By Bishop Mike Rinehart
This is a chart of an actual congregation’s worship attendance over a period of several years. Looking carefully, you’ll notice worship attendance declining steadily over the years. This is precisely what has been happening in mainline Protestantism across the church. Then, at one point attendance hits bottom and suddenly starts going up again, steadily over the years. I have circled that point.
Here’s my question:
What do you suppose happened there at that point when things turned around?
I’ve asked this question of many people. The interesting thing is everyone gets it right, every time. Every single person I have asked has given me the same, correct answer. What’s your answer? You know what it is. Everyone does.
In nearly every case when I encounter vital signs that have this shape, there has been a change of the guard at the nadir. This is because leadership matters. John Maxwell’s Law of the Lid is more than a cliché: Everything rises and falls on leadership.
We don’t want this to be true. We want to believe that a healthy congregation running on all eight cylinders will continue to do so no matter who was at the helm. Experience does not bear this out. This was the frustrating conclusion Jim Collins came to in his book “Good to Great“. They wanted to find out that organizations thrive regardless of who the CEO was, but the truth of the matter is, they don’t. Getting the right leader on the bus, on the right seat of the bus, with the right gift, at the right time really matters.
It turns out that this is true of most organizations, not just pastors. We think it doesn’t matter who is president, but in point of fact who sits in the Oval Office determines whether we go to war or not. The decisions and values of a president can shape the country, and even change the world.
Getting the right leader
This is not to say the pastor or leader who preceded the nadir was a bad pastor or bad leader. It just means that person was not the right leader for this place in this time. The leader might have been the right person at one point. Some pastors are excellent at serving a certain size congregation. When it grows, the new size requires a different skill set. Sometimes a congregation calls the right pastor, but the pastor grows to a new place, and is no longer the right fit.
The leader is not the only factor in a congregation’s growth or decline. There are other factors as well. There may be alligators forming conflict. There may be changing demographics. If the congregation is not thriving, however, then the leader isn’t able to neutralize the problem and help the congregation move forward. If not, then either the leader needs to reinvent himself/herself or there needs to be a change in the guard.
This is hard. Pastors bond with congregations by standing with people at birth, death, graveside and hospital. Deciding to leave is hard. It’s emotionally difficult and requires an upheaval of life. This is why Methodist pastors make an ordination vow of itinerancy. If the pastor doesn’t want to leave, congregations find it difficult to have that hard conversation. It can be like having beloved dinner guests who don’t know it’s time to go. One of my least favorite jobs is delivering this bad news to a pastor. “It’s time.” “This call is so over.” On the one hand it hurts. On the other hand, I sometimes find myself wondering about a pastor who likes their salary, house, and community so much that they won’t leave, even though the community is so clearly plummeting. Do we care so little about the church that we are willing to keep draining the church’s resources even though it’s clearly not working? Will we ride the church into the ground like a rider might ride a horse to death? Knowing when to leave is really important, especially in our denominational polity which doesn’t give bishops the authority to place and replace pastors.
No doubt some will say of that growing turnaround church, “Ah, an increase in the number of people gathering in a building on Sunday morning does not mean disciples are being made, the gospel is being preached, the world is being served in Jesus’ name, the hungry are being fed, etc.” Some of these growing churches could be bigger and shallower than ever.
This might be true in some cases. I have seen churches like that. They are just overgrown clubs serving the needs of their own membership, with little resemblance to the self-sacrificial house-church community that sparked the Christian movement. Large churches could be becoming larger because they are expecting less commitment. They could be less mission-focused and less effective. It is possible that small churches are growing smaller because they are expecting a higher level of commitment and sacrifice. They are becoming leaner, more mission-focused, effective organizations. It’s possible.
But is that what is happening? Let’s test this. Look at some of the declining congregations around you. Are they becoming more mission-focused and effective? Have they raised the bar? Are they declining because they are being persecuted for righteousness sake? Are they sacrificially reaching out to their community in love? Are they growing in generosity and giving?
Here’s another test. Step back and gaze across mainline Protestantism, which has been in decline for fifty years. Are we more mission-focused and effective than we were before? In my neck of the woods, about one congregation closes each year. Are they closing because their mission has been accomplished? I suppose the way we could really know is to see how many are in Bible study, how many are serving, and how many are growing in their prayer life, though I suspect the information would not be reassuring.
If I believed that the church was growing smaller and more faithful, I would be delighted. Let’s raise the bar. People walked away from Jesus because he set the bar too high. I’m just not sure that’s what’s happening here in North American Christianity.
Thriving faith communities
When a healthy congregation grows, that means more people are hearing the gospel, receiving the sacrament, being invited into study, serving and giving.
In his book on being bishop, William Willimon says he sometimes removed a pastor after several months if it wasn’t working. I’m not sure I would go that far, but if things have been in steady decline for three years or more, I would say it’s time to ask the question: Am I the right person to lead this congregation forward at this time and place? As much as I loathe the idea of relocating, is it possible that there is a place out there where my gifts might be just what the doctor ordered? Can I imagine myself in a new life, a new place with new opportunities? Is it possible that the congregation might also find new life?
If you need help discerning, here are a few practical steps to take:
1. Ask God. Pray about it. Daily. Journal your reflections for a month or two.
2. Ask your people. Find several trusted leaders and ask them, “Is it time for me to leave?” Find people who love you, but have the courage to tell you the truth. In every congregation I found people I trusted and said, “When it’s time for me to go, I want you to have the courage to say so to my face.”
3. Ask your family. Although they might not want to move, they need to be included in the discernment. You need to hear them, and they need to hear you. Ultimately, they won’t be happy if you’re in the wrong place.
4. Ask your bishop. Your bishops care about you and care about the church. Need a thinking partner?
5. Ask your colleagues. They see your congregation and situation from a different angle of vision.
6. Submit your RLP: Rostered Leader Profile. Cast your bread on the water. Even if it’s not time to move, an interview every few years is a good practice. It keeps you limber and it provides excellent discernment.
If you’re a lay leader in your congregation and need to have this conversation, my door is always open. Don’t be afraid to have the crucial conversations. It’s the only way stuck systems become unstuck.
We owe each other this kind of conversation and discernment, for the life of the community, because, the proclamation of the gospel matters, and leadership matters.