Leadership in Struggling Churches

I was recently asked about my experience with struggling congregations, the strategies for meeting their needs, and the possibility of change.

It has been a while, but probably the best example of the situation they described was also the first parish I served. Located in northeastern Ohio, I served a small Methodist congregation of roughly 150 people. The area struggled with a mass exodus of industry. As a result, young families were moving away. Graying landowners resisted growing property taxes used to support a school system that served a shrinking number of children and that, in turn, deepened the spiral. The dynamics and demographics were typical of the region at that time.

In order to combat the challenges, pastoral care and the nurture of relationships were paramount. Activities in the church fostered a sense of community. A rural parish cooperative of ten churches provided support for youth activities that could not be sustained by any of the ten churches in the area. And sermons were designed to engage the parish in active, lively exploration of the Christian faith and life.

The result?

We held our own numerically and the vitality of parish life remained high. That was no small achievement under the circumstances. I followed a much-loved predecessor who was from the area and, given the dynamics, there were absolute limits to the progress that could be made.

That's not a unique place in the scheme of things. In fact, parishes of that size and smaller are becoming increasingly common across the American spiritual landscape. The most recent results available from the National Congregations Study reports that 59 percent of all congregations (or 177,000 churches) have an average Sunday attendance of between 7 and 99 people. Thirty-five percent or 105,000 churches range between 100 and 499. Only 6 percent of the nation's churches belong to the rarified heights of 500 or more in attendance on an average Sunday. (Stay tuned, the 2012 study is on its way and I doubt that the picture will be any more encouraging.)

Those figures and my own experience have convinced me that there are certain things that clergy and their lay leaders should bear in mind as they shoulder the responsibility for churches that are struggling to stay alive:

  1. First, no one size fits all (see last week's column on Tube Socks, Cookie Cutters and Catalysts). There is more than one possible approach to dealing with the issues that force parishes to struggle.
  2. Practice makes perfect. We need the freedom to try more than one approach to nurturing a parish in dire straits. If at first you don't succeed, try something else.
  3. There is a time and place to try other strategies: the consolidation of parishes and the development of larger, regional ministries, for example.
  4. Numbers are not the whole story. They may or may not tell us something about the health of a parish. In a growing area a church that doesn't grow along with it may be the problem. In an area that is stagnate or shrinking demographically, attendance figures may say little at all about the parish. In the final analysis, however, numbers are not the only or the most important index of a parish's faithfulness to the Gospel.

Finally, both the members and leaders of congregations that are struggling should remember this: There are absolute limits to what can be expected and what you can do. The demographics of some areas make it not only difficult, but impossible to grow a parish numerically.

Some years ago, the University of Kent's Robin Gill wrote a book that quickly went out of print and is now back in a fresh edition entitled, The Myth of the Empty Church. It's about the church in the UK and, sadly, I know of no similar work devoted to a study of the church in the U.S. But I suspect that Gill's thesis applies here, as it does in his own country.

Gill notes that far from accurately remembering churches that were full, many churches were planted in places where the demographics were already shifting and the pews never were filled. In other words, Gill observes, the individual congregations to which so many people point in order to offer visual confirmation that the church is shrinking were never full in the first place.

This doesn't obviate the statistics being collected on average Sunday attendance, of course. The church is shrinking. And some churches will inevitably yield to or merge with other congregations.

But spare a thought for small congregations where lay leaders and their clergy are told to make whole something that never has been whole. It is far more realistic—and healthy—to register the realities within which we are called into faithful partnership with Christ, than it is to struggle with the ghost of a grandeur that never was.

Be gentle with yourselves. Do what you can. Trust God with the church. It's been smaller before. The original numbers ran between 2 and 12.