Options for Struggling Congregations


handsMany churches come to a time in their congregational life where the question of sustainability or viability is raised. At this crucial juncture it is important to look at a wide range of options and to prayerfully discern what direction God is calling the congregation.

Our Conference offers a program called Crossroads that provides one of the best assessment and discernment tools for congregations at this juncture in their life.  You can find out more at  macucc.org/crossroads  In addition, the information that follows can help your church’s leadership  look at strategies congregations in similar circumstances have taken. There is no “right or wrong” answer but rather the goal is to be faithful to the situation facing your congregation and the unique setting of your ministry. It is always helpful to have a person from your judicatory or an outside consultant work with you through this process

Whatever path you consider, we hope you will surround your discerning process with prayer and listen for God’s voice in the midst of your deliberations.

Option: Turnaround Congregation

One option a dwindling congregation can choose is to do an intentional turnaround process. This process requires: 

  • A “new” pastor: A minister who is new to that congregation or a pastor who has had a transformative experience and has a “new” sense of passion for ministry.
  • A willingness on the part of the congregation to focus on spiritual development/discipleship.
  • An outward focus on the community around the church with the needs of those not yet in church taking priority over the needs of the current congregation.
  • Lots of change around church structure, finance and leadership.

Churches that want to consider the turnaround option need lots of support in terms of training and ongoing coaching. A turnaround pastor will need to spend 20% of his/her time in the community and thus lay leadership will need to help with pastoral care and administration to free up the pastor’s time. Also, if this option is chosen, leadership must protect the pastor’s “back”; standing firmly in support of the pastor when someone criticizes him/her for not spending all their time with the current membership.

The benefits of a turnaround are that a congregation rekindles its spirit and becomes linked again to the community around the congregation. Part of determining whether or not this option is right for your church includes looking at the size of the current congregation, the energy level and the mission field around the church.

A turnaround ministry often takes 3-5 years and requires determination and use of resources. The risk is high but the payoff is great, in that a congregation reclaims the ministry and mission it once had. For more on the turnaround process, click here.

Option: Consolidation

A consolidation is when two or more churches sell their buildings, change their leadership and move to a new location with a new sense of ministry and usually a new church name. The advantages of a consolidation include:

Elimination of the “turf” wars of “whose” building we stay in.
A new location with new pastoral leadership can often give two or more former congregations a fresh start.
Budgets, buildings and resources are consolidated for one mission.
A new church building can help to launch a new sense of ministry and mission.

This option can be very successful but it does require a lot of prayer and strategizing by two or more congregations. There is often much turmoil when all financial resources are put into one pot and at times congregations may argue over keeping a former pastor in this new venture. People have to be ready to give up their old sense of identity and accept this consolidation as a “new” church. If one of more of the congregations view themselves as a closed club for their members and their own needs as paramount, consolidation will not work. However, if this option is done well, there is an opportunity to move to a new mission field or community and for a new venture to blossom.

Option: Merger

A merger is when two or more churches move together into one of the existing buildings and share resources. In many cases, a merger allows two struggling congregations to share one pastor and to pool dwindling resources, enabling a continued presence in a community. The difficulties of merging into an existing building include:

Turf issues of “whose” church is it.
Questions about which pastor remains as leader of the merged congregations.
Feelings of one church “winning” and the other “losing”.
Power struggles.
No new sense of mission or energy.
It is also important in your reflection to understand “Merger Math”. If one congregation has 100 members and the other 50, it does not mean the merged church will end up with 150 members. Usually, after two or three years, the congregation will be back to the size of the larger congregation.

Merger may be the best option in some settings in which there are limited resources and obvious duplication of buildings and efforts. However, prayerful consideration should be given to the long-range effects on ministry and mission rather than just the short-term advantages. Are we fulfilling God’s vision for our mission field or are we simply postponing the inevitable?

Option: Yoking

For some congregations yoking is the best option. A yoking occurs when two or more congregations agree to remain in their existing buildings and ministries but share one pastor for both congregations. This option can be helpful in terms of having a full-time pastor in a community and offers the opportunity for two or more congregations to work cooperatively towards a shared vision. There are some challenges that need to be prayerfully considered as well:

A pastor’s time is divided and often congregations argue over who is getting more of the pastor’s time.
There are limitations of a pastor’s availability.
 If there is a large geographical distance between the churches a yoke can be difficult.
There are a limited number of pastors who enjoy yoked situations.

In considering a yoke situation it is very important to weigh the benefits and challenges in your particular setting.

Option: Adoption

A growing number of smaller congregations are looking at adoption as a way to maintain ministry. Adoption is when a smaller congregation approaches a large, healthy congregation and asks to become a satellite or branch of the large church. Adoption means a smaller, struggling congregation becomes part of a larger church but maintains its building and presence in the community. The larger church can then offer staffing, resources and their healthy DNA to this smaller church.

The challenges of the adoption approach are that the smaller church becomes part of the larger and falls under that church’s vision for the future. The smaller congregation loses its own identity and turns its building and resources over to the larger church. Churches that are looking at this option have to value keeping a presence in the community over their own needs to maintain the heritage of the current congregation. If a congregation values serving the community this is a valuable option.

Option: Part-Time or Lay Pastor

Some congregations, faced with dwindling resources, will opt for a part-time pastor who is bi-vocational or a lay pastor. Part-time, ordained clergy do provide the essentials ministries for a church and they often understand the stresses of many of the parishioners as they are working in the secular world as well. The pastor’s workplace may provide an entry into the community and often stronger lay leadership is needed to make up the difference. The challenges include the lack of availability of the pastor and scheduling conflicts. Clear job descriptions help in this situation as often churches expect full-time service for part-time pay.

 A lay pastor is often an alternative and at its best it produces a more realistic expectation of what the pastor will do. The pastor may be a member of the congregation and already know the region well. The difficulties that sometimes arise with a lay pastor are the lack of experience, lack of authority and lack of leadership.

With either a part-time ordained pastor or a lay pastor it is important to think through the long-range implications. What is God calling us to do and be in this community and how can we best reach those goals?

Option: Close and Re-Open as a New Church

In this option a church chooses to end its ministry, to close the doors for 6 to 12 months and then re-open as a new church start. This option means that the existing congregation recognizes that it no longer can reach its mission field and that someone else will do so in the future. The existing congregation agrees to go and find other congregations to join, based on personal needs and the building and assets are turned over to the denominational judicatory who finds a new church start pastor who will begin a new church reaching new people (it is not an option for existing members to come back to the new church as this would just repeat an old pattern of behavior; something completely new is being birthed).

This option works best with congregations that value a presence in the community over their own needs to maintain the status quo. That kind of perspective only comes after much thought and prayer. Turning over the “keys” to the building is a kind of letting go that is remarkable when done well. This option is often helpful when a congregation has grown old and can no longer reach a community or when the community has had radical demographic change and the congregation no longer matches it. The benefit is that a new pastor who matches the new demographic can be called and can reach this population that the existing congregation could not.

Option: Legacy Church

Some congregations reach the point where they feel it is time to close the church, sell the building and turn all the assets over to the denominational judicatory for further mission use. There are some wonderful Good Friday/Easter morning stories of congregations that realize maintaining a large building in a place where they cannot reach their mission field is poor stewardship and there is some remarkable work that can be done when the assets are used creatively for and mission elsewhere. This option requires some sober realization of the existing situation and a period to grieve the loss of the church many people have loved. Existing members will need to find new church homes and that transition is sometimes difficult.

But the benefits of a Legacy Church are that significant resources are then released to start other congregations, to fund churches that are turning around, to develop new ministry and mission efforts. Members of a Legacy Church can often find a deep sense of satisfaction and faith in seeing their gifts blossom in new ways.

Conclusion

Congregations that find themselves at a crossroads may also consider Crossroads Massachusetts, a new Conference ministry designed to help churches intentionally discern their path forward. 

Each option listed above has pluses and minuses. Only you know your church situation and your mission field. Any decision needs lots prayer and reflection so that we move beyond just our own personal needs and tastes and come to a place where we believe we are faithfully following God’s call into our future. May the Spirit lead you in your discernment journey.

For more information, contact your regional Associate Conference Minister.