What I No Longer Believe about Congregations

 © Dr Julian Paren CCL

© Dr Julian Paren CCL

by Susan Nienaber

For most of my consulting practice, I “held certain truths to be self-evident.” I used to believe, for instance, that many congregations had declined so far they could not possibly revitalize—but I have changed my mind.

Most of us have been exposed to theories about congregational life-cycles, most of which go something like this: Congregations, like other organizations, begin or start up. They grow and stabilize, and then they decline. If the leaders do not make substantial changes to initiate a new life-cycle, the congregation will continue to decline, and eventually will die.

For many years, I subscribed to the belief that as a congregation is declining it will eventually reach “a threshold of change.” If the congregation slips beneath this threshold of change it will not be capable of revitalizing because it has lost most, if not all, of its internal resources. In fact, efforts to try and get the congregation to revitalize will be futile, and will, in fact, be cruel, like telling a hospice patient to pick up their bed and walk.

While not every congregation has the capacity to be resurrected from decline or death, many more congregations have that potential than I used to imagine. Let me share the story of one tiny congregation and the many lessons it has taught me:

Ogilvie United Methodist Church is located about 75 miles north of Minneapolis. According to the 2013 census, Ogilvie is a village of 361 souls. It is part of a two-point charge served for just over two years by a competent, well-liked pastor. When I first entered my role as a district superintendent, the pastor reached out to me and shared that the spring of 2014 had been rough. The congregation was hopeless and exhausted. They were down to about 12 in average worship attendance and had hit a new low of $35 in the checking account. Taking a look at the folks who were gathered there I was quite convinced that this church would close or be absorbed by a neighboring congregation.

Instead, a miracle happened. Sixteen months later they are worshipping somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 on Sunday mornings. They have all the money that they need. This summer when a neighboring little church closed, they gained a volunteer youth leader and ten kids. They have a clear mission and purpose in their community and I was surprised when I met with them this summer that they physically look like a different bunch of people. How did this transformation happen?

According to Pastor Rob, three things have been key:

  1. These folks have an unshakable faith: They faced the uncertainty of the church’s future instead of running from it. It was almost a crisis of faith. From doubt and uncertainty to faith in God’s ability to turn things around…they believed that though the church had been in the Ogilvie community for almost 120 years that God still had a purpose for their presence for many years to come. Prayer was a big part of their renewal. We brought in a consultant who listened carefully and narrowed down their options to four possibilities. That made things less overwhelming and kept them from wasting more time generating pie-in-the-sky options. After looking at their options, they started to pray.
  2. These folks have an unconquerable will: Because of their unshakable faith, they developed an unconquerable will. God put within their hearts a “never give up” mentality. In fact, they were very clear with me as their denominational executive that closing was not an option. I was very doubtful that they could revitalize. Their strong-willed natures resulted in the decision to keep being missional in their efforts, believing that God would bless their work.
  3. These folks have a teachable spirit: They were willing to listen to new ideas from others. They were willing to look at their methods of ministry and make adjustments. They were willing to try new ministry ideas. They were willing to step out of the box and not cling to the ways things had always been done.

What’s working from my perspective? I also believe that all transformational work begins in prayer because it is about God transforming and changing us. As my boss Bishop Bruce Ough has said, “We cannot manage our way into revitalization, we can only be led into it by God’s Spirit.” I believe that this little congregation’s intention and commitment to continue being missional has made a huge difference. They took their greatest asset which was food and instead of using that gift to create fundraisers to pay the light bill they used that gift to create a free meal for the Ogilvie community. Many people move to Ogilvie to recover from a financial crisis, job loss and foreclosure. The church offered its gifts to fulfill an unmet need for others, and God blessed that.

I recently heard Rev. John Edgar, pastor of The Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio, talk about “The Divine Economy of Abundance.” This is an asset-based approach that focuses on people and connections instead of needs and problems. The essence of it is the belief that whatever we offer up to God, no matter how small, God will bless that and use it to transform lives. This is exactly what the folks at Ogilvie did. They stopped using their gifts selfishly as a way to keep themselves going and instead they gave it away to those in need.

So I no longer believe a congregation can “slip beneath the threshold of change.” I have come to believe that with God all things are truly possible. I have also learned through many years of working with congregations that you can’t go into a period of recovery and revitalization pretending to know what the outcome will be. It is critically important to set aside one’s own beliefs about how this will go and what it will look like in the end. It is important to cooperate with the Spirit.

A former senior consultant for the Alban Institute, Susan Nienaber embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She currently serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, dialogue, crisis, personnel, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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