Church Pathologist

When a Church is thriving it’s fun to discover why.  What’s their secret sauce?  Is there a gimmick?  A charismatic leader?  A financial benefactor?

Thriving congregations have common factors that you can read about here and here and here.  So much has to do with authenticity and spiritual curiosity and follow through.  But that’s not what this post is about.

I wouldn’t call it fun but it’s interesting to uncover why some congregations do not thrive.  Maybe they have struggled since the day they were established.  Maybe they were hit by the ecclesiastical equivalent of  an asteroid. Maybe the local economy collapsed or a deadly outbreak wiped out most of the population.

But more likely, the causes are quite ordinary.

Over the weekend, I spent a little time researching a church I love – obsessed with why they’ve struggled for so long.  Eventually, they might blame the Presbytery for “closing them” but the truth is that they have made choices to close themselves that – compounded over decades – proved to be fatal.

  1. They never asked members to make financial commitments.  There was never a “stewardship campaign.”  There were never conversations about the needs of the church or a push to make sacrificial giving.  Throughout their history, they collected “free will offerings” but never expected members to make financial pledges for the sake of budget planning.
  2. They had seven different pastors the first ten years of their existence.  I can’t figure out why this happened and the possibilities are endless.  Maybe they simply kept calling the wrong pastors – whatever that means.  Maybe they didn’t treat their pastors fairly.  Maybe they couldn’t consistently pay a pastor (See #1.)
  3. They loved each other but they didn’t love their neighbors.  They only reached out into the neighborhood in a cursory way and every time they were offered the opportunity to make a difference in the community (house a local ministry in their building, partner with another church to reach out) they said no.
  4. They had no relationship with the wider Church  Say what you will about the problem with denominations, but healthy denominational partners help with everything from emergency funding to leadership training to pastor vetting to mission building.  Their history indicated that they believed the Presbytery would one day want to close them.  Actually the Presbytery’s job is to help them thrive.  I wish they’d asked when they clearly needed it.
  5. A handful of members “ran everything.”  Although pillars of the Church are gifts in many ways, it’s also possible that they can drive other pillars away.  When they cling to offices for decades at a time, when they complain because new volunteers “don’t do it right” they inadvertently push new leaders out.  And they sometimes push new pastors out.

Do any of these factors ring true for your congregation?  If so, it’s not too late to make some changes.  But note that those changes will be very difficult.  We’re talking about editing a congregation’s DNA.  It can happen.  But we really need to want to do it.

I remember talking with a pathologist about why he preferred to work with dead bodies and he said that – as a younger doctor – he’d been an internist who advised his patients to eat vegetables and stop smoking and start exercising. But rarely did they listen.  Now – working with dead bodies – he was never disappointed.  The dead don’t need advice that they’ll ignore anyway.

I prefer to work with living, thriving congregations where:

  • giving is generous
  • pastors are fulfilled and appreciated
  • both strangers and friends are authentically loved as God’s children
  • congregational partnerships are sought out for the sake of ministry
  • leadership is rotated

Those congregations deserve most of our attention because they want to live and thrive.  But I also love those congregation who don’t want to die, while also making choices that will bring their undoing.  (I wish they’d listen before it’s too late.)

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