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    • Tom Ehrich
    • Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns. His website is

Four tips on deepening engagement

It’s a long step from having one’s name on a church roster to being deeply engaged in that faith community.

An engagement rate of 100% is unreachable. But the current engagement rate of maybe 25% isn’t working out well – for constituents or for churches. Many people want more, but they find engagement elusive, especially when Sunday worship is the only avenue offered. They want significant relationships, or direct mission duty, or small group activity. Getting “fannies in the pew,” as one pastor put it, doesn’t accomplish such objectives, even over time.

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4 strategies for breaking the hold of Sunday worship

Yet another change battle is under way in mainline Protestant churches: breaking the hold that Sunday worship has on staffing, budgeting, and overall priorities.

Below are four strategies for doing what needs to be done.

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The WHY of looking outward

The HOW of effective communications strategy can be figured out, maybe with outside help, and implemented without great expense.

The WHY, however, might be the hardest sell I have ever had to make as a church consultant. Church leaders find it difficult to imagine any audience beyond the members they know.

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Turning to Poetry

Renowned essayist Tom Ehrich turns to poetry as a fresh form of expression. His work draws on daily life: a couple breaking up in a coffee shop, a grandchild sleeping, hearing a train whistle on the Kansas prairie. Ehrich looks for the central meaning of small events.

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Dealing with Anger

As we know from church conflicts, anger can destabilize a system.

When an angry voice erupts at a gathering, some other voices get angry, too, either because they share the angry person’s anger or because they find the anger repellant and having to deal with it makes them angry.

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Jesus acted — so should we

Jesus acted.

He also wept. He spoke truth to power. He taught about wealth and power. He welcomed all manner of people into his presence. He called outliers to be disciples.

Most of all, he acted. Faced with a situation, he did something. He fed hungry people, he healed the sick, he protected the vulnerable. Instead of building an institution, he traveled around. Instead of promulgating doctrines and institutional rules, he took action.

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Plan a balanced Communications Strategy

Communications Strategy isn’t the only thing a church does, but it has a way of revealing what a congregation values – and where its future lies.

Churches also engage with new members, train their people in spiritual disciplines, raise up effective leaders, pay special attention to young adults, and do mission. They worship, they extend pastoral care, they educate, and they transform lives.

In other words, a church has a full plate. Communications Strategy tends to shape what gets on that plate.

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How “conventional wisdom” hurts churches: part 2

People assume the “conventional wisdom” is actually wise. In the church world, as I wrote last week, that means the belief that churches must have facilities, must worship on Sunday morning, and must have ordained clergy.

But as economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, the “conventional wisdom” is likely to be wrong. Acceptable, yes, and comfortable, but running counter to facts, ideas, emerging constituencies and new needs.

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Extraordinary times call for extraordinary churches

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary churches.

In America and in much of Europe, right-wing politicians backed by screaming mobs of white nationalists are taking power. The anger, fear and hatred are so strong that democracy itself might not survive.

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Six critical steps for giving and spending

As church leaders conclude annual stewardship campaigns and turn their attention to operating budgets, it’s important to examine how a healthy church handles money.

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Beyond business as usual

Sometimes reality changes. Events cascade into our plans and desires, forcing us to rethink, recalibrate, reconsider. What seemed okay and important yesterday now appears irrelevant or not so urgent.

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Churches have important work to do

Progressive churches have important work to do in the four years ahead.

They don’t need to become aligned with the Democratic Party. But they do need to become political. By that I mean tending to the politics of the day, namely, change, frustration, anger, some truly awful people planning to do bad things to their enemies, and a lot of good people on all sides wondering what direction American democracy is going.

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8 ways to use technology to grow your church

ny church can grow. It won’t happen just by opening the doors on Sunday and welcoming whoever shows up. Growth isn’t that easy or passive. But growth can happen if leaders are willing to work at it, to use best practices and best tools, and to change whatever gets in their way.

That’s a tall order, of course, because most established institutions struggle with change and resist doing more than the known and the minimum.

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Many folks are ready to move on

The signal revelation from a recent consulting engagement in Kansas wasn’t that the congregation was trapped in old ways, or paying a steep price for it in declining membership. The revelation was that hardly anyone had any stake in remaining stuck.

In one way or another, they said, “Let’s move on.” “We need to get outside ourselves.” “We have got to change things.”

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I wish I had known these principles in aging ministry

Now that I am venturing onto the terrain called “aging,” I would like a do-over in how I responded to people over 65 when I was their pastor.

I don’t think I began to comprehend the complexity of aging. I viewed it as a single-track pastoral problem to be solved by regular home visits and the occasional group event, like a bus tour. I tended to treat the elderly as needy, more like patients in a hospital than self-differentiating adults. Some were hospital patients, of course. But I missed seeing the rest of their journeys.

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The tension between “bricks and mortar” and “mission and ministry”

The tension between “bricks and mortar” and “mission and ministry” is never easy to navigate. Facilities seem so real and practical, while mission and ministry tend to be ambiguous and unmeasurable.

The tension gets especially complicated when facilities are enshrined as “historic.” Some constituents derive personal status from things historic, whether or not it is deserved, and the old implies a certain continuity that many desire.

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Stewardship is a spiritual discipline, not fund-raising

If you were to plan a Spiritual Development ministry for your church, you might start with prayer: the simple but far-reaching act of talking to God.

Your second element might be meditation: the not-quite-so-simple act of listening to God.

On you would go with study, worship, confession – each harder the one before.

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Dealing with an unintended consequence of our graying

In general, mainline congregations have missed two successive generations of young adults. Funerals far outnumber baptisms and weddings. Our average age is pushing 65. Sunday schools and youth groups are sparse. Young families in our community don’t aim their SUVs toward us. Many church activities serving young families happen away from Sunday morning, anyway, which our Sunday-oriented elderly don’t understand or value. Meanwhile, the elderly are dealing with isolation, an epidemic of loneliness, and a range of health issues that only other elderly appreciate.

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Be a great elderly church — address actual needs

If yours is a typical mainline church, your congregation’s average age is pushing past 60 and moving toward 70. Every Sunday, you see more “gray” in your pews and more empty spaces.

So what do you do? You have three choices:

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Three ways “the conventional wisdom” hurts churches

In 1958 – as, coincidentally, mainline Protestant churches were enjoying their happy heyday – economist John Kenneth Galbraith began to use a term to describe widely acceptable and comfortable ideas that might not actually be true but …

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Six ways for moving forward beyond our own dying

… the familiar point that mainline and evangelical congregations are weighted toward elderly constituents and have little appeal to younger cohorts.

Okay, okay. Old news to anyone who has been observing the changing shape of Christianity in America. But the question remains, what do we do about it?

I have six suggestions for moving on to a better future.

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What an entrepreneur does as church leader

Can people who draw energy primarily from within themselves be effective as entrepreneurial church leaders?

In a word, yes. For the entrepreneurial role isn’t about extroversion or introversion. In fact, some of the most effective entrepreneurs in business are introverts. Bill Gates, of Microsoft, for example. Also Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook; Marissa Meyer, of Yahoo; investor Warren Buffett.

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Learn New Things

The path forward is clearly marked: reach beyond our walls, communicate more aggressively, stop relying on Sunday worship, encourage clergy to be entrepreneurs and not chaplains, form small groups, turn our funds to mission work, seek to change people’s lives. Many congregations are trying it. But it’s like installing a swimming pool. Everything is new, and the new things that need to be done now are the hard ones.

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“What If”?

Let’s start with a “what if”: what if you were starting a church today, what would you do?
You can do this. It’s like the state motto of New Hampshire: “Live free, or die.” You can live free of negative overhead, dysfunctional practices, and old expectations. You can make fresh decisions – “choose life,” said Moses. Or you can die.

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Look Outward, Reach 3 Audiences

The work of the religious professional must look “beyond the walls” of the church, beyond the comfortable conversations we have with people we know, beyond in-house concerns, beyond the shared language of our years together.

To engage with the larger world beyond our walls, we can’t just send more people our latest in-house, inward-facing conversations. We need to address the needs, concerns, yearnings, questions and personalities of that larger world.

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Make Communications a Major Draw on Your Time

You should be spending as much as 50% of your time on communications, I told a group of clergy at the Kenyon Institute’s “Beyond Walls” writing seminar for religious professionals.

That means time spent blogging to the vast world outside your walls, engaging with prospects, and communicating with your flocks. It means email campaigns, as well as ad hoc emailing. It means creative use of social media, especially Facebook. It means messaging. But always, three audiences, and distinct messages tailored to the questions, hungers, issues, yearnings that actually occupy each audience.

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Leadership Transition: A Time When Many Churches Go Astray

Let’s talk about leadership transition, namely, calling a new pastor. This is where many congregations go astray, because they make transition more difficult than it needs to be, because they infuse the process with “magical thinking,” and because they fail to complete the transition process.

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Seeing Abuse

For 20 years, I went from one abusive situation to another. A small group, usually longtime members who resented my efforts toward growth and mission, believed they had the privilege and the duty to make my life miserable.

They left snide notes, sometimes anonymous, at my desk. They berated me in parish meetings and made sure I knew my salary was on the line. They started whispering campaigns and held secret meetings that they made sure I knew about. One warden sat in my office and said, “We are going to destroy you, Tom.”

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Issue Isn’t “Graying,” It’s Not Enough New Folks

  Beware the “graying” of the church – says the common wisdom. And I confess that I have contributed to that concern. My reasoning has been: as the average age of mainline congregants surges past 60, attracting …

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Communications: It’s About the Audience

In my consulting with churches on communications strategy, we talk about tools: from emailed newsletters to social media to messaging to web sites.

We talk about message: the church’s narrative, its marketing thrust, the visuals it uses to tell its story. We talk about who should be doing the communicating: the pastor, a professional communicator conversant in technology, a staff member with many duties, or a volunteer.

But I have come to realize that the most critical topic of all is audience. Who is the designated audience? Whom is the congregation trying to reach? With whom is the church trying to build a relationship?

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SPECIAL REPORT: Usable Technology

A reader asked for tech guidance.

“I know you make tech choices thoughtfully and from experience,” he said. “So, I’m always happy when you share your knowledge of particular software/apps, including the pros and cons of each.”

I am happy to oblige, for technology is a critical tool in our respective work. For me, the key is usability.

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How to Nurture a Welcoming Eethos

The measure of a society isn’t how it treats the young, healthy, beautiful and easy-to-like, but how it handles the vulnerable, the needy, the outcast, the hard-to-like.

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Needed: Leaders Whose Charge is the Future

Churches, like other enterprises, need several kinds of leadership: maintenance (tending the store), financial (keeping the doors open), staff support (serving constituents), marketing (selling the product), quality control (freshening and problem-solving), and training (transmitting skills and values.)

There is one more leadership skill needed, and this is the critical one. Its absence is keenly felt. That skill is looking into the future. Every leadership team needs some person or group whose charge is to look down the road, to see emerging needs, to see opportunities, to read trends and to imagine the new into being.

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Let’s Talk About Scheduling

Let’s talk about scheduling. It’s the bane of any complex organization, and yet handling schedules poorly is guaranteed to hurt and offend constituents.

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4 Ways to Reach Outside Our Walls

Let’s say you wanted to lead your congregation into being more a faith community and less an institution.

More a people called out of the world (the meaning of ekklesia) by the transformative power of faith, and less a people gathered inside walls, around an altar, where rituals of belonging make them feel safe and loved.

I see four practical ways we can reach outside the walls of our inherited institutional understanding – and thereby become more the community that Jesus called into being.

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What In The World Do People Want?

In the church world, you need to know what is and isn’t working. You need metrics. You can’t just keep doing what you enjoy doing if no one is “buying” it, or continue what worked a decade ago without asking whether it is working today.

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