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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Is the Former Mainline Finally Seeing Its Hook Echo?

NEXRAD Rradar of an EF2 Tornado

If you’re from the Midwest as I am, you can probably recognize a “hook echo” on the TV weather—a hook shape visible on radar in the lower portion of a storm. A hook echo is a classic sign that a tornado is imminent. It is often confirmed by spotters on the ground. Or by you, standing on your front porch—it’s a Midwest thing!

Today, we’re seeing a similar collision of forces—a hook echo—in the lives of many congregations.

An Unstable Atmosphere

Congregations live in an unstable atmosphere produced by the growth of the unaffiliated as a religious category, decreased participation even among active members, and the Covid pandemic. Declines in attendance, giving, and volunteering finally are colliding with increased costs (and especially the increased cost of owning older buildings) to produce a vortex of church closures and church building sales.

One sign of this collision of opposing forces is Ellen Lindner’s estimate that between 2015 and 2030, some 100,000 churches and ancillary church buildings will be sold (see Mark Elsdon’s Gone for Good? Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transitions). As each church grapples with its own version of this threat, a sense of urgency is finally fueling planning conversations.

Creating Urgency

John Kotter’s seminal book Leading Change lists urgency as the first step in institutional change, and lack of urgency as the #1 institutional error. Urgency comes naturally, Kotter says, when an organization assesses its competitive situation, market position, financial performance, and technological capabilities and sees that its future is at risk.

Without urgency, people lack the motivation to take new steps, says Kotter. These steps include gathering a “guiding coalition,” developing a vision for the organization, and communicating the vision. But urgency is the necessary firststep, because, as Kotter put it, “Without motivation, people won’t help and the effort goes nowhere.”

Urgency is so important to successful change efforts some leaders intentionally stir it up. One district manager, Kotter reports, commissioned a first-ever customer survey and made the findings public because he knew that, as a result, something would have to change.

Fortunately, church leaders who are paying attention to the current unstable atmosphere do not have to manufacture a crisis. They are already experiencing the effects of competition from newer, bigger churches, declining participation among their own members, disinterest on the part of younger generations, and revenue that is not keeping up.

Urgency Begets New Ideas

Crises require new thought: facing financial crisis, some congregations are beginning to reconsider their relationship to their buildings. In the last two years, I’ve worked with several congregations who decided to do something different, including:

  • A rural, small-town congregation with a few older members decided to close but, as a last act of mission and with the permission of the judicatory, gave their building to the local Community Foundation for use as a community center. Because they had maintained the building over the years, it now hosts an exciting array of gatherings and performances.
  • A small congregation in a mid-sized rural community could no longer afford its building but didn’t want to close. With the permission of the judicatory, they sold the building and arranged with a nearby, larger congregation to “nest” in that congregation’s chapel, using the proceeds of the sale to pay rent and provide their members with ongoing pastoral care and preaching services.
  • An urban congregation with a turn-of-the-century building decided to explore the possibility of transferring ownership to a secular non-profit that could find community partners to share the space and apply for grants that a religious organization would not qualify, all with the understanding that the congregation could continue to meet in its fam.iliar worship space.
  • A suburban congregation with three buildings—an “original” building, an attached larger and newer sanctuary-fellowship-education building, and a house—is renting parts of their space to community arts groups for now and may ultimately sell the newer building for community uses while keeping the original building for themselves, reconverting a little-used multipurpose room to its original use as their sanctuary.

Tornados are never a good thing. My parents survived the EF5 tornado that destroyed a third of Parkersburg, Iowa, in 2008. I can attest that businesses were uprooted, history and traditions blown into surrounding counties, dreams destroyed just as they were beginning. Even with all the advances in weather radar and warning systems, lives were lost.

Picking Up the Pieces

I can also attest that after the horror and the chaos, the community came together to clean up and start over. They reimagined, they built differently, and they found new life.

A hook echo is on the radar screen for many of our churches, warning that a bad storm may on its way. But as the storm-watchers tell us, if we’re prepared—if we grab a helmet, keep our phones charged, and put on our shoes—we’ll be able to emerge after the storm, ready to imagine and build something new.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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