This year, for the first time in decades, an otter was spotted in the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio. After a history of pollution and neglect made famous by the 1969 fire that in many ways resulted in the environmental movement, enough fish had returned to a stretch of the river that otters could again see in this region a viable place to live and thrive.
Similarly, in New York Harbor a resurgence of oysters is showing that decades of environmental stewardship is actually making a difference. Though that’s more a case of activists dumping oysters into the harbor, the point is that they’re surviving and even contributing again to the improving ecosystem: they’re not quite ready to be served as hors d’oeuvres yet but an adult oyster can still filter water at a rate of about 50 gallons a day.
But back to the otters. That kind of good news is rare and hard-won, and speaks of something hopeful on the other side of years of hard work. It suggests that sometimes renewal and growth only happen when the system is finally ready for it to happen… but that readiness can neither be manufactured nor rushed.
Consider all the ways that will not get those otters back: one cannot market to an otter. One cannot take an otter out for coffee to explain why they should come back, or that they were wrong to leave in the first place. One can, I suppose, hire an otter wrangler, and perhaps even import some otters, but if the water isn’t clean enough and the fish aren’t there, then the otters you force into your ecosystem won’t stay.
Many of our churches are like that river, and we long to get the otters back. There’s not many quick fixes. But if our focus is the faithfulness and vitality of the community, it will take some work (and some time) but one day we may well begin to see some new life return.
It’s hard to predict because the Holy Spirit moves on her own good time: in a previous church I remember how much we wanted fast results, yet it was a good handful of years at least before we saw many “otters” swimming our way. But the point is that after way more years then we’d hoped, they did start showing up. Folks who didn’t know our history and didn’t know us through the usual channels. Folks beyond the immediate core group & their friends, who for some reason had begun to recognize our church as place where they and their families could thrive, whose presence showed us that something positive was moving beneath the surface.
When it happened, it was a little like stumbling upon an otter in the river where one hadn’t been for a while: joyful, unexpected, grace-filled, but also the fruit of of years of intentional and creative work.
Are we growing?
Pandemic aside, was this Sunday any bigger than last Sunday? Where there more plates out at the spaghetti dinner than last year, or less? Is the choir getting bigger? Or just louder?
I’ve seen or heard-tell of three ways that churches have grown (or not) over the past 70 years or so.
The first is through the charisma of the leader. That term can have some baggage, but let’s state the obvious: from clergy to musicians to youth ministers, a winsome leader is going to help a community stay lively and grow…at least for a little while. Here be serious dragons, mind you, if the charisma masks a character flaw or a deeper insecurity, or if long-term vitality is sacrificed in favor of what someone thinks is the hot ticket today. But when grounded in authenticity and insight, the charisma of the leader can help things to grow nicely.
The second way I’ve seen growth happen is when we ride the cultural waves that flow in our favor. There’s less of this nowadays. The first church I led had posted big numbers in the 1950’s and 60’s and we couldn’t help but wonder why that wasn’t happening anymore. But heavens, consider the cultural momentum from that era: historically high rates of marriage, jobs that created single earners (meaning more church volunteers), and church attendance as a cultural assumption.
There are still places where the cultural tides break our way, and wonderful things can happen there. It was in churches like this where I learned about faith and where I discerned that ministry might be for me. These are also places where faithful people work hard to go deeper, to lead beyond where those cultural tailwinds take them.
But we can also put on blinders about what’s driving the growth: our sermons may be chef’s-kiss-fantastic, but we may well be getting a bigger boost than we think if our city or neighborhood is thriving, or when we’re in a community that still does the church thing on a regular basis.
The third type is a bit less flashy, is a different kind of hard work, and can take a really long time…especially if the prevailing winds aren’t in our favor. (And sometimes it simply doesn’t work, at least not according to the standards of 1 and 2). Yet growth can also come from slow, steady, faithful work where we show up every day, get help from some faithful people, and are open to some surprises from the Holy Spirit. This is flywheel work: slowly, prayerfully, a little bit every day. Gratefully taking some cultural wins along the way but also thinking about that somewhat critically. Not avoiding charisma, but not relying on it either.
All three ways can grow a congregation. Growth is generative and lasting, though, when it’s grounded not in ego but in authenticity. We get trapped when we grow because of the first two – charisma and culture – without realizing what’s lifting us up. We miss out then on the really good growth, the stuff that has little to do with headcounts and raffle tickets, growth that that emerges from humility and patience and a faith that we’re not the ones who are really in charge.
“Monks are accustomed to taking the long view,” writes Kathleen Norris as she describes a massive storm slowly lumbering towards a monastery on the open prairie in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Whether in storms or sunshine, the spiritual life means making our way through a very different – and far more patient – time horizon.
Churches have for so many years been assuming the long game, though perhaps incorrectly. Our faith speaks of something infinite and so we expect that our church – whether the big-C church or our own respective congregation or denomination – will plug along for as long as time itself.
The revelation of the past few years, or decades, or generations, is that we simply can’t assume that anymore…but that might actually be a good thing.
The big-C church isn’t likely going anywhere, and we probably can thank our great and frustrating diversity for that. But may of us are waking up to the reality that the stats and numbers of many congregations and denominations very clearly do not trend towards forever. In fact, those stats hint that the last Episcopalian, for example, may well be turning the lights in a finely-appointed-yet-dusty sanctuary sometime in the next century.
Here’s the bad news: we’re the first generation of late to know that our church is declining, and relatively quickly.
Ah, but here’s the good news: We’re the first generation to know itself as declining, and relatively quickly.
We can respond and adapt, and do so with a bit more wisdom and insight because for us, committing to the long view will be a choice rather than an assumption.
One of my favorite clothing companies builds their identity around creating good stuff that lasts, and therefore requires less gratuitous consumption. They embrace the long game: We plan to be here in the next 100 years, so we think about long-term results.
What do we need to do to still be here in 100 years – if that’s indeed what we want? Questions of “what can change and what can’t” are important, but I’d rather focus on what will serve our mission over the long term, and what fleeting things today might distract us…or even sabotage the long view.
If these sacred places are valuable to us, we might think a bit more – and a bit more patiently – about what the long game looks like.
How do we find the right people to rebuild a church? Or even build on something that’s plugging along fine? Do they need to be of a certain generation? Have a certain income or skill set? Do you prefer lifelong members of your church or new blood?
I’ve found that they need to be none of the above, and all of the above. Looking back at the patterns of people who’ve nudged a church towards renewal I notice a core pattern, but beyond that it can be just about anyone. Longtime members can be a force for rebuilding, yet so can folks who are brand new. All kinds of skill sets are needed, and most people have something to contribute.
If you’re looking to do a bit of church rebuilding, seek people who:
- Love the church, deeply but not uncritically.
- Love one another, however imperfectly.
- Will put in the work, over a long period of time.
- Are willing to try new things every once in a while.
There’s layers of nuance and tension in all that but I think it’s a good start. We never know what God has in mind so there’s no such thing as foolproof. Even in the best of circumstances it takes years to unfold so it takes commitment and patience. Faithfulness, time, and a capacity for change can be fertile soil for something that might surprise us.
Sometimes we let most anxious person in the room decide the agenda and the tone. When we do, the work that we need to be doing do often goes undone.
This week’s experience with Florence reminded me of the hurricane that accompanied my early days at my first church gig. A gulf-coast storm had disrupted gas supplies for the entire Southeast, and though it was just an inconvenience North Carolina had become seized with anxiety about the possibility that we’d all run out of gas and have to leave our minivans stranded by the side of the road.
Thus the stage was set for my first-ever-church-committee-meeting. We’d worked for just a few minutes when someone barrelled in late, blurting “everybody’s out of gas! The stations are dry!” In a polite panic everyone speed-walked to their cars to commence the hunt for fuel. Meeting adjourned.
Every storm and every disruption is different, but in this case there was little need to worry. News reports told us this was coming and would probably last a few days, and with some foresight there was no reason to panic. But panic we did, and now we’d lost an important meeting with mere weeks to go before a fall program was to begin. It made a fairly straightforward committee job a lot harder.
It was a lesson to me, right there in my the very first of many hundreds of committee meetings: if there’s anxiety in the room, it will want the floor. And without effort to diffuse or redirect it, that anxiety will likely derail the actual work that needs to be done.
It’s helpful, when it surfaces, to see anxiety for what it is. That doesn’t mean we get to dismiss it or ignore something we don’t want to hear as “anxiety.” Sometimes the most anxious person in the room is telling us exactly what we need to hear. And there are times that each of us becomes the most anxious person in the room…we all take our turns. But seeing anxiety as something pulls our focus away from the work at hand, and puts us instead on shakier ground, is a first step in unwinding it.
The deeper lesson over the years, though, is that anxiety isn’t a given. It took me a little while to realize that, especially after that first capsized committee meeting: the great majority of groups and team meetings I’ve been in over the years have actually been pretty productive, and folk usually show up to get it done and go home. Anxiety will always be there, of course, gets better over time, if we can learn to be attentive to headaches before they become crises, if we can stay focused and practice some discernment along the way.
There’s a deeper story than the ones we tell ourselves, but that story often stays hidden. Bishop Porter Taylor once said at a clergy retreat that as leaders we really have no idea what the Holy Spirit is doing in our churches. If it’s of God, then it will unfold in mystery and a bit outside the light. Yet we speak as if we know exactly what’s going on beneath the topsoil.
Many of the stories we tell favor the thematic ruts of church growth and decline. Those are patterns are important but the story itself becomes addictive. A church is an incredibly complex organism, yet we struggle to find vocabulary beyond big or small, conservative or progressive, healthy or stuck, so those become the plumb-lines against which we measure ourselves…and the enclosures into which we settle.
If our church happens to be growing, we paw at that story like it’s catnip. We can’t put it down: we market it, we put in on a resume and we set our hopes and dreams upon it. We bust it out at clergy conferences and flash it on Instagram. This kind of storytelling has its place, but too much isn’t good for our souls. We get hooked on it. It’s a fine line, the one between marketing and ego.
But when our church is struggling we get stuck in the underbelly of the same story. Somehow the bitter herb is just as addictive. The stories we tell about growth and decline are often more about being enmeshed with the culture than about being authentic communities.
Yet when we listen for deeper stories – the ones that reveal themselves in contours and shadows but never quite in linear fashion – we might not quite see the Spirit work with perfect clarity but at least we get to put the meta-story down and take a breather. In that moment of exhale, can we catch a glimpse of the Holy?
Bishop Taylor’s words from a few years back have stayed with me. We have no idea what the Holy Spirit is doing. A church isn’t one story; it’s many hundreds or even thousands of stories that could never be captured with a simple metric or even an overarching story line.
What’s your real story? Perhaps if you can look past the noise of the present church anxiety, you might catch a restorative glimpse of the Holy Spirit, doing her thing, not thinking about church metrics and not caring overmuch, either.
Sometimes the news isn’t good. Sometimes negative trends that seem anomalous at first harden with time. When that happens, how do we learn from bad bad news without being crushed by it?
Feedback loops are vital to healthy churches. Changes in things like attendance and giving have something to teach us, if we listen. But those lessons are often layered and opaque, and if we file them too quickly into hard categories we might drain the bad news of its potential for transformation.
Last week the Episcopal Church’s statistics for 2017 revealed that as a church we continue a numerical decline. Though every church is different, last year ECUSA saw about 2.5% overall decline in attendance. Over 10 years the drop has been about 25%. Ouch.
How do we take news like that seriously without being crushed by it? Does acknowledging bad news foreclose on the possibility of something new happening?
I think we have to take bad news seriously, but do so without panicking. Deficits and empty pews can be painful but they can also be great teachers. Without question, cultural and demographic changes beyond our doors loom large. But our current contraction speaks also of our own reluctance, over generations, to receive mildly painful feedback and to do something about it in a timely manner.
Now the snowball has grown and we want to melt the ice, but we can’t do it all at once. It took several generations to get to this place. I expect it will take us a good number of years to get back out of it. It will take patience, but also a bit more practice in finding the medicine at the heart of bad news.
We can start by learning how to absorb painful feedback without getting into blame, defensiveness or denial. I like what Pema Chodran says about dealing with hard things: when faced with uncertainty, don’t indulge your fears and anxieties but don’t repress them either. Somewhere in between those paths are a productive way to start anew.
The changes are real, and in many ways have been painful. The temptation to wish them away has probably accelerated the loss; it is simply not true to suggest that “we are doing fine.” Yet it’s not true that “we are dying” either. Neither story is the whole story, yet each has something to teach.
Even the grimmest read of these statistics tells us that the 75% of us who are still here (actually, many of those are newly here and pretty excited about it) can be the foundation of renewed church, if we can have the courage to hear and respond to some difficult news along the way.
Church work is hard. It should be hard, as any meaningful work is likely to to be. Writing a novel is hard. Being a parent is hard. Doing surgery is hard. Building a business is hard.
But is church work is the right kind of difficult? It’s stressful, but is it the wrong kind of stress? There’s such a thing as the right kind of stress, where pressure creates strength and value, and our response to it has the potential to make our churches more authentic and meaningful. Without stress, we wither. Without challenge, we become passive, we stop growing. The right kind of stress sharpens our responses and gives us the opportunity to cultivate places of vitality and deepened faith.
Yet when I look at the challenges of church work these days, the things that are inherently stressful, I see a different kind of stress, one that’s far less productive. It’s the stress of upkeep, of stretching resources to keep up with the bigger church down the road, of keeping things afloat rather than building something dynamic and lasting. It’s a stress that doesn’t seem to be helping much.
Church work is wonderful work…at least it can be. Consider all the things that we as pastors and leaders get to do: we shape lives around prayer, we care for souls, we fashion and guide communities. We get to build something deeply valuable and lasting, and to read and write and proclaim some pretty remarkable things. We get to walk alongside some of the most loving and lovely people around.
So why is it that church can be so challenging? I won’t litanize the many reasons here, but I know that if you’re responsible for a church that you have between seven and twelve reasons why you didn’t sleep so well last night.
It helps to separate the good stress from the bad. To me, good stress is: walking a family through a crisis, preparing a good homily on a deadline, taking on a tough conversation with your governing board, looking seriously at changing patterns in church and responding to them, working long hours in Holy Week to craft the best liturgy possible. This stuff is hard, but you hit your pillow at the end of the day knowing that your work meant something.
Bad stress looks a lot different, and tends to come when we or the people we serve aren’t taking seriously the reality that something has changed. Trying to “fill pews” without asking why they thinned out in the first place. Offering programs that folk ask for but don’t attend. Fitting a dynamic community (that waxes and wanes) into a static shell that, in in the case of my church, happens to be really big and cavernous.
Bad stress tends to be rooted in recovering something we had 20 or 50 years ago, whereas good stress looks much farther back to lay a foundation for present ministry and future flourishing. There are fine things to learn from that recent window of time, but not perhaps as much as we might think.
I like good stress. It’s good for me, and it’s good for my church. I get restless when I don’t have enough of it to make my work feel satisfying. When I have a whole lot of the bad stress, though, like bad cholesterol I want to get it under control.
Stress is never fun, but in can certainly be productive. We’ll always have to deal with both. Perhaps the key is to sense the difference between the stress that comes from impossible expectations and the stress that’s rooted in building something that will last.
If I could set my time machine back about twelve years when I became the pastor of a church for the first time, I’d pack the missing manual that I could have used back then.
I’ve had wonderful mentors and teachers and colleagues and parishioners who along the way, supported me as I became priest, as I got a taste of parish ministry in a big place and then as I took the reigns of “a church of my own” (BIG air-quotes on that one).
I had a manual back then, or at least I thought I did. The things I thought I knew about pastoral ministry and church growth, things that I grew up around and experienced as an associate at a large church, didn’t always hold up so well at my new gig. My new church was about a half-century past its numerical peak, faithful and loving but trying to rebuild in the shadow of bigger, shinier places, and in a time when church had shifted from the center of everybody’s life.
Then I moved to Cleveland to become Dean of Trinity Cathedral. There’s less of a manual for that one – it’s a particular kind of gig – and yet many of learnings I stumbled into in parish ministry have come in handy. And I’ve kept learning…through major change, pandemic, personal loss, and new things to celebrate.
Over these twelve the manual I started with has thinned out, page by page, as much of what I thought worked has ended up in the recycling bin. I’ve started to write a new manual for myself. I’m learning just how much the one I had before, the one filled with supposedly foolproof wisdom for faithful leadership, was filled with timeless assumptions that were of a surprisingly recent vintage.
The church is an ancient thing, and it occurs to me that we’ve been working on how to be the church and lead communities of faith for many hundreds of years. There’s time-tested stuff in that tradition, and the old ways still have something to teach us. And of course there is wisdom beyond that tradition that can actually help us to be who we’re supposed to be.
As I’ve unearthed this new guidebook, the missing manual, I’ve changed. I think my churches have changed, too, because this work is best when it’s shared.
Holding up our work against the backdrop of the past 60 or 100 years generally results in anxiety…and shades of the same anxiety bubble up in places that are even doing pretty well. Yet looking deeper brings new things to the surface. It helps us to see what’s valuable about the places where we are, and makes church more satisfying for all its wonderful complexity.
But the point of all this isn’t to make church more satisfying or even to : it’s to create healthy places of faith and community where we can each become free to be who God created each of us to be.
So here’s why I’m writing: the old manual had its place, and still has some good stuff in there. But it’s largely for a church that was a moment in time, and a short one at that.
That moment has largely run its course, and if there’s any doubt the pandemic pretty much settled the argument. That’s painful, but in some places we’ve felt the pain of it and have begun to come out the other side.
From here, I can see a few bits from the old guidebooks that continue to come in handy. But I can also see some wonderful things emerging, insights and practices that are hopeful and authentic but also, I’m learning, a bit more layered than the church that I thought I knew.