Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How to thrive when your church/denomination is dying and everything you start is sabotaged

In most cases, the church is wasting precious time and capital attempting to redevelop dying institutions. This applies at every level, from the redevelopment work in local congregations, all the way up to denominations attempting to re-define themselves.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
If an institution is in decline, it's in decline. It's going to die, and no amount of study and work on "future directions" or "LIFTing" the church is going to do a shred of good. In fact, trying to reverse things is a failure of good pastoral care. It's like walking into hospice and slapping the patient on the face, shouting, "Hey, get up, there's still life in you! Let's make plans for the future!"
As much as I love my denomination, the ELCA, I honestly feel we witnessed something like this at our churchwide assembly in August. The organization put on a face of unity, rubber-stamped some pretty fascinating documents (in particular, one repudiating the doctrine of discovery), but then continued on afterwards with business as usual, with a public letter from the presiding bishop of the denomination that essentially eviscerated the repudiation document.

I'm not at all surprised at this. The ELCA event was a simulacrum, a copy of a copy of a copy of what we think we are. It was Oz with the curtain down. And as likable as Oz may be, once he's exposed, you know the jig is up and a new story is on the horizon.

The same kinds of things that happen at the denominational level also happen at the congregational level. When anxiety over death presents itself, the institution hunkers down, dims the lights, and says, "We need to take care of ourselves now."

But what do you do if you're moving to the margins of a dying institution?

This is essentially the question I've been asking myself these days. I'm a pastor in this denomination, the ELCA, and I don't really plan to leave, but I have been moving to the margins. I've moved to the margins geographically (I pastor in Arkansas). I've moved to the margins theologically (I'm more theologically conservative that the liberals but far more socially and politically leftist than the liberals, and definitely post-confessional in many of my core convictions). And I've moved to the margins of the denomination itself, aligning much more with reform movements like #decolonizeLutheranism and ELM and Reconciling Works.

As just one example, I actually went to our synod assembly this past spring, but mostly to staff a Reconciling Works table. I felt really awkward at the assembly itself, even marginal. I like the people there... I don't know how or why I belong to the institution.

In my local congregation, we've gone through some similar shifts that make me wonder who we are... now. Certainly we're still an ELCA congregation, and many would identify us as that. We have Lutheran in our name. And we're not dying, though an exodus from our congregation a couple of years ago made us worry over our long-term health.

But after going through such a massive split, and staying (most pastors don't stay... in fact, I'm still hoping to connect with some pastors who have stayed through and after a massive split in their congregation), we are a different organization than we used to be. In fact, on many levels we're thriving in ways we never have before. 

A lot of the resources you can find on church redevelopment (and they are legion) tend to apply to congregations that have been on a sustained downward trend that leaders want to reverse. But that's not us. We're on a slightly different course, one I'm trying to articulate in this post.

Is redevelopment worth it?

It's no surprise there's a huge market for church revitalization resources. There are far more existing churches and dying churches than there are new and growing churches, so of course the market for revitalization resources is massive.

It's also no surprise that the majority of church growth is happening in newer churches. And equally no surprise that new churches frequently fail. So you can find plenty of books and resources and conferences on church planting.

But what fascinates me lately is neither redevelopment (which I think is wasted energy), nor new starts (which are hard), but the shape of the transition that needs to take place to move from one system to another. And I can't do better at describing the shape of that transition than this quick video, so take six minutes and watch it.

If a ship is hurtling through space, it takes immense energy to reverse it's trajectory. If it's huge, and there's limited fuel, it's a lost cause. 

It takes less energy to jump ship and slow down, so if there's an escape pod available (or a spaceskin suit) and you're low on fuel, the best option is to abandon ship, get all the escape pods together, put some energy into constructing a new ship, and then head off in a new direction. 

Thing is, that's no easy thing. 

It takes quite a bit of skill to move around in outer space, assemble resources for an alternative trip, and then launch in a new direction. No wonder lots of new churches and ventures fail. It's tricky.

However, if you are one of those who finds yourself at the margins (and wow do I ever!), then thinking through how to assemble your team of other marginals and strike out in a new direction is totally worth it, even if the attempts fail multiple times.
Practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or the center of most groups, institutions, and cultures. (Richard Rohr

I've failed in Arkansas more than once. When I first moved here, I tried to facilitate our congregation going multi-site in order to develop a campus ministry or new faith community. It didn't work out.

Which isn't the same as saying it wasn't worth doing. It totally was. The time we invested, the work we did, the lives that were changed, all of that was worth it. We just didn't "launch" the new.

Then this past year, I found myself on the margins again (more culturally than congregationally), this time around refugee resettlement. So we started again, this time with a group of like-minded individuals. I didn't try to get my whole congregation to sponsor refugee resettlement. Instead, we built a non-profit.

Over time, we discovered hundreds of people passionate for resettlement in our state, with volunteer leaders willing to form a self-directed work-team that did everything necessary to successfully apply to become a new refugee resettlement site, and as of this writing the organization, Canopy NWA, is poised to launch this fall with the staff and funding it needs to resettle refugees in Northwest Arkansas.

All of us involved in the ministry didn't try to get our whole current institutions to get on board.... instead, we found ourselves at the margins, and got together and started building a new ship headed in a different direction.

It hasn't always been easy. I find myself having to conduct two different kinds of pastoral ministry in the meantime. Sometimes the work we're doing with Canopy causes anxiety among the existing systems--in the congregation, in the community, in the state. This is where the pioneer/hospice concept carries so much value. There's ministry to do in both contexts. Among the group launching the new, the work is figuring out how to get the ship space-worthy so it can launch. That's the pioneering work, and as a pioneer, it's the stuff I most lean into.

But I also have to know how to be a pastor in the other context. I need to put on the hospice hat. In hospice, there's pain, grief, anxiety, fear. The words of hope, the way of being present, is different. I've been learning I need to listen, sit down for longer one-on-ones, just be present. I know how to put on the hospice hat when I walk into an actual hospice facility. The reframing is important, and helps me know how to be present in multiple contexts.

So I would tell all redevelopers, and really all pastors, if they were willing to listen: If your organization is in decline (and almost all our churches are, statistically), then spend 50% of your time as pastor of the existing institution. Wear that hat, and wear it well. But then do the hard work of pioneering. Start something new, together with others, exercising the practical truth that is found at the margins.

This needs to happen at the denominational level also. Currently, the ELCA at its national level is a sick system, intractably caught up in its own mode, and really unlikely to recover. It needs hospice. The problem is, it keeps meeting every three years thinking it can rise from the ashes and enact change from the top and center. It keeps telling us, "We are church together," when in fact it has little if no effective method for hearing from the margins and launching something new.

What the ELCA needs, even though institutionally it will fight it tooth and nail and implement many kinds of sabotage (not the least of which will be stonewalling, what I have started calling the Boozman strategy) to undermine it, is a movement of pioneers from the margins, who will gather, and then move, and will, if successful, eventually organize structurally in such a way that it becomes not a simulacrum of the current ELCA, but the next thing that moves on while the ELCA dies.

I have no doubt, based on the functioning of our current denominational headquarters, that things will go out in a spectacular fashion, with the leadership continuing to put on a show of listening to the margins while regularly buffering itself against any actual change. And increasingly I'm just fine with that.

But what I do want to do, and am inviting in this post, is to find ways to "live on the edge of the inside" (in Richard Rohr's words), and discover who else is out there with me.


  1. I am with you.

    One thought off the bat re. "get all the escape pods together, put some energy into constructing a new ship..." let's be sure to consider that while a huge ship struggles mightily to change course, a flotilla of small ships in communication with each other can stop and turn on a dime as one.

    1. The force needed to change course is always proportional to the mass of that which you want to move in a new direction. A large ship needs lots of force because it has a large mass, but the small vessel still needs as much power relative to its mass as the big ship. To be able to stop or turn on a dime, you need relatively more power and force. Maneuverability doesn't come automatically with being smaller. If you don't have the needed power to generate the needed force, even if it is smaller, you'll be caught in the same problem as the large ship, or worse.

  2. I thank you for your thoughtfulness and insight. As one who in the early efforts for gender equality -when the language was not that subtle as it's becoming nowadays, my ministry was thrust to the edges with an initial and somewhat ongoing hostility towards me. But, being handed dying congregations desperate enough to call a gay pastor, God graced us with growth and stabilization of these congregations built on the old model nevertheless. I also gained respect from the bishops for my candor and the positive results of my ministries. But there were many other supportive people in the ELCA structure who looked out for me and fought the powerful who wanted me out of the ordained ministry altogether.
    But I also have to comment that while your entrepreneurial model of ministry is educative to us all, the day may come when you might be called to be bishop. Then the institution will be seen by you in a different light. The episcopal ministry is necessary for the good of the church in carrying out the Gospel. Institutions are necessary, but they are often bumbling -blundering into new situations at first. We see this pattern of blundering from being on auto-pilot, into reform to become effective in a new situation, then after a few years beginning the cycle of auto-pilot again. It's just the nature of the animal, religious or secular. So, is the ELCA dying, or doomed? I do not think so. It blunders, it fights, it changes, it reforms and will eventually roll on to auto-pilot once again.
    What is going on is the deep sweep of secularization of the West. The church institution is adjusting to that reality, slowly. We shall probably be smaller -as all churches -except the increasing fundamentalism of the cultural (Southern) Christianity and the Catholic Church. As part of the response to the enormous forces of secularization, church unity in the Gospel is in the cards. And we are casting our lot, as exiled Catholics, in returning to the Catholic church in some hopeful ways. For only a church with a strong episcopacy will survive the sustained pressures of the master modern narrative of secular culture.
    It is good to focus on the now as you do, but we must also take a 2000 year perspective. Bob

  3. This also calls to mind something I've been thinking about how we tend to see the "Dones" as emigrants, rather than immigrants, "leavers" rather than "pioneers."

    1. I like this. I have pondering to do...

  4. SUCH a great article. In fact, it sounded a lot like a conversation we had at our staff meeting yesterday.
    I'm thankful that you said how marginal you feel at gatherings because sometimes I feel theologically very Lutheran but not in most other ways. You articulated much of what I've been struggling with in a way that I haven't been able to say with the same grace and thoughtfulness. Thanks for posting.

  5. THANK YOU. You've just perfectly described my own and my wife's experience.

  6. This is one of the better pieces I've read lately on our institutional health.

  7. I had never read the document "Doctrine of Discovery" before and was quite interested. On one hand the defeat of the Indians was devastating to them and to many of US.Having spent several of my formative years in Billing,MT, I have been thoroughly educated about the history of the Indian wars and have seen the Blackfoot reservation close at hand. There is no doubt that we as the victors have not been very sympathetic (much more so to the Germans and Japanese). This should always be a matter of concern for the Church and the Country. At the same time, the emigration of Europeans to our shores was a Progressive movement that meant to provide new developments that would benefit both the Indians and the Europeans. Unfortunately, there was quarreling and it lead to massacres on both sides. It didn't have to be that way. The French began a settlement in the year 1600 in Nova Scotia that was very successful. The French intermarried with and cooperated with the Micmac tribe and the colony thrived. Unfortunately, at a little later date the Pilgrims and the Puritans in MA were treating the Indians badly and warring with them constantly. When the British defeated the French in Canada, they were envious of the French Colony in Nova Scotia. They rounded up all the residents, confiscated their lands and shipped them out. Many were brought to the swamps of SE LA and dumped there with the thought that they would soon die. Instead they once again flourished becoming the modern Cajuns. The point of this overly long story is that success is an attitude. It is both peaceful and indomitable. I believe you may have heard of the Theological concept of "the Remanent". If we are a part of the Remanent, then we will not flag nor fear for the future. We will adapt to it. As for looking back, it is good to learn from the past, but it is not feasible to repair it. We can only repair the future.

  8. Thanks for this. As a young seminarian I've been sitting with the question of whether the best way to enact change in the ELCA is to stay at the table or to flip the table... or to try and see if it's possible to do both at once.

  9. I come to ministry after successful careers in architecture and sales/marketing of office furniture. My job at Steelcase (the sales position) was about using the environment to shape corporate change. One key learning we pressed to our clients was not to try to win the hearts/minds of the majority when proposing a significant change to the culture and office shape; instead, find the small divisions and managers who are “early adopters” - eager for new ideas and ready to experiment. Let some small groups try new things, give them resources, and watch what happens. If the ideas aren’t well thought out, most likely things will die a natural death. But if there is merit, these smaller groups have the flexibility and energy to find it. Then ideas can go to a larger group, as a pull effort (we want what they have!), rather than a push effort.

    From my design training, I learned how important it is to fail. Good solutions can’t be found without failure; it’s impossible to chart a course in the sea of ideas that avoids mistakes and only jumps from one success to another. One large design firm has a motto: Fail often to succeed early. But too often, I see a fear of failure in the church - we want to do only what we “know” from the outset will be successful. How is that faith? How does that allow for grace?

    Churches are not businesses, the Gospel is not a marketing campaign- I know that. The Gospel is also not the same as church traditions and culture. Traditions are beautiful, powerful,and valuable- they should never be tossed out willy-nilly- but they won’t save you.

    So for me, it’s about working with the people (as well as finding new people- evangelism!) who are interested in new approaches and allowing them space to make mistakes. Create a “Skunk works” group at your congregation. And it’s also about preaching the Gospel as plainly, simply, and educationally as possible, so that culture and tradition cannot be mistaken as means of grace. Tradition, new approaches, and the Gospel can all co-exist in the same congregation, as long as each is in proper relationship and valuation.

  10. Wow. Clint this is the best blog post I've read in some time. You do a great job of articulating the experience of simultaneous death - and birth - I saw first hand over the years I worked at the synod and church wide levels. Thank you for your authenticity brother. It blessed me today.

  11. Nice analysis, Clint.
    You might find ministry in Oregon more to your liking. We've been having these conversations as a synod for several years now.

    Is "Lutheran" a victorious membership in a medieval historical event (or northern european ethnicity) that we reenact for the sake of self gratification, or is "Lutheran" a way of contextual and biblical reformation that never ends?

    I like your notion of "post confessionalism."


  12. You may want to check out the work of Rob Voyle and the Appreciative Way, both as a means of being hospice chaplain and of pioneering new value cultures. I have found his approach affirming, challenging, and even frustrating, but always good.