in discussing the training of clergy, the authors write:

“We as a church . . . will send men and women into battle against the principalities and powers of darkness within any congregation and expect that none of them to get wounded, seriously demoralized, stressed beyond their capacity to cope, experience family breakup, tempted beyond their capacity to resist, or be rendered mentally and emotionally unstable.”

If this medieval view weren’t bad enough, the authors think things are going to get worse – and it is going to be the fault of the laity. They write:

“It is our prediction that we are going to encounter more and more congregational conflict the further we move into the 21st century. It is clear that the stress levels of individuals within our culture are steadily rising with more and more pressure being placed on people within the corporate world. These people are going to bring their stress to their church and create more stress for their clergy.

All ye who are heavy laden — go elsewhere?

 Statistics show that most people  belong to smaller churches and that corporate churches are high on burnout. Perhaps judicatories need to pay  more attention, not less,  to small congregations. The authors judge congregations by size, the smallest being the “family church” and “pastoral church.” Most congregations fit into one of these two categories, but it is clear that the authors see these categories as undesirable and that small churches exist to become bigger and better. All that stands between them and becoming a wealthier “program church” or “corporate church” is the laity which, in their view, have a bad habit of focusing on their own spiritual needs.

They describe family churches as being controlled by a matriarch or patriarch and discuss ways pastors can be prepared to thwart their power. A healthier Christian way of looking at a family church with strong lay leadership might be to teach pastors to work with the skills innate in any church which has survived for decades with minimal help from clergy. Without strong lay leaders they would be lost — but perhaps that’s part of the transformational plan. Control! Oswald and Burkat spend no time discussing empowering the congregation. Their primary view is centered on the role of pastors and forcing congregations to feed into leadership from above.

At one point the authors recommend, “that Regional Bodies employ tough-minded, intentional Interim Pastors to intervene in their most important congregations.” (We can only assume that the “important” congregations are the bigger and richer congregations.) A translation might be “These congregations need a no-nonsense pastor to tell them what to do.” This seems to be at odds with the very process they describe for visioning and working with congregations and which they admit requires the consent of the people.

There are more troubling dichotomies in the book. The authors explain that as the book was nearing completion, the founder and president emeritus of Alban Institute, Loren Mead, produced a report they felt compelled to include in draft form as an appendix. It is so important, they state in the early pages of the book, that it should be read first.

It is, indeed, an interesting report and perhaps the best part of the book. Unlike the rest of the book, the laity is treated with respect. Loren Mead writes:

“Every congregation has a handful (hopefully more) of lay people who are opinion-leaders in the community as well as the church. When these lay people have had good opportunities to know and participate in important work of the judicatory, they will move the climate of the congregation toward the judicatory. Note that I say ‘important work,’ not ‘busy work’ or powerless and endless task forces. Judicatory executives need to be recruiting such leaders, listening to them and engaging with them. Efforts to that end will bring life to the relationship between congregation and judicatory, and will be an asset when there is a change of pastorate or some other congregational crisis.”

While it’s unclear why a change of pastorate is classified as a crisis, Mead’s thoughts are well-formed.

Mead also comments on the use of consultants in evaluating congregations in transition. He stresses that consultants are hired and paid by the congregation and should be responsible to the congregation. He writes:

“Judicatories often want consultants to operate as staff, carrying out the intentions of the judicatory. Such an understanding assumes that the judicatory controls what will happen. This may be in the best interests of the judicatory, but it violates the integrity of the congregation. In the long run, I think this is very bad for the connection between congregations and judicatories. It is dishonest.”

Mead’s advice is commonly ignored in SEPA Synod under Claire Burkat’s leadership and that of her predecessor. SEPA Synod uses consultants, requiring the congregations to pay for their services while the consultants report to SEPA. This book devotes a good portion to Physes, a consulting firm used in just this way by SEPA. This section of the book reads like an advertisement. The book extols Physes as an organization of great integrity, yet this “dishonest” methodology was used with SEPA, Physes and at least one member congregation, Redeemer, in the late 1990s, just prior to the publication of this book.

You might think  that a book recommending ignoring churches that ask for help and advising that they be given only a “caretaker” pastor might devote a chapter on  what that entails.  Not in this book! Just as Mead predicted, it damaged relations between Redeemer and the judicatory. It was not the only such incident. The SEPA relationship with consultants seems to be so entrenched that when Redeemer congregation independently hired a consultant to lead a workshop (which went very well) the congregation felt betrayed to learn that the consultant filed a report with SEPA without the congregation’s knowledge or permission.

Responsibility is just as murky with other SEPA-fostered relationships. Do the many interim/redevelopment/bridge pastors operating in congregations work for the congregations who are paying them or for SEPA? Discussions with both clergy and lay members reveal that these relationships are often strained because this is unclear.

Claire Burkat, in her role as bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, has ignored Mead’s excellent advice and much of her own. From her earliest days in office, she found ways to bypass local leadership and constitutional provisions to achieve Synodical goals. Her policies have encouraged church closings at an alarming rate and created long-term contention that has been damaging to Christian community and eroded trust for the judicatory. Her approach, devoid of love, has sparked numerous law suits which may outlast her tenure. Studies should be done on the real effects of this approach to ministry, but it is hard to interview churches experiencing modern excommunication.

Transforming Regional Bodies should be widely read in SEPA Synod, where statistics are, with few exceptions, following a downward trend. (Redeemer, forced into closure by the co-author of this book, was one of the few growing churches. Unbeknown to us, we had been placed on the ten-year death track. During that time, unbeknown to synod, we grew fivefold — but too late to change Synod’s tunnel-visioned view.) 

It is hard to interview congregations which have been allowed to die, but it is still worth the effort.Regional Bodies must rediscover that they exist to serve in a Christlike fashion. A study of this book’s ideas as compared to practice might reveal that it is the Regional Bodies that need transforming.