Dave Odom: Sometimes, congregations must back up and start again

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If your ministry is no longer achieving its intended impact, it may be time to ask why. Probing a ministry’s purpose and progress may reveal that it’s time to reverse course and start again.

A pastor invited me to his congregation to explain to a newly formed vision team how a consultant might help them in their work. A congregational visioning process, I told them, must be rooted in trust.

A member interrupted me with this question: “Was this team formed improperly, and should we resign?”

She was right that their process offered a low chance of success. Members of this committee represented various factions, not leaders concerned with the whole congregation.

Before I could respond, she said it did not matter what I thought. She recommended that the team be disbanded and the process be started again.

It takes courage to decide to back up, undoing a previous decision and beginning again. This move is especially complicated in congregations, complex social systems in which power and authority are often shared. Getting hundreds of people to back up at the same time is rare.

Many of us are in situations in which work we have been doing for years is no longer having the intended impact. Committees have low attendance and never seem to make progress on ministry ideas. Worship attendance decreases Sunday after Sunday. Offerings decline.

The first response to such situations is often to make more announcements and send more emails. If only people knew the good things we are doing, they would attend and offer support. A second response is often to add something new -- a program, a service, a building. We hope the novelty will attract attention even if nothing else is changing.

More communication and more services might be needed. But what might be more fruitful is to ask why work is no longer making an impact. Such an inquiry leads to practical questions -- how much staff to hire, how much money we can raise, how many programs the volunteers can support.

Consider what happened when the congregational vision team asked why they were meeting. Asking why enabled them to clarify their purpose, discern the best way to form a vision team and name the signs of success. Ultimately, they did disband and form a new team using a new process with a greater likelihood of achieving their goals.

“Why” questions can be particularly difficult to answer, because previous benchmarks may no longer be helpful. Forty years ago, congregations measured average attendance and could predict with confidence the size of church staff, the building footprint, the expected revenue, the number of programs and more. Today, the attendance of a congregation is only one among a variety of factors that predict what is possible.

One of the critical challenges facing congregations is how to accomplish goals in a world in which fewer people are engaged with congregations and those who are engaged tend to use a variety of resources in their own formation. In the mid-20th century, congregations were a key part of the daily life of many families in many communities -- the “one-stop shop” for their development as Christians. Today, families are looking to all sorts of groups and organizations to develop as people and as Christians.

This context makes it all the more critical for congregations to take stock of their ministries and consider whether to change course or back up.

The National Congregations Study reports that U.S. congregations average 70 people in worship on a Sunday. That average is down by more than 10 percent over the last few years.

An average-size congregation can be a meaningful worshipping community that deeply cares for each other and offers a signature ministry that is well-known and helpful in the community. A congregation of 700 in worship can do everything the smaller congregation is doing plus offer multiple signature ministries. The larger-attendance congregation can experiment with various ministries and stick with the ones that have the most impact.

But no matter the congregation’s size, backing up could be required. In the smaller place, the signature ministry might need to be fine-tuned to better meet emerging needs. The larger church might need to evaluate its experiments and stop ineffective ministries to create space for something new. It is not necessary to convince everyone to back up in order to gain perspective. Even single leaders or small teams can decide to back up and look at their areas of responsibility. Such a move may require letting go of something urgent to figure out what is important.

When I was a young pastor, the transportation committee required that I complete their driver training before taking the 50-passenger church bus to a youth retreat. (Today, driving such a bus would involve a special certification from the DMV and the insurance company.) My trainer took me on highways, narrow roads and hills. Eventually, I was instructed to weave my way up a winding hill, through a narrow alley, to the high school cafeteria loading dock.

When we arrived at the dock, I was thrilled to have all the mirrors intact. The instructor smiled and gave me the final test: backing up, all the way down the alley and hill to the main road.

“Anyone can learn to go forward,” he said. “The test is in backing up.”