by Dan Hotchkiss
It was an awkward moment. I stood in a glorious stone room with the remnant of a once-large congregation, doing my best to play the neutral as I facilitated their planning conversation. We went round and round, till finally an older gent stood up and nailed me. “Do you think we can do it?” he said. “We can talk and make good plans for turning things around—but by now you know us pretty well. Do you think we can do it?”
It was a good question. As I looked around the room, I saw a familiar mix of people: long-time members whose idea of progress sounded a lot like the 1950s or the 1960s; newcomers attracted by the grandeur of the building and the smallness of the congregation; and specialists (musicians, mostly, in this case) passionate to hold on to their small plots of turf.
What bound them together? The building. A few conventionalities of faith and practice. A lot of family tradition, and some truly touching care for one another. And the music. Each person had, for the moment, a sufficient rationale for staying. But was there energy enough to drive a turnaround? I frankly doubted it.
As congregations shrink, the members who would be the most help turning them around often are among the first to go: the energetic, outward-focused people with an urgent sense of purpose and good skills for group decision-making. Those left behind have different gifts: loyalty, consistency, steadfastness—and, too often, some bad habits like divisiveness, backbiting, and nostalgia that make it hard for them to help with a turnaround.
Susan Nienaber, an Alban senior consultant who has worked in many high-conflict congregations, says, “It’s very easy to leave church these days. Leaving is easy, staying can be harder, especially when conflict has driven part of the congregation out—sometimes in a way that recycles the conflict over and over again, each time causing more folks to exit.”
Those who remain often disparage those who leave (and vice versa), making it pointless to decide whose motives are more pure. There are some healthy reasons for leaving—the desire for an effective faith community, for instance; and noble reasons for staying, like determination to preserve what is good in a beloved place. Over time, those who are left behind will differ from the ones who left.
It’s a sort of reverse natural selection—survival of the least fit. It can happen through repeated conflict, as Susan describes. Or it can happen by avoiding conflict: a group that decides harmony is more important than vitality silently drives out the very people who could help it to revive.
Declining congregations often feel obliged to fill a long roster of board and committee seats, a frustrating exercise that can accelerate the downward spiral. Having begged people to occupy those slots, you then have to accept what they decide to do with them; you’re left with what one wag (mashing up Karl Marx with George W. Bush) called “the dictatorship of the willing.” Entrenched, well-meaning fiefholders call the shots—hardly a formula for concerted action!
If you are discouraged with your congregation and wondering whether it is time to exercise the exit option, it may help to know about some things you can do that can improve the odds—for you and for the congregation. It helps, for instance, simply to realize that like many others “left behind,” you may be better suited to maintaining a congregation than to reviving one. There is nothing wrong or shameful about this, and it can be extremely helpful to be conscious of it, and to accept the limits of your role.
An outside leader, for example, may be the key to breaking a downward spiral. As a longtime member, you are unlikely to be that leader—who is more apt to be a clergy or lay newcomer, or possibly a consultant or denominational staff person—but you can use your credibility to persuade others to give that leader time and space to work. And you can run interference when, inevitably, criticism comes.
If a new worship service is part of the plan, for instance, it may be better to initiate that service mostly with new people—keeping old-timers at a distance till the service gets established. That is not an easy thing for a new leader to suggest—and the support of a few well-established members can make all the difference.
If you have survived a series of intense conflicts, you’ve probably contracted some had habits. But hopefully you’ve gained at least one gift: you know and recognize your congregation’s special ways of starting a fight. You may be able to nip the next one in the bud. I’ll never forget the governing board of a deeply troubled Georgia church. As the clouds of war began to gather—for the umpteenth time—a frantic board member said, “We always do this. Why do we always do this?” And an elder lady, speaking for the first time that evening, said, “You’re right, we do. Let’s don’t.” And they didn’t. You could be that lady!
It is not easy to be left behind. You have to face the very realistic possibility that you will see your congregation close its doors for good. The most important way that you can help avoid this is to stand aside and support fresh leadership.
At the same time, it’s good to be clear about what you desire and need from your congregation. Often it turns out to be something rather simple; for example, reassurance that you will be buried out of your familiar building. Or that the liturgy you love won’t be abandoned altogether in your lifetime.
Some congregations have found peace and renewal by giving such assurances to long-time members, and then keeping faith with them. In return, new leaders and new people are allowed to see if new wine can, after all, be poured successfully into an old wineskin.
This article was first published in Congregations, fall 2013, and republished in Alban Weekly.