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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.”

They were ready to embrace a new future.

I was astonished. So often over the years I have heard church members defending the practices that make them stuck. They haven’t been able to imagine anything different.

Maybe reaching a bottom has brought about a shift that all the teaching in the world couldn’t achieve. When your church has gone from 1,800 members to 300 over 50 difficult years and the pews feel empty, what’s left to defend in the old ways? Clearly they didn’t work.

Here are my suggestions:

Break free from Sunday morning. Sticking to Sunday morning worship as the primary thing you, sometimes the only thing, hasn’t been enough. Maybe it’s time to add other activities. One-size-fits-all isn’t a good strategy.

Stop obsessing about clergy leadership. No church has the perfect pastor. Even the “golden era” wasn’t ideal. Forcing your current pastor into an ideal mold is foolish. Taking two years to call the next pastor is even more foolish. Congregations are built by relationships and mission, not by stellar clerics.

Stop worrying about your location. No location will work if all you do is look inward. And if you dare to look outward, any location has terrific potential. If you are serving only yourself, it doesn’t matter where you are located.

Let go of the old stories and grievances. The only day you can actually live is today. Yesterday is over. Its stories won’t add to your sense of mission awareness today, or to your strength of relationships.

Get beyond parent-child dynamics. Too many parishioners treat their pastor as a mom or dad, and they take the role of the hard-to-please child. It doesn’t work for adolescents; it certainly won’t work for adults. Promote adult-adult relationships.

Train your leaders. Leadership in any organization, including a church, isn’t a magical elixir that you drink and suddenly become a capable leader. Leaders must be recruited, trained, educated, held accountable, and rewarded.

Get serious about stewardship. Mainline constituents are tippers, not tithers. They are starving their souls of meaningful harvest giving and gratitude.

Grasp the urgency. Many people apparently are so desperate that they will consider doing things differently. Seize the day. Don’t crow. Just walk with them into the new. They will discover it’s great.

How did I discern that folks in this church were ready to move on? I met with them individually or in couples. I asked them one question: “If I am to provide wise counsel to your session, what do you think I need to know about your church?” Then I went silent and listened to their answers. Each session lasted 20 minutes, and they filled the time with their observations and feelings.

I didn’t tell them they “ought” to move on. They told me they wanted to move on.

About the Author

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


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