For perhaps the first time in American history, more congregations are disappearing every year than are being born. But even in decline, some are finding new ways to serve people and communities.
Who Are We and Why Are We Here?
When he was running as a third-party vice presidential candidate in 1992, Admiral James Stockdale was widely mocked for asking at the beginning of the VP debate, “Who am I? Why am I here?” The timing of the question was admittedly odd, but the question itself is spot on. Every individual, and every congregation, needs to ask itself such questions periodically. The questions of identity and purpose are essential to effective congregational life.
Sustainable Change Comes from Within
By middle age, most of us realize the futility of efforts to force another person to change. Efforts to transform another human being—spouse, partner, friend, colleague, or child—generally shatter on the rocks of a simple reality: sustainable change comes from within.
For congregational leaders and consultants, this principle mandates doing change with people rather than to them. Pressure from the top or from outside may accomplish short-term adjustments, but long-term change comes from within.
Localism Flourishes As Denominations Decline
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.
Want Less Conflict? Look Out the Window!
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.
Four Ingredients of Successful Congregational Change
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.
Why Lone Rangers Always Fail
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.