When were your glory days? Pose this question and a congregation’s leaders will often tell stories of high attendance, engaged participation, and buildings that couldn’t hold it all. Glory-era memories are almost always recounted as blissful, happy times of pure goodness. However, parts of the story rarely get told—including how the seeds of decline may have been planted amidst the goodness.
In the third season of the Netflix series The Crown, Prince Philip meets with clergy attending a retreat at a newly-established “center of recovery and renewal” on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Dean Robin Woods is facilitating the retreat; I’m sure he expects the prince to give a word of welcome and encouragement. Maybe he hopes participants will be pleased by the mere presence of a prince.
I don’t know why it took so long, but finally the U.S. wealth gap has become a topic of political discussion. The conversation is not easy, in part because most of us rarely talk with people outside our economic group. Churches and synagogues—though most draw only from a small slice of the total spectrum—are still potentially places where richer and poorer people meet as equals. By handling these meetings well, we can help create support for public policies and private actions that promote equality.
Some of the congregations I interact with are growing, but most are in decline. Membership, attendance, energy, enthusiasm, and financial support shrink slowly over time. Some of these declining congregations—the ones who think they can’t be a church without their building, for example, or who want to keep doing exactly what they’ve always done but hope that someone else will step up to take over the work—leave me praying for a quick end. But others—the easygoing ones that are adaptable, kind to each other, and generous with their neighbors—are a delight.
Meaning-making and belonging are core human needs. For parents and others who care about children’s future, another urgent need is to pass along our values to the young. While not every congregation excels at meeting all three of these needs, nearly every congregation tries. How can congregations respond to those needs both for their members and for those who are now looking elsewhere?
Chaos is a natural by-product of innovation. Innovation happens best in conditions of upheaval, disturbance, and dissonance. However, people expect their leaders to keep things calm, predictable, and orderly. How do we coax order out of chaos without squelching innovation?
We live in a culture that trains us to think of problems as “our problems.” As pastors, too often, we think that we must figure out how to grow the church, make sure the budget is balanced, and ensure that programs are well attended. I certainly did. Many of my colleagues feel the same way. It is a heavy burden to bear.