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?
The idea of having to let go is not unique to churches. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a leading expert on corporate innovation, talks about the need to let go in his book The Three-Box Solution. The second of his three boxes is about managing the past – abandoning ideas, practices and attitudes that inhibit innovation. He says that Box Two’s most transformative role is to help organizations shake free of ideas and structures that have arisen around past successes. “Indeed,” he says, “there is nothing quite so powerful as an entrenched set of obsolete values and practices. They can easily come to seem as immutable as the laws of physics. But where the laws of physics are generally helpful, the dominance of the past has the ability to freeze time and enforce inertia.”
Why we don’t let go
It’s easy to see that churches face challenges like those Govindarajan identifies for corporations when it comes to letting go of the past:
- Exceptionalism—the belief that our institution is the very best at its work, which limits what we might be able to learn from competitors or a changing marketplace.
- Market loyalty—the belief that our customers (or members) are and will continue to be loyal to our programs and approach, which limits our need to pay attention to shifting needs.
- Change resistance—the belief that our customers (or members) will not welcome change, which limits our willingness to try something new .
We’re not wrong about that last challenge, by the way. Congregation members are notoriously resistant to change, especially if it means giving up something that’s important to them. Every time I ask, as part of a strategic planning process, which programs, events, or attitudes might need to be given up to implement something new, at least a few folks always answer that they shouldn’t have to give up anything!
How to choose
Trying something new usually does mean letting something else go, however. So how does a church decide what to let go of and when? How does it know which programs, events, attitudes, or processes can be relinquished to let something new emerge? There are always risks and benefits to consider, but here are some basic questions to ask:
- Has attendance declined? This is the easiest metric to look at – if an event has been a congregational or community mainstay for years but fewer people are attending, the event may have lost its appeal or the need for the event may be disappearing. A harvest dinner fundraiser for a church’s benevolence fund may make sense, for example, when the community is full of farmers and they’re happy to support each other’s congregations by coming into town for lunch during the harvest season. However, the same event may not make sense any longer when the town has become a suburb and there are no more active farmers nearby. People vote with their feet, and if fewer feet are showing up, it may be time to let go.
- Does a program or event seem to be creating less energy than it used to? Energy is harder to measure than attendance, but you can often assess it by noticing if people seem less excited to volunteer than in past years or it their work looks like a heavy lift. Sometimes, the problem is that the people who’ve been doing all the work for decades haven’t figured out how to ask for help, but it’s not a good sign if people sigh when it’s time to start planning this year’s program! Another way to measure energy is by looking at the community’s response—is anyone outside the church asking when your program will happen again or what the plans are for this year? If not, your program may just not be that interesting anymore.
- Does the program or event fit the culture, or at least fit the congregation’s understanding of its place in the culture? Many schools have had to rethink how they teach about slavery or European settlement in North America in the last few years. Similarly, churches need to ask what kind of message they’re communicating to their wider community with the way in which they participate in events like community celebrations of Thanksgiving or Founders’ Days.
- If the thing that needs to be let go of is an attitude, is it serving the congregation well to continue to think this way? If we believe, for example, that our older members love our church, will we notice when they drift away from us to attend virtual services with their children at the megachurch 30 miles away? If we believe that we’re the best at being our kind of church, will we notice if prospective members who fit our demographic have stopped joining because they’re now looking for something else?
Some congregations have the resources to do everything. For those who don’t, and who need to try new things to stay vital and relevant, it may be time to make some hard decisions. If this is you, pay attention, ask basic questions, and be honest about the need to let go.
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.