While forty years of major mergers in American Protestantism ended in the 1980s, in recent decades nearly all major US denominations have declined. From the Episcopal Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, membership numbers and denominational loyalty have diminished across the theological spectrum. But as national denominational connections have frayed, congregations’ local and regional ties are surging. Affiliation patterns are changing.
Eighteen years ago, I surveyed 100 congregations in the American southwest regarding their experience of change and conflict in the previous five years. Only one change was negatively associated with conflict—meaning that it made conflict less likely. Congregations that started a “new community outreach” in the previous five years were less likely to report a significant conflict than similar congregations that did not.
How can congregational leaders make needed changes without incurring wrenching conflict? In my previous post, Why Lone Rangers Always Fail, I stressed the importance of leading change as part of a team. While leading change as part of a Team is the first ingredient in successful change, it is not sufficient. Today I want to add three more ingredients to the mix.
Leading a successful change process in a congregation, even a very traditional one, is possible. But to do so, a leader must earn the right to make that change and partner with others to make it happen. Lone-ranger leaders who ride into Dodge and transform an entire community exist only in the movies. In the reality of congregational life, we need a patient posse.
History’s most transformational change agents—Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others—engaged consistently in three kinds of activity: they built movements, they spent years working for change, and they demonstrated a deep love for the individuals and societies they were striving to change.
In March of this year Gallup released survey results showing that fewer than half of Americans belong to a religious congregation—the lowest percentage ever recorded. Yet despite declining participation, congregations offer valuable gifts to their members and their surrounding communities.
Every congregation is unique. It is located in a specific place, has a particular history, and evidences a unique culture. Yet dynamics and patterns of behavior recur across denominations, polities, and locations. Following are a set of congregational constants that I’ve observed across religious traditions. Each reader can decide whether they are true of your congregation, and if so, how they might help you to become a more effective leader.