Holy God, your Spirit calls and our hearts respond. Your Spirit calls and our world is overturned. Your Spirit calls and our spirits awaken. Your Spirit calls and our minds clear. Your Spirit calls and our bodies relax. Your Spirit calls and anxieties depart. Your Spirit calls and old ways diminish. Your Spirit calls and a new future is born. Amen.
Sunday evening, January 17, First Congregational Church of Granby engaged in a productive and enlightening conversation around two proposals for our future: one produced by the Downsizing Task Force and one produced by the Collaboration/Consolidation Task Force. I observed deep listening, careful questioning, and honest responses as we explored the proposals together.
Overall there was little disagreement, but one moment stood out for me. At one point in the discussion of the downsizing proposal, someone said, “Well, it’s clear this just isn’t going to work.” A few minutes later, someone else commenting on the downsizing proposal responded, “It is going to work.” Is it going to “work?” Isn’t it going to “work?” This is a great question for both proposals. The answer depends on what our goal is.
At the beginning of the meeting, moderator Bob Giles shared with us the now familiar church life cycle graph and reminded us that we had all agreed that as a congregation we were on the decline side of the graph heading toward death. The goal, Bob said, was to shift the congregation into a growth trajectory, in other words, to reverse the decline trend.
I understood the comment “This just isn’t going to work” in light of the goal that Bob had identified: reversing the decline trend. And to my ears, that seemed to be the unarticulated worry underlying the conversation: is simply cutting expenses really going to turn things around? Research and experience shows that it is common for churches to focus on deficits as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” Sometimes this is the case. But in a situation where a church has been declining over a number of years, deficits are a symptom of a deeper problem that budget cuts alone won’t fix. So in this sense, the downsizing proposal “won’t work.”
So was the person who argued that the downsizing plan will “work” wrong? Not necessarily. If the goal isn’t to reverse the decline trend but, in the words of the downsizing report, “maintain independence,” then the downsizing plan will work . . . for a while. As long as the underlying problem that set us on the decline trajectory remains unaddressed, simply cutting expenses will only prolong the decline process. The end will be the same.
What is the “underlying problem?” That would be a wonderful conversation to have. Proverbs 29:18 reads, “Where there is no vision (Hebrew: chazon), the people perish.” Bob pointed out on the church life cycle diagram that churches beginning on the growth trajectory begin with a compelling vision and continue by building relationships with people in the community. (By contrast, churches nearing the end of the life cycle have a greatly reduced vision and a primary focus on maintaining current relationships rather than building new ones.) As we consider these two proposals, we might ask, “Which captures my heart? Which provides a compelling vision for the future?” The prophet Joel wrote, “In those days young people will see visions and elders dream dreams.” What vision is God laying on your heart today?
This part two of a two-part series on “What’s Next?” at First Congregational Church of Granby. Part one focused on three different models for downsizing. This week we will focus on four different models for church consolidation.
Assimilation (along with the “ICU” model below) is one of the more common models of consolidation. Assimilation happens when a “lead” church incorporates another church’s people and assets. Key for successful assimilation is assessment of mission compatibility of the assimilated church with the lead church. Also important is a clear understanding of any liabilities the assimilated church might bring to the table. The point of assimilation is to strengthen the position of the lead church and to provide an opportunity of the assimilated church to pass on the legacy of their assests. Because of the principle of homeostasis (that is, without conscious and sustained effort, churches tend to revert to status quo) assimilations usually don’t result in significant increases for the “lead” church. A nearby example of assimilation is Wilson Congregational Church (Windsor), which in 2010 assimilated to First Church in Windsor.
Satellite is a consolidation model in which a lead church “adopts” another church. The adoptee turns over control of its assets to a lead church, which then takes responsibility for developing the adopted church as a satellite of the lead church usually providing the adoptee access to the lead church’s staff, membership, and programs. This was a model explored by First Congregational Church of Stamford as an option that would have potentially allowed them to stay in their building. Unfortunately they were not able to find a nearby UCC with the capacity to take on the congregation as a satellite. Lead churches generally need to be on a growth trajectory in order to adopt a satellite and none of the nearby UCCs were growing.
Consolidation/Restart is a model that involves two (or more!) congregations merging their assets and membership on an equal basis to create a new congregation with a new identity and mission. Though researchers are still gathering data, we can say anecdotally that this is the most promising model for consolidation. Consolidation/restart may involve a new location, new building, new name, new worship style, and/or new staffing. The governing questions are “What is our Why?” and “What of our combined resources will best support us in living out that Why?” The consolidation/restart model disrupts the status quo enough so that the consolidating congregations can move from a decline trajectory to a growth trajectory while pooling resources to more effectively live out a common mission.
ICU model. We have also talked about this as the “Titanic model.” The ICU model is another version of hospice where two declining congregations combine resources in order to keep their current members as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. Unless there is conscious effort to change the congregations’ cultures, many consolidations follow the ICU model by default. Consideration of these different models was, for example, a part of the conversations around the consolidation that formed the new Southern New England Conference of the UCC.
What other models for consolidation are you aware of?
It has been a week. Together we bear witness to historic events in the life of our nation. On Wednesday the first African American from Georgia was elected to the Senate, a pastor who serves the same congregation Martin Luther King, Jr. once did. Dr. King gave his life for a Biblical vision of beloved community. This week we saw evidence that Dr. King’s vision continues to bear the fruit of love and justice in our nation.
That same day, Wednesday Jan. 6, we witnessed an armed attack on our nation’s Capitol. Four people lost their lives. Our nation’s leaders were forced to shelter in place. On Jan. 6 a mob incited by our President was able to do what all the armies of the Confederacy failed to do 150 years ago. They paraded the Confederate battle flag–a symbol of slavery, racism, and hate–through the halls of congress. It was a chiling reminder that the evil of racism and white supremacy continues to eat away at the soul of our country. Like Dr. King’s dream our nation is resilient but fragile. We pray that you will send your spirit to heal our land.
Also on Wednesday we gathered in the evening to record the professions of faith of three Confirmands. We celebrate with joy their honesty, their curiosity, their love, and their commitment to the way of Jesus. We ask that you bless and protect them. We ask that you make all of us instruments of your peace in this time of unrest. We ask that as a congregation you give us the courage to find a way toward your future. Give us a heart for future generations so that they, too, can learn of Dr. King’s dream and find new ways to embody it.
In this time of conflict and mass delusion, we may at times feel helpless to heal the divides of our nation. Give us a baptism of your Spirit that we may all be one. Renew our commitment to the way of Jesus, who received a baptism of the Spirit in order to bring justice and peace among all people.
Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water that by it we may be reminded of our baptism into Jesus Christ and that by the power of your Holy Spirit we may fulfill what we have promised.
Creative God, baptize us with your Holy Spirit. Create in us a new heart, one attuned to your love, one filled with your life, a heart that radiates warmth and generosity. The world is full of suffering. We, too, suffer. Heal us so that we can be your hands of healing for others. Amen.
On Nov. 23, 2020 First Congregational Church of Granby narrowed five “lanes” to the future to two: consolidation and downsizing. Two task forces were created to explore these alternatives and create reports, which will be discussed (not voted on) at a congregational meeting Jan. 17, 2021.
At the Nov. 23 meeting a request was made for information on current best practices around these two models, and I was asked to help with that. This week’s topic: downsizing. There are any number of approaches to downsizing. Three I will consider are downsizing/revitalization, downsizing/restart, and downsizing/hospice. Downsizing could also be a part of a larger consolidation/merger process, but our purpose is to consider each approach as “stand alone.”
Downsizing/revitalization is the approach we’ve been experimenting a little bit with for the past 18 months. It involves pointing as many of the church’s resources as possible at the goal of reaching new people. It means taking a hard look at buildings/property, staffing, organizational structure, worship, and mission focus. If it’s not growing the church, we eliminate, repurpose, or redirect it. Overall it’s doing more with less because we are no longer doing things that don’t directly contribute to the growth of the church. One small example of this is shifting 20% of the pastor’s time budget toward building relationships with people who are not yet members of the church while meeting ongoing pastoral care needs with lay volunteers. For more detailed information see: Reconstructing Church: Tools for Turning Your Congregation Around by Todd Grant Yonkman. The book is a case study of one downsize/revitalization project.
Downsizing/restart is when the congregation sells its property, changes/reduces its staffing as a part of a larger strategy of reinventing itself in ways that will move it from a decline trajectory to a growth trajectory. In other words, an “old” church starts behaving like a brand new “baby” church. The whole point of this downsizing is a disruption of the status quo. For more information see Dying to Restart: Churches Choosing a Strategic Death for a Resurrected Life available in paperback and as an e-book. Two examples of downsize/restart congregations right here in Connecticut are First Congregational Church of Stamford and United Congregational Church (Bridgeport).
The goal of downsizing/hospice is to maintain the congregation’s status quo as much as possible for as long as possible so the current membership can be as comfortable as possible. Some of the main pieces of hospice work are pastoral care, maintaining familiar worship, events, and programming, planning for a meaningful closing that celebrates the church’s history, and leaving a legacy that can provide resources for new churches and ministries.
The hospice approach to downsizing tends to focus on reducing staff. This makes sense. Staff are usually the biggest part of any church budget. A brief Internet search reveals that recommendations for staffing as a percentage of overall budget range from 45% to 65%. (Many churches spend much more. Contrariwise, some have no paid staff whatsoever! See Shalom UCC in New Haven, CT. Our 2021 budget allocates 66.4% for staff with several positions as of right now unfilled.)
Hospice staffing usually consists of an administrator who runs the church office, coordinating groups and rentals, printing the bulletin, and the newsletter, etc. There’s a sexton/cleaning company to maintain the building. A part time musician and a part time pastor lead worship, do funerals, and care for the church members until they gradually become too few to maintain the church assets.
The good news is that even at this point, new life is possible. The dying congregation plans a “funeral” to celebrate all of the wonderful ministry it has done. Then it can leave a legacy to another organization or entity in some form. The UCC has a process whereby the assets of closed churches can be used to start new ministries to reach new people in desperate need of hearing the UCC’s inclusive message. For more information see Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection by UCC minister Gail Irwin.
Downsizing can be very liberating. Freeing ourselves from that which is unnecessary and burdensome can open space for new possibilities. What other downsizing models do you see?
The end of the year is a time for looking forward and looking back. Before I go any farther, a couple of caveats: 1) I recognize and honor all of the loss, grief, and anxiety of 2020 including the global COVID pandemic, our nation’s racial reckoning, and the ongoing political “civil war” that is tearing at the social fabric; 2) I recognize the longing to “go back to normal”; 3) as far as the future of our church goes, I’ll do my best to support whatever direction the congregation chooses.
That being said it seems highly unlikely that it will be possible to go back to pre-COVID “normal” entirely. Too much has changed. New habits have been formed and will likely continue–like worshipping online and doing meetings on Zoom, for example. Yes, we will resume doing things in person, but we will be connecting online much more than before COVID just because it’s more convenient and actually better suited for certain kinds of interactions. The good news is that we may have unwittingly perfectly positioned ourselves for this moment.
I encourage you to check out the blog post “Five Reasons Why 2021 Should Be Your New Baseline.” The author, Thom Rainer focuses primarily on church metrics (how we measure our ministry), but his suggestion is that churches treat 2021 as a “fresh start.” If 2021 is a year for “fresh starts,” it seems to me that either the “downsize” lane or the “consolidation” lane could offer the opportunity for the freshest of all fresh starts–depending on how it’s done.
I get it. We human beings tend to resist letting go of anything lest we lose something “important.” Wise discernment is necessary for deciding what to leave behind and what to carry forward. But it is also true that an important part of our faith is the opportunity to start again, to lay down our burdens, to let go of the past including all our mistakes and regrets, to receive forgiveness, to get a second chance. As horrible as 2020 was in many respects, 2021 might just present us with an opportunity many people long for: a fresh start.
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
As I shared in my last installment of “What’s Up,” at the First Congregational Church of Granby Nov. 23 “What’s Next” workshop, I was tasked with researching and sharing information on current trends in church vitality. There’s a ton of information out there. The trick is curating relevant content (to use a current turn of phrase)!
I’ve been trying to keep Advent themes. The theme for this week is joy so I did a very “current” thing: I googled “church vitality and joy.” VoiLa! Google gave me a Facebook post from what looks to be a new church start called “Vitality Church,” whose physical location is the building of a (now closed?) Disciples of Christ congregation. Look at all the kids! You can check out the post here. Included in the post is the above Scripture from the Epistle of James: “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy . . .”
First Church (like many churches) is facing trials, and our faith is being tested. James reminds us that this is part of the process! This isn’t a “bug”; it’s a feature! Think about it. Our ancestors faced all kinds of trials: the Civil War, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, etc. etc. etc. Why should we expect our experience to be any different? The fact is Christianity and congregational life is designed to test us. That may come as a surprise to some of us who have been taught either implicitly or explicitly that as “good people” we have a “right to comfort.” James says, “No.” As Christians we don’t have a ‘right to comfort’ but we do have the promise of joy. Testing builds endurance, which leads to maturity and “completion.” Completion here means “perfection, holiness, happiness, bliss.” So be joyful! This is it, friends, this is the Christian way. This is the real deal.
I encourage you to check out the “about” tab of Vitality Church’s Facebook page. Notice how they describe themselves. Notice their values and how they aim their message. Remember the Simon Sinek video we watched during our “What is Your Why?” workshop? He said vital organizations and movements (including the civil rights movement!) operate out of their “why” because that helps them connect with others who share that “why.” Vitality Church makes it clear that they are an imperfect church for imperfect people that is nevertheless focused not on their own personal preferences but on meeting the needs of their neighbors. To quote: “No matter what we will always do our best to be whatever people need us to be.”
Making a transition from decline to vitality is difficult! It is at times painful and exhausting. Hooray! Our faith is being tested in order that our joy might be complete.
Holy God, you reveal yourself to us in Jesus. Shine in and through us so that we can be a light to many. As we reflect upon the previous year, we’re aware of how you have guided us. Even when we wandered, you never abandoned us. Even when we lost sight of your illuminating presence, you never gave up on us. As we approach a new year filled with unexpected challenges and unprecedented opportunities, give us the courage to face each moment. Give us the wisdom to see the light of your life in each circumstance. Amen.