Reconconciliation, revitalization, and resurrection


As the new pastor, after a couple of months into the job, I’m given the list. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s long. It contains the names of people who have been angry at the church and left.

I hate that list.

It’s made up of a painful history of nasty grudges and hurt feelings. Sometimes the presenting issue is how the previous pastor said something rude to them, or how the church matriarch treated their wife, or how the denomination stands on a particular issue, or how the nominating committee hired a woman.

I sigh deeply and receive the list, because I believe in reconciliation. Then sometime on Thursday afternoon, when I can’t possibly put it off any longer, I call the disaffected few. I try to set up meetings.

I do all that I can. I’m very flexible. I never expect them to come to me, at the church. I’m up for a home visit, a coffee shop meeting, or whatever can be arranged.

Yet, I can rarely get a date.

It’s important to try, but we all know it’s near impossible. Once the damage is done, there can be reconciliation, but there’s hardly ever a renewal of membership.

If churches are looking for new members, the list is not the place to find them.

And, in the same sort of way, I wonder about church revitalization efforts. You know, when we take dying churches, inject good leadership and a bit of cash into them so that they might live again.

We’ve all seen it happen successfully. I’ve worked at two churches that have changed the course of declining membership and began growing with new life and vitality. I loved serving in the midst of it. My current congregation is a resurrection story, for sure. And there are stories of transformation all over our area.

Yet, as my friend Jan (who has an amazing gift for revitalizing) always says, “Transformation takes time.” As I reflect on the years of difficult work that it takes to turn congregations around, I wonder if we, the larger church, are putting our resources in the right places. Perhaps we should put more energy into planting new fields, rather than pouring so much into forcing the tired ones to become productive.

This is my dream:

As we close more of our congregations, we put all the resources into planting new churches.

Seminaries could focus more training and programs on planting new churches, beginning in the MDiv, but also in DMins and Continuing Education programs.

The training would include a strong emphasis on Web 2.0 possibilities and problems, with a serious understanding that people think differently in a connected generation.

The training would not just be taught by those flashy guys who are really good at presenting demographic data, but by people who have successfully planted churches.

We could take the environment seriously as we plan new buildings. Making sure that our worship spaces are beautifully designed, and using the best technology to make them energy efficient.

New church pastors could be paid well. At least well enough to support a house and family in the locale of the plant, and they would have a guarantee of income for X amount of years.

What would you add?

The photo’s by Famous Potatoes. Genius. They just don’t make gargoyles like they used to.

5 thoughts on “Reconconciliation, revitalization, and resurrection

  1. I would add… training pastors in leading adaptive change in churches that already exist – perhaps planting a new church within an existing congregation? And looking at developing church leadership that can support faith communities in a context of constant change. Also, training pastors to exegete not only using words, but also image and technology within worship. I’m interested in some of what Fuller Seminary is currently offering, but wish I could find more within Presbyterian seminaries! (I feel like I’m using buzz words, but I got nothing on this kind of thing in seminary! I would love for the new church pastor training to have more practical work than what I got…)

  2. I have been a member of three organizations — one church, and two fraternities — which have seen a free-fall collapse of membership rolls.

    In all of them, there was a knee-jerk call to lower standards, to make things easier, to become less controversial and “more accepting”.

    In all of them, this approach did nothing to stop the free-fall.

    In the continued panic, all of them instituted a renewed focus on recruitment and on begging for additional involvement, which always struck me as odd, because if you look at what was going on during the high-attendance times, it certainly wasn’t recruitment or begging.

    The two successful turn-arounds I have seen both had the same thing in common: they focused not on analyzing the outside world or public relations, but on re-identifying themselves and doing the kinds of things that energized those that were involved.

    In the case of one fraternity chapter, it was by returning to the more ornate ritual of its roots. In the case of the church, it was by accepting that the church was a neighborhood church, and building themselves up as a central point in the neighborhood.

    Trying to save a dying church is likely to result in those knee-jerk reactions, and awkward attempts at merging what church members think “should be” with what the church and its community is. When you are founding a new church, you have no option but to be building out of whole cloth. So your suggestion may be a good one.

  3. Laura,

    You are so right! We need to rethink those missions and evangelism classes. They ought to be about reaching out to real people, in our present culture. I’ve also been intrigued by Fuller’s approach to this (the prof with the long hair and birks, he’s actually someone I would hang out with…). I wonder how we could convey this to our seminaries…


    I’ve also found that people are not drawn to begging.

    Great news about Bryn Mawr! I’ve heard of the church, and it’s great that they’re finding new life as a neighborhood church.

  4. What I would add to all these wonderful reflections is that it’s not for ordained people to “plant” worshipping communities. Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to see the huddled masses streaming into the churches and up to the Lord’s table. But it is for the communities themselves to form, and then for the ordained to support that grass-roots movement. I think all these “missioners” that are raised up and ordained aren’t the point. If there’s not a core of faithful people, gathering together to pray in whatever way is customary for them, then the efforts of the ordained are for naught. I don’t plan to establish any new efforts. If there is a group of “two or three” who gather together regularly, then I’m willing to join with them to provide sacramental functions. Monthly, until it appears that they need/want something more frequent. Then they need to look at hiring at least a part-time priest (not me).

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