Churches in Trouble Asking for Help

When should a congregation’s leaders ask for help?  And–whom should they ask?

It might be a good idea to ask for help before you die.  It might be a good idea to ask for help in figuring out what kind of help you need. 

More often than not, congregations don’t ask for help.  One wonders why.

Recently I attended a multi-convocation meeting of the Episcopal Diocese of Central PA, in which I am a member.  This is a gathering of congregations’ reps (clergy and elected delegates) within a given geographic region of the diocese.  In preparation for the annual meeting of all congregations within the diocese (called a convention), we heard an early presentation on the budget and resolutions we’ll be voting on when we meet again in June.

During this preparatory meeting, some 120 of us were given the first introduction to the closing of several churches, if we so vote.  Since the churches have already been closed, we can’t change the situation.  This is what’s known in the Episcopal vocabulary as extinguishing churches.  In our diocese, we’ve closed at least one church a year for three years.  This year, the diocese is closing three churches.  

 These are mostly little churches in small towns in remote areas of the state.   You’ve seen examples yourself–pretty little gothic structures in rural scenes that remind you of old timey Christmas card settings, or little buildings left in now uglified areas of tired old industrial towns.  Most of these churches were built to hold 100 to 150 people, when rural towns were stable and industrial towns were booming, at least a century ago.  In some cases, the areas can’t hold the population, and the church’s leadership recognizes no immediate future.  In some cases, the population is growing but is largely disinterested in that or any particular brand of church, and the church leadership is old and frail.  Changing to meet any evangelistic opportunity seems impossible. 

As the resolutions to extinguish were presented to us, many in the assembly stood to express shock and distress.  Those with oversight spoke about the need to close the churches, expressing surprise themselves.  One comment was, “Perhaps the churches should have asked for help earlier, but they might have been ashamed that they had come to such a pass that they needed help.”

That view seems  disengenuous.  An administratively connectional church–as in the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and UCC systems–has plenty of opportunity to observe churches that are struggling.  Oversight at the level of presbytery, synod or diocese should include a staunch array of opportunities to give help, eagerly on offer.  The administrative idea that a congregation in a connectional denomination should ever imagine itself ashamed to need help is akin to the selfishness of Ayn Rand, who refused even to loan aid to a niece on the grounds that the family member should be entirely self-sufficient on principle. 

Healthy congregations with problems–and which ones don’t have problems?–should know that congregational development is not a sign of weakness but of strength.  Seeking help from professional organizational consultants is better than limping along with hands over eyes, knowing the precipice is ahead and willingly going in that direction.  What could be worse?  Churches that are not healthy need help, and if they can’t bring themselves to see the problems or ask for help, there lies the point of having oversight in the first place. 

In any case, the individual parish and the team or person with administrative oversight share accountability.  Probably a decade before it comes to pass, a church is able to tell that it can’t manage and thrive as things are going.  Any administration with oversight worth its salt should be able to see the same issues and have a full quiver of arrows for the needs presented.  There’s no excuse for letting churches die on the vine without doing due diligence.  Any judicatory can find excellent resources for intervention, and should put money into the research required–either to find consultants or to send members for training in congregational development.  

Check out http://www.edow.org/parish/congregation/development/cdi.html or http://www.congregationaldevelopment.com/index.htm to see what’s available for members of a congregation or a synod, diocese or presbytery in leadership training.  Don’t imagine your money is safer in a bank or a cd, or paying for the bills until you or churches in your charge have to close the doors.   Ask for help as soon as you know you need it, and if your judicatory doesn’t offer any, find out how to change that situation, or start looking for a consultant with CDI experience (they have the best training).  You may still have to decide to close the church, but you will have really made the strongest effort possible to find God’s other answers to your situation.

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