What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1/8/21
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?