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Change or Die

  • Tom Ehrich Religion News Service
  • 2010 13 Jan
Change or Die

I participated in an online seminar last week, sponsored by The Presbyterian Outlook magazine, related to my new initiative that encourages church leaders to think beyond Sunday morning. One participant's question struck me as especially pertinent.

After hearing ideas for enhancing congregational life, diversifying ministries, thinking of better ways to reach more people, she asked:

"Can any of this be done without convincing the current governing boards?"

Behind her question was the reality that, in many congregations, leaders often resist any measure that would enable their congregation to have a dynamic future. In resisting change, loss of control, and new ways of doing things, leaders are saying "No" to the very growth, change and renewed mission that their congregations need if they are to survive.

As one Presbyterian pastor put it, "These folks don't really seem interested in doing much more than coming to church on Sunday for service." Nor do they want their church offering more programs to anyone else, even though failure to serve new constituencies is inherently self-defeating.

Although resistance to change is nothing new, the window for embracing the future is rapidly closing. One pastor of a struggling Alabama parish measures his turnaround window in months, not years. A leading church thinker looks at churches' financial stress, depleted endowments, crumbling facilities and lagging appeal to the young and middle-aged, and says mainline Protestant congregations have maybe 18 months to respond.

So I pulled no punches in answering the question about recalcitrant leaders.

"I think it's time for leaders to lead, and for clergy to be aggressive about doing everything they can to grow their churches," I told her. "Lay leaders shouldn't be allowed to stifle growth. It's God's church, not theirs."

I wasn't done.

"Other than budget expenses for something like a new Web site," I said, strategies for moving forward aren't about money or hiring. They are about mission, ministry, education, pastoral care, membership development and other factors that "shouldn't require formal approval, unless your governing board has gotten into the habit of giving permission on everything that happens. If that is the case, correcting that dysfunctional sort of leadership is your starting point."

Still, after 50 years of fighting about change, many mainline congregations seem braced for one last battle: whose hand gets to turn out the lights.

Time is running out. We need to break this deadlock. I think it's time for change-minded leaders to lead, and for denominational officials to support them in the ensuing firestorm. Instead of fighting over who owns the building, we should be discerning who owns the mission. A congregation can't be allowed to die just because entrenched leaders won't allow life.

I told a group of Presbyterian clergy in Alabama that an "old order" is passing away and a "new order" is coming in American Christianity.

Many congregations and entrepreneurial leaders get it, and they are thriving. Many don't get it -- won't even embrace the possibility -- and they are dying.

The issue isn't (conservative vs. progressive) theology or theories about Scripture. The issue is listening to people's yearnings, working effectively with existing resources, following best practices, and understanding the entrepreneurial reality: be aggressive, measure honestly, learn from experience, don't get stuck, and surround yourself with co-leaders who share the vision.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, His Web site is
c. 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission. 

Original publication date: January 13, 2010