What I no longer believe is true about congregations

By Susan Nienaber

For most of my consulting practice, I “held certain truths to be self-evident.” One of these truths had to do with the capacity of congregations to revitalize. I have now drastically changed my mind.

Most of us have been exposed to the theories of organizational life cycles. These theories go something like this: Congregations, like all organizations, begin or start-up. They grow and stabilize, and then they begin to decline if the leaders of the organization do not make substantial changes in order to begin a new life cycle. If a new life cycle does not begin, the organization will continue to decline and will eventually die. There are several variations on this theme between the theories, but the trajectory is the same. For many years, I subscribed to the belief that as a congregation is declining, it will eventually reach a “threshold of change.” If the congregation slips beneath this threshold of change, it will not be capable of revitalizing because it has lost most, if not all, of its internal resources. In fact, efforts to try and get the congregation to revitalize will be futile and will be cruel. Similar to telling a hospice patient to get out of their bed and walk.

While it is most certainly true that not every congregation will have the capacity to be resurrected from decline or death, many congregations have greater potential than I ever imagined. Let me share the story of one tiny congregation and the many lessons it has taught me:

Ogilvie United Methodist Church is located about 75 miles north of Minneapolis. According to the 2013 census, Ogilvie is a little village of 361 souls. It is part of a two-point charge served by a competent and well-liked pastor who has been there for approximately two years. When I first became a district superintendent, the pastor reached out to me and shared that it had been a rough spring (of 2014) for this little congregation. They were hopeless and exhausted. They were down to about 12 in average worship attendance and had hit a new low of $35 in the checking account. Taking a look at the folks who were gathered there, I was quite convinced that this church would close or probably be absorbed by one of the neighboring congregations.

Instead, a miracle happened. Sixteen months later, Ogilvie has doubled its worship attendance on Sunday mornings, and it has all the money that it needs. This summer, the church gained a volunteer youth leader and a group of kids when a neighboring little church closed. Members have a clear mission and purpose in their community, and I was surprised when I met with them this summer that they physically look like a different bunch of people. How did this transformation happen?

According to Pastor Rob, three things have been key:

  1.  These folks have an unshakeable faith: They faced the uncertainty of the church’s future instead of running from it. It was almost a crisis of faith. From doubt and uncertainty to faith in God’s ability to turn things around…they believed that, though the church had been in the Ogilvie community for almost 120 years, God still had a purpose for their presence for many years to come. Prayer was a big part of their renewal. We brought in a consultant who listened carefully and narrowed down their options to four possibilities. That made things less overwhelming and kept them from wasting more time generating options that were akin to pie in the sky. After they looked at all their options, they started to pray.
  2.  These folks have an unconquerable will: Because of their unshakeable faith, they developed an unconquerable will. God put within their hearts a “never-give-up” mentality. In fact, they were very clear with me as their denominational executive that closing was not an option. I was very doubtful that they could revitalize. Their strong-willed natures resulted in the decision to keep being missional in their efforts, believing that God would bless their work.
  3.  These folks have a teachable spirit: They were willing to listen to new ideas from others. They were willing to look at their methods of ministry and make some adjustments. They were willing to try new ministry ideas. They were willing to step out of the box and not cling to the ways things had always been done.

What’s working from my perspective? I also believe that all transformational work begins in prayer because it is about God transforming and changing us. As my boss, Bishop Bruce Ough, has said, “We cannot manage our way into revitalization, we can only be led into it by God’s Spirit.” I believe that this little congregation’s intention and commitment to continue being missional has made a huge difference. Members took their greatest asset, which was food, and instead of using that gift to create fundraisers to pay the light bill, they used that gift to create a free meal for the community. This little village is where many people come to recover from a financial crisis, job loss, and foreclosure. They offered their gifts to fulfill an unmet need for others and God blessed that.

I recently heard Rev. John Edgar, pastor of The Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio, talk about the “Divine Economy of Abundance.” This is an asset-based approach that focuses on people and connections instead of needs and problems. The essence of it is the belief that whatever we offer up to God, no matter how small, God will bless that and use it to transform lives. This is exactly what the folks at Ogilvie did. They stopped using their gifts selfishly as a way to keep themselves going and instead they gave their gifts away to those in need.

So, I no longer believe that a congregation can “slip beneath the threshold of change.” I have come to believe that with God all things are truly possible. I have also learned through many years of working with congregations that you can’t go into a period of recovery and revitalization pretending to know what the outcome will be. It is critically important to set aside one’s own beliefs about how this will go and what it will look like in the end. It is important to cooperate with the Spirit.

Rev. Susan Nienaber is superintendent for the Big Waters District within the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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