Most of us who do church work are familiar with the notion of the congregational lifecycle. It’s a bell-shaped curve: starting at the left with birth, congregations move through formation to reach peak stability. Then they start to move back down toward decline and ultimately death—unless we do something to change the curve.
A congregation I love is in the throes of recasting itself.
It has known who it is for decades—a healthy, largely well-to-do mix of young and old members who have learned from each other and loved each other while worshipping in a traditional form and leaning in a progressive direction. But now this solid, celebrated congregation is not working as well as it used to. Attendance was down even before the pandemic, the number of giving units is down, there are fewer young families, and of course no one knows whether people will return post-COVID. Members are beginning to sense that something must change.
Every busy person knows that if we want to add something new to our schedule, we need to let something else go. (You know this, right?) Religious institutions face the same dilemma—unless blessed with unlimited dollars for additional staff, they know that programs and projects need to end in order to start something new. Letting go is hard, though. It disappoints members, who are usually not only fans but donors. How does a church decide when to let go?
Here’s what laypersons need to know: Your ministers may look OK, but they are not. All ministers, even those who thrive on challenges, are by now exhausted, anxious, and at least intermittently depressed. Ministers need affirmation and affection right now, but what they mostly need from you is that you manage expectations.
The coronavirus is horrifying, and sometimes it feels that congregations are not doing their best to meet the challenge. But there are signs that God is at work, helping us to learn and to transform ourselves.
I love being a Protestant minister. I believe in the “priesthood of all believers” and I’m deeply committed to my own Presbyterian denomination’s way of doing things “decently and in order.” But now, in the midst of this pandemic, I am increasingly concerned that, as good as we are at some ways of being the church, mainline Protestants have not sufficiently prepared believers to be religious at home.
It is too soon to create a definitive list of all the things we will have learned from this pandemic, but I’m clear about one thing—John Kotter was right that urgency does drive change. Under pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic and outrage over police violence against black people, congregations have made changes I thought I would never see. Will we be able to continue innovating when extreme urgency no longer forces us to do so?