How to thrive when your church/denomination is dying and everything you start is sabotaged

How to thrive when your church/denomination is dying and everything you start is sabotaged January 27, 2019
In most cases, the church is wasting precious time and capital attempting to redevelop dying institutions. This applies at every level, from the redevelopment work in local congregations, all the way up to denominations attempting to re-define themselves.

If an institution is in decline, it’s in decline. It’s going to die, and no amount of study and work on “future directions” or “LIFTing” the church is going to do a shred of good. In fact, trying to reverse things is a failure of good pastoral care. It’s like walking into hospice and slapping the patient on the face, shouting, “Hey, get up, there’s still life in you! Let’s make plans for the future!”

As much as I love my denomination, the ELCA, I honestly feel we witnessed something like this at our churchwide assembly in August. The organization put on a face of unity, rubber-stamped some pretty fascinating documents (in particular, one repudiating the doctrine of discovery), but then continued on afterwards with business as usual, with a public letter from the presiding bishop of the denomination that essentially eviscerated the repudiation document.

I’m not at all surprised at this. The ELCA event was a simulacrum, a copy of a copy of a copy of what we think we are. It was Oz with the curtain down. And as likable as Oz may be, once he’s exposed, you know the jig is up and a new story is on the horizon.

The same kinds of things that happen at the denominational level also happen at the congregational level. When anxiety over death presents itself, the institution hunkers down, dims the lights, and says, “We need to take care of ourselves now.”
But what do you do if you’re moving to the margins of a dying institution?
 
This is essentially the question I’ve been asking myself these days. I’m a pastor in this denomination, the ELCA, and I don’t really plan to leave, but I have been moving to the margins. I’ve moved to the margins geographically (I pastor in Arkansas). I’ve moved to the margins theologically (I’m more theologically conservative that the liberals but far more socially and politically leftist than the liberals, and definitely post-confessional in many of my core convictions). And I’ve moved to the margins of the denomination itself, aligning much more with reform movements like #decolonizeLutheranism and ELM and Reconciling Works.
As just one example, I actually went to our synod assembly this past spring, but mostly to staff a Reconciling Works table. I felt really awkward at the assembly itself, even marginal. I like the people there… I don’t know how or why I belong to the institution.
In my local congregation, we’ve gone through some similar shifts that make me wonder who we are… now. Certainly we’re still an ELCA congregation, and many would identify us as that. We have Lutheran in our name. And we’re not dying, though an exodus from our congregation a couple of years ago made us worry over our long-term health.
But after going through such a massive split, and staying (most pastors don’t stay… in fact, I’m still hoping to connect with some pastors who have stayed through and after a massive split in their congregation), we are a different organization than we used to be. In fact, on many levels we’re thriving in ways we never have before.
A lot of the resources you can find on church redevelopment (and they are legion) tend to apply to congregations that have been on a sustained downward trend that leaders want to reverse. But that’s not us. We’re on a slightly different course, one I’m trying to articulate in this post.
Is redevelopment worth it?
It’s no surprise there’s a huge market for church revitalization resources. There are far more existing churches and dying churches than there are new and growing churches, so of course the market for revitalization resources is massive.
It’s also no surprise that the majority of church growth is happening in newer churches. And equally no surprise that new churches frequently fail. So you can find plenty of books and resources and conferences on church planting.
But what fascinates me lately is neither redevelopment (which I think is wasted energy), nor new starts (which are hard), but the shape of the transition that needs to take place to move from one system to another. And I can’t do better at describing the shape of that transition than this quick video, so take six minutes and watch it.
 
If a ship is hurtling through space, it takes immense energy to reverse it’s trajectory. If it’s huge, and there’s limited fuel, it’s a lost cause.
It takes less energy to jump ship and slow down, so if there’s an escape pod available (or a spaceskin suit) and you’re low on fuel, the best option is to abandon ship, get all the escape pods together, put some energy into constructing a new ship, and then head off in a new direction.
Thing is, that’s no easy thing.
It takes quite a bit of skill to move around in outer space, assemble resources for an alternative trip, and then launch in a new direction. No wonder lots of new churches and ventures fail. It’s tricky.
However, if you are one of those who finds yourself at the margins (and wow do I ever!), then thinking through how to assemble your team of other marginals and strike out in a new direction is totally worth it, even if the attempts fail multiple times.

Practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or the center of most groups, institutions, and cultures. (Richard Rohr

I’ve failed in Arkansas more than once. When I first moved here, I tried to facilitate our congregation going multi-site in order to develop a campus ministry or new faith community. It didn’t work out.

Which isn’t the same as saying it wasn’t worth doing. It totally was. The time we invested, the work we did, the lives that were changed, all of that was worth it. We just didn’t “launch” the new.

Then this past year, I found myself on the margins again (more culturally than congregationally), this time around refugee resettlement. So we started again, this time with a group of like-minded individuals. I didn’t try to get my whole congregation to sponsor refugee resettlement. Instead, we built a non-profit.

Over time, we discovered hundreds of people passionate for resettlement in our state, with volunteer leaders willing to form a self-directed work-team that did everything necessary to successfully apply to become a new refugee resettlement site, and as of this writing the organization, Canopy NWA, is poised to launch this fall with the staff and funding it needs to resettle refugees in Northwest Arkansas.

All of us involved in the ministry didn’t try to get our whole current institutions to get on board…. instead, we found ourselves at the margins, and got together and started building a new ship headed in a different direction.

It hasn’t always been easy. I find myself having to conduct two different kinds of pastoral ministry in the meantime. Sometimes the work we’re doing with Canopy causes anxiety among the existing systems–in the congregation, in the community, in the state. This is where the pioneer/hospice concept carries so much value. There’s ministry to do in both contexts. Among the group launching the new, the work is figuring out how to get the ship space-worthy so it can launch. That’s the pioneering work, and as a pioneer, it’s the stuff I most lean into.

But I also have to know how to be a pastor in the other context. I need to put on the hospice hat. In hospice, there’s pain, grief, anxiety, fear. The words of hope, the way of being present, is different. I’ve been learning I need to listen, sit down for longer one-on-ones, just be present. I know how to put on the hospice hat when I walk into an actual hospice facility. The reframing is important, and helps me know how to be present in multiple contexts.

So I would tell all redevelopers, and really all pastors, if they were willing to listen: If your organization is in decline (and almost all our churches are, statistically), then spend 50% of your time as pastor of the existing institution. Wear that hat, and wear it well. But then do the hard work of pioneering. Start something new, together with others, exercising the practical truth that is found at the margins.

This needs to happen at the denominational level also. Currently, the ELCA at its national level is a sick system, intractably caught up in its own mode, and really unlikely to recover. It needs hospice. The problem is, it keeps meeting every three years thinking it can rise from the ashes and enact change from the top and center. It keeps telling us, “We are church together,” when in fact it has little if no effective method for hearing from the margins and launching something new.

What the ELCA needs, even though institutionally it will fight it tooth and nail and implement many kinds of sabotage (not the least of which will be stonewalling, what I have started calling the Boozman strategy) to undermine it, is a movement of pioneers from the margins, who will gather, and then move, and will, if successful, eventually organize structurally in such a way that it becomes not a simulacrum of the current ELCA, but the next thing that moves on while the ELCA dies.

I have no doubt, based on the functioning of our current denominational headquarters, that things will go out in a spectacular fashion, with the leadership continuing to put on a show of listening to the margins while regularly buffering itself against any actual change. And increasingly I’m just fine with that.

But what I do want to do, and am inviting in this post, is to find ways to “live on the edge of the inside” (in Richard Rohr’s words), and discover who else is out there with me.

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