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February 28, 2012

Carol Howard Merritt: From challenge to opportunity

What is our plan in the coming decades?

I chaired a national committee for the Presbyterian Church (USA) that will report on the “Nature of the Church for the 21st Century.” Our mandate was to make plans for our common future. Although there are differences between larger denominations, as I speak at many denominational gatherings across the country, I also see similarities. I think our committee’s findings can be instructive for most mainline churches.

Here’s what we discovered will be the biggest challenges for the next generation:

Our denomination is over 90% white, while the overall population is increasingly diverse. In my daughter’s generation, Caucasians will be in the minority.

The median age of our denomination is over 60, while one of our nation’s largest generations (the millennials) is entering their 20s.

About 44% of our congregations can no longer afford installed pastors. While we believe in an educated clergy and ordination standards remain high and costly, in practice, laypeople or retired pastors lead almost half of our congregations.

We are losing an increasing number of churches. The number of churches that have closed, merged, or left the denomination has more than doubled in the last ten years. In 2010, we lost more than nine churches every month.

What should our goals be in the coming years? To become diverse, younger, sustainable and innovative.

I struggle with both the challenges and the goals, hearing my own reservations and the questions of conversation partners rattle in my head: “Don’t you care about older members? Are you saying we just need to write-off half of our churches? Is our hard work irrelevant? Don’t you realize that our older, smaller churches are doing amazing ministry?”

Of course I do. I believe small and existing congregations have value and vitality. I loved and served a rural 26-member church, which grew and participated in wonderful ministry. I currently serve a resurrected church that almost closed thirty years ago. Thankfully it’s now an amazing intergenerational community. I dedicate most of my writing and work to intergenerational ministry, because I believe strongly in the wisdom and value of older men and women of faith.

But all of that doesn’t make the reality of those closing churches go away, and that doesn’t take away from the fact that we increasingly look less like the communities we’re called to serve.

How can we carry forward the wisdom of the past while seeking ways to become diverse, younger, sustainable and innovative?

Tear down the cultural barriers that keep immigrant communities from becoming part of our denominations. This will include welcoming emerging immigrant fellowships, sharing our resources and planting churches in diverse areas.

Reinvest the money, land, resources and gifts from closing congregations to start new churches. We have a glut of clergy as smaller churches can no longer afford ministers, associate pastor positions have been cut, and pastors over the age of 65 cannot afford to retire. Like the rest of our economy, younger generations are strapped with increasing educational debt and decreasing job opportunities. Our churches will need to create jobs, and we have the perfect opportunity to do so. As churches close, we can reinvest those resources into planting new congregations. I know we think that we’re “bad” at planting churches, but there are many fantastic, creative models out there. Since about half of our churches thrive after they have been planted, we can plan on starting two churches for every one that takes hold.

Create opportunities in our seminaries to learn about planting new faith communities. There is very little education in our seminaries dedicated to starting new congregations. Many of our students must look outside of our denominational seminaries in order get training on innovative ministries. In the years ahead, as planting churches becomes a bigger priority, we will need to give students and pastors the more educational support.

Support clergy interested in bi-vocational ministry. Throughout our process, we will need more sustainable ways for clergy to thrive, yet there seems to be a breakdown of support for pastors who want to serve in bi-vocational ministries. We may need to better explain the concept or adapt denominational structures so candidates who envision a non-traditional track after their ordination can pursue it.

We need not see these as challenges, but as opportunities to partake in the new creative work of God’s good future. After all, we worship a God who works from within the unlikely -- calling a slave people out of Egypt, a young shepherd to replace Saul, a carpenter’s son to be Messiah. As we focus on becoming diverse, younger, sustainable and innovative, we will need to support and nurture the unlikely creative communities that spring up within our larger church. 

Carol Howard Merritt is pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC and author of "Tribal Church" (Alban). She blogs at tribalchurch.org.


Next Church


There are many fine points that you have made, although most remain at the level of operational change and not adaptive change. The broader cultural context of the church's decline has called into question our mode of operations in many ways. As you are well aware, younger generations often don't feel the church's life is particular spiritual or welcoming. And I for one, also believe our response to all of this must be multi-faceted. How could a seminary teach new church development, when it's faculty has never engaged in that missional experience? And most of our presbytery's look at NCD as merely a way to keep our franchise operations in business. Not much of a missional calling or theology there! So, I would encourage dialogue that goes beyond denominational preservation to asking "What is God's mission in the world?" And "Why does God need a church anyway?" With those questions I'd add another fundamental one, "How do we learn to live in the way Jesus lived for people in our time?"

I disagree that planting new

I disagree that planting new churches is all about denominational preservation. I mean, it may have been in the past. But right now I find that the most creative, social-justice, community-engaging work takes place when we plant vital communities. They usually do more take into account the larger neighborhood and God's mission in the world.

I suppose I don't apologize for loving the church or even the institution. I'm certainly not delusional. I know that most people don't care about it... but I do. I suppose I just have a different calling in all of this.

Same Song

As a Disciples of Christ youth minister for over 40 years (yes, you read right) I feel much resonance in your reflections on the challenges and opportunities. Same song here in our church family. We need to bring you to our Disciples Youth Ministry Network event in the future to push it all further together and on into a new future. Diverse / younger / sustainable / innovative. Yes. Thanks.

How we dialogue


Do we just have a different calling? Or are we engaged in a common effort to discern what God's Spirit is up to in the world. I am not suggesting that we not love the church; rather that we have a lover's quarrel with a church that often thinks only of its own needs and agenda and not the agenda of the Spirit or the kingdom of God in the world. As Tony Jones once remarked, "It's not the death of God that is the reality we struggle with, but often the feeling of the death of the church." I believe much of the church is dying and maybe needs to die in order for something new to spring to life. Regarding NCD, I also believe we in the PCUSA have much to repent of in the ways we've done new church development. There's a whole history here of the last 10-15 years and more where the lives of faithful ncd pastors were damaged and broken by judicatory leaders across a whole swath of the PCUSA. That story also needs to be faced and the actions of a church that condoned the destructive behavior toward both the ncd pastors and trusting ncd pioneer leaders faced and repented of. There's a lot of denial about that to this very day.

I'm so sorry to hear about

I'm so sorry to hear about destructive behavior... if you want to dm me on FB or send me an email (carolhowardmerritt at gmail), it might be good to air some of this... I can't do much, but at least I can write/speak about it.

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