Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Karen Sapio has been curating a conversation around ministry in long established congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.
by Charles Taylor Kerchner
I am an Elder, both chronologically and by office. Despite my 70+ years, I am much more excited by the church’s future possibilities than I am nostalgic about its past. And while I am energized by NEXT Church, I find it does not help me much in thinking about the future of my congregation.
Most of the church stories I’ve heard at NEXT Church gatherings have been tales of decline and rebirth: the shell of an old church inhabited by vital, younger clergy and members, small in number but large in spirit. Others tell of established churches with strong financial underpinning and the capacity to invest in new missions while maintaining the trappings of tradition. My church has not collapsed, but it is not resting on a huge endowment either.
Claremont Presbyterian Church, where my wife and I have worshiped for nearly 40 years, is an aging congregation in a suburban college town, declining in attendance and numbers of pledging families. Yet, it is spiritually, intellectually, and socially vital, perhaps more so than at any time in its recent past. In conventional terms, it is well led and well managed. Yet, I know where the trends lead.
I study organizations and institutions for a living and know that almost all organizations have a life cycle. Charles Handy—the British commentator and churchman—writes about intersecting sigmoid (S) curves. As the old organization reaches its peak and begins to decline, new possibilities emerge. For a brief time it has the resources to start and nourish new ventures. If it waits too long those resources are used up supporting the programs of the past, and a panic response sets in. People thrash about, desperately trying new things. New leadership is brought in promising a quick makeover. Our newspapers tell us about these organizations every day, and in many ways newspapers are these organizations.
The question is: How does an established church jump from the old curve to the new one before it’s too late? And how does NEXT Church help us do so?
Three thoughts about how it might:
First, tell triumphal and detailed stories. NEXT Church is not the remnant of a broken denomination; it’s the vanguard, or should be. It should possess and proclaim case studies of congregational growth and transformation. Cases both inspire and teach.
Second, don’t be afraid of the particulars. John Gardner, in his writing about education, warned against too lofty a view. In a society that values philosophy but not plumbing, he wrote, neither the theories nor the pipes will hold water. Thus, church leaders, and particularly lay leaders, need to connect the mundane details of organization and money to the larger quest for transformation.
Finally, intentionally bring more lay people into the mix. We need to be the agents of transformation, not just the object of it. Particularly elder Elders will tend to be nostalgic remembering the programs and activities that they grew up with. Push them past that. Older people can be very unsentimental, very good about letting go. They have to be. As one of the residents of a retirement community in our town put it, “dying is no big deal here.” And the secret that every successful development officer knows is that old people want to leave a legacy.
NEXT Church could help by creating processes that its member churches could use to help themselves see the future, imagine the rising curve. Organizational consultants construct scenarios to imagine the future, city planners and architects use charrettes, to allow people to construct the tangible aspects of places they want to live. NEXT Church could help by adapting these and other practices to the task of helping congregations move from the declining curve to the rising one.
Charles Taylor Kerchner is a Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at the Claremont Graduate University and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions.