I consult mostly with congregations of the former Protestant mainline. Occasionally someone asks why I continue with this work when it seems so clear that the end is coming—not just for these congregations but for their denominations as well. I agree that the end is coming—not of ekklesia, only of the form of congregational life so many of us grew up with. Embedded in that form are bits of our life together that I am convinced we and God can use to create something new if we allow ourselves to play.
Being a part of the church does not feel safe right now. For many clergy and lay leaders, it may feel like the hardest work we’ll ever do.
Church was already hard before the pandemic because the church we’ve known—the church many of us graduated from seminary thinking we knew how to serve—was already disappearing. We used to think we knew what our job was, but the things we know how to do aren’t working anymore, and no one yet knows what will work in the future. We’re in a constant state of chaos, and no matter what we do, someone will always get upset.
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.