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Celebrations and Changes

The Center for Congregational Health is in its 25th year!  The Center has been working with congregations, clergy and lay leaders since November of 1992.  As we move through the remainder of this year, we celebrate 25 years of partnering with congregations and leaders to help your churches make a difference in your communities.  Thank you for 25 years of serving together, we look forward to the many ways we may continue to work together.

For 21 of those 25 years, the Rev. Dr. B. Leslie Robinson, Jr. has worked full-time with the Center as Manager of Interim Ministry Resources, with a period of time as acting director.  During that time, Les has worked with several hundred congregations, training more than 2500 interim ministers representing 27 denominations, traveling to 33 states and 2 foreign countries. We are grateful for Les’ leadership and ministry and the amazing work that he has done throughout the years.

We all knew the day would come when Les would want a bit more freedom from the 40+ hour work week and that day has come!  There is good news to go along with it—Les may be scaling back and thinking about his time a bit differently, however he will continue to work with the Center for Congregational Health providing oversight and curriculum development for the Intentional Interim Ministry Training program and for the Association of Intentional Interim Ministers.  We are delighted and honored that Les is choosing to continue the very important work for which he is very well known, and that he will continue to journey with us.

In honor of Les and the work he has done with the Center for Congregational Health, we have worked with the NC Baptist Foundation who manages the Poe Fund, to establish a line item of financial donation where the funds will be used to assist congregations who desire to use the services of the Center for Congregational Health and do not have the funds to do so, we invite and encourage you to offer a financial gift to the Poe Fund in honor of Dr. B. Leslie Robinson, Jr and the work he has accomplished in living out his calling.   When sending a donation, please designate for the “Les Robinson Fund”.  Donations may be mailed to:  the Center for Congregational Health, Medical Center Blvd., Winston-Salem, NC 27157.

Posted in: Consulting, Future, History, Interim Ministry, Leadership, Uncategorized

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It’s time for action, but what action?

The latest research from the ongoing, multi-year, Hartford Institute study on American congregational life (FACT, 2015) confirms what most people involved in the life of a church already know. Most American congregations find themselves in a challenging situation: continued declines in Sunday worship attendance, declining revenue from giving, fewer growing congregations, a lack of spiritual vitality, and a drop in the number of congregations with full-time clergy, just to name a few of the bad-news findings. The good news is that the challenges facing congregations often drive them to action. The question is, “what action?”

Congregations often feel stumped by what’s happening and unsure what to do in order to address what seems like a complex aggregation of challenges. When faced with so many issues at once--money, facilities, attendance, engagement, volunteerism, etc., the tendency is often to look for a big, complex, high-level “solution.” These can take many forms, but may include replacing the pastoral staff, structural reorganization, changing worship times or format or style, instituting new programs and ministries, renovating facilities, or even changing the physical location of the church. While in some individual cases, one or many of these actions might be helpful, they can also easily fail to have the hoped-for impact. Why?

In many cases, what is needed is not so much a single, complex, high-level action plan, as a deep, honest look in the mirror. Maybe what’s needed is not so much answering the “what should we do” question, but instead answering the questions of “why and how we do what we do.” Many congregations think they are “warm and friendly,” but they really aren’t. Many think they don’t need to demonstrate overt hospitality to people they don’t know, but they do. Many assume the congregation will thrive if they have a great staff do “do” the ministry, but it won’t. People still come to congregations needing the same things they have always needed--love and relationship--with God and with God’s people. And how God’s people act makes all the difference in whether or not they experience these things.

For congregations with long histories, it’s easy to lose track of the congregation’s deeper mission and vision. Living in the shadow of the institutional church (even a small one), it’s easy to forget how important it is to simply be the people of God--kind, loving, welcoming, nurturing, and forgiving. The institutional church was built upon these deeply valued, personal and interpersonal qualities, and if a congregation wants to thrive again, reclaiming these qualities is a great starting point.

 

Roozen, D. A. (2016). FACT 2015 Thriving & Surviving - American-Congregations-2015.pdf. Retrieved February 3, 2017, from http://hirr.hartsem.edu/American-Congregations-2015.pdf

Written by Rev. Christopher R. Gambill, Ph.D.

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Vital Merger: Joining Church Families Together

By Dirk Elliott

DownRiver Church celebrated its first worship service as a new church start on July 7, 2013, with 186 people in attendance.  DownRiver is a Vital Merger of four churches in the Detroit area.  In December, 2012, each of these four churches voted, with over a seventy percent majority, to become a new church together.   On July 7, 2013, Carlisle UM Church also celebrated their first worship service as a new church.  Carlisle UMC is a Vital Merger of three churches.  They celebrated their first worship service together at the grandstand of the Carlisle Fairgrounds.  Over 600 people attended their first worship service in their newly remodeled and updated facility on July 14.

These two examples of Vital Mergers provide a model of merging churches in a way that produces a healthy new church.  As a Vital Merger, they made commitments to each other to:

  • Sell all church buildings and relocate to a new location
  • Worship in a neutral location from the day of the official merger
  • Reset the new congregation’s focus on the mission field and begin new ministries to reach the new mission field
  • Receive a pastor that has been assessed and trained as a church planter
  • Choose a name that is not a part of the name of any of the merging churches

Sometimes, people hear the word “merger," with anxiety because it implies uncertain change. Some people view the idea of a merger as a hostile takeover with winners and losers. Others immediately see issues involving loss of identity. Any kind of merger requires foundational change that on the surface, tends to feel impersonal. Still others may point to a merger that did nothing but more of the same.

It is true that some church mergers have failed to create health, growth, and vital ministry.  What makes the difference? The answer often lies in the process used to vision, transition, blend cultures, and form healthy leadership-teams.

Church mergers take various forms. Traditionally, the most common form has been two or more churches deciding to consolidate their resources by moving into the best facility they already own and retaining only one pastor. These mergers rarely bear the fruitful ministry anticipated by the merging churches.  While there may be occasional exceptions, often the resulting congregation from this traditional form of merger will eventually lose participation and decrease in attendance to the size of the larger church before the merger. So instead of 1+3=4, you get 1+3+ much drama = 3.  Often, the lack of fruitfulness and growth in traditional mergers stems from its primary motivation: the need to survive rather than the need to further its mission.

Research of traditional mergers from 2000 to 2015 reveals that traditional mergers have not brought the significant growth that the merging churches had anticipated. A study of thirty-three mergers during this time showed that twenty eight churches never achieved the worship attendance of the combined worship of the merging churches. In fact, twenty-two of the merged churches lost the equivalent of the attendance of the smaller church within one year.  Traditional mergers seldom result in the growth or health of churches.

In response to the poor results of traditional mergers, while addressing the fact that many churches can no longer be viable as a single-church parish, a new model of merger is needed to decrease potential conflict and increase healthy growth. The Vital Merger model was developed over a ten-year period, working with the pastors and lay leaders of several mergers.

Instead of consolidating resources, the Vital Merger strategy creates a new church—a healthy, growing, new-church-start with a fresh focus on the mission field and new ways of doing ministry. Using a Biblical metaphor, the traditional merger is attempting to pour new wine into old wineskins. The Vital Merger, on the other hand, creates new wine that is poured into a new wineskin.  Vital Mergers create new churches that are stronger, healthier, and more fruitful than any of the individual churches were before the merger.  Attendance is greater than the combination of the merging churches, finances are healthier, and more people are involved in mission and ministry.  

Vital Mergers have worked with churches in urban, suburban and rural areas.  Small churches have merged together, as well as mid-sized and large churches.  The churches need to commit to work together as partners, agreeing to the five basic commitments, and have a willingness to be in ministry together.

Want to learn more about vital mergers?

Dirk has successfully led congregations in vital mergers all across the United States. He will personally lead a Vital Merger workshop on December 1, 2016 at First Baptist Church, Decatur, GA from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm.  The workshop is sponsored by the Center for Congregational Health. You can register for the workshop by clicking here.

Dirk’s book, Vital Merger: A New Church Start Approach that Joins Church Families Together, will be available for purchase at the workshop. You can also pick up a copy at www.vitalmerger.com.  Vital Merger is a practical handbook that outlines the key elements necessary for a Vital Merger and provides instructions for exploring, beginning, and walking through the Vital Merger process.  The advice, examples, and stories are taken from actual churches that have merged—including processes and practices that have and have not worked well. The stories from these churches inform and infuse the process with authentic insight and witness.

Posted in: Congregations, Consulting, Future, Leadership, Ministers

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Appreciative Approach to Congregational Work

by Beth Kennett

An approach to working with congregations or groups of any kind is to use an appreciative approach, asking for and encouraging the group, and individuals, to focus on and appreciate what works.  Several books and processes have been created to help organizations do this positive work.  In November, we are partnering with the Clergy Leadership Institute to bring you a four day training to introduce Appreciative Coaching, and two workshops on forgiveness and letting go of resentment--one for those who work with individuals to let go and one for individuals who are ready to let go.

An appreciative approach to congregational work helps congregations to acknowledge the best of who they are and the best of their past, to discern and determine where and how God is inviting them into the future.

There are some basic assumptions in appreciative work, (the following are taken from the Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Copyright, 1996 by Sue Hammond):

  1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. The experience of reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple experiences of reality.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past with them.
  6. If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.

Two Additional Assumptions (articulated by Rob Voyle)

  1. At any given moment people are doing the best they know how to do in that context at that time.
  2. The deepest longing of the human heart is for acceptance The only change outcomes that will be sustainable are those that result from greater self-acceptance.

Join us in November to work with this positive approach and learn how to use this concept to help your congregation and/or organization to embrace the best of who they are as they determine next steps for the future.

Posted in: Congregations, Future, Leadership

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What does the “Next” Church look like?

Over the past week, I have been involved in several conversations about the church of the future, or the “next” church.  People usually approach this conversation from one of two perspectives—either, fear and concern for the future of the Church, especially the perspective that the church is dying and their will be no church; or excitement that the institutional church, as we have known it, will die and we can create something brand new.

I believe there are more options and perspectives than those two. What about the churches who are responding to God’s invitation to meet people where they are and minister, sharing God’s love with others? What about the churches who are creating safe spaces for all of God’s children? What about the churches who are discerning their faith journey, working together to determine who God is calling them to be? These churches are being the church of now and are growing into who they will be in the future.

From the Center for Congregational Health, we are working with many congregations who are on this journey, determining who God is calling them to be now and next. These churches are living with a vibrancy and vitality that is boosting their sense of community, clarifying their identity in the present and opening the pathways for change and ministry in the future. This is exciting work to see congregations be who God is calling them to be. What we definitely know is that congregations and faith communities have the opportunity to respond to God’s call in new and creative ways.

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Healthy Church Blog

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This week I read a wonderful blog by Elizabeth Mangham Lott, Ode to an Imperfect Church It could be entitled "Ode to a healthy church." Elizabeth's writing is a gift to the reader and this blog, in particular, made me pause.  When I work with a congregation, I want that congregation to find the space and way of being that is right for them.  To be and do what God is calling them to do.  Not to be perfect, to be and do who they are. Not to be compared with another, to live authentically into who God is inviting them to be.  As I read Elizabeth's blog the words grace and acceptance and real streamed through my mind.

Elizabeth sums up how I feel:   "In my church, I want laughter, great conversation and hot coffee. I want a space to breathe and be still. I want silence and poetry even more than I want a 2,000-word sermon. I want to be surrounded by people who tell the truth about their lives and aren’t scared away when I do the same. I want a church that reflects back to me the best of what my life might be — balanced, honest, imperfect and beautiful."

If we all work at being who God is calling us to be and do what God is calling us to do, the church will be more healthy; and, we will be offering a warm sense of welcome to those who want and need to feel welcome, and maybe a good cup of coffee to go with it.

Posted in: Congregations, Future, Relationships

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Last Year’s Nest

by Jill Crainshaw, Ph.D., Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity

Nest with blue yarn

Note: This post is the first in an Eastertide series being offered by a joint task force composed of members from the Church Growth and Transformation Committee and Committee on Ministry or the Salem Presbytery in North Carolina. This post is a revision of a post Jill Crainshaw previously published on her own blog and at Patheos.com. Additional Eastertide posts can be found here .

“Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”     Ezekiel 17: 23

I rescued an empty nest the other day. In the rain. I don’t know why I rescued the nest. No bird lives in it. It was last year’s nest.

I was in my car, pulling out of the driveway to head somewhere, when I saw the nest in the middle of the road in front of my house. Instead of driving by or driving over it, I stopped the car, stepped out into the springtime deluge, and hurried over to it, looking up and down the street for other cars (and for the eyes of curious neighbors) as I went.

The nest was beautiful, perfect in its construction, with a singular strand of sapphire yarn woven into its middle. I picked it up. It was fragile and soggy. And since I was now dripping from the rain and late for where I was headed, I laid the nest at the base of a tree in the sidewalk buffer and dashed back to my car.

Sometimes I think I spend far too much time rescuing last year’s nests. Perhaps we all do. How do we decide, after all, how much energy to give to preserving last year’s architectural delights, and how much to use building for this year and the future?

There is something to be said, I think, for the intricate magnificence of some of last year’s nests. Those nests held and hold precious, life-shaping memories. They nurtured possibilities and provided launching pads for nestlings’ first flights.

The nest reminded me of Christian congregations today. Many churches are struggling to know how to relate last year’s metaphorical nests to the kinds of Gospel dwelling places we want and need to fashion for today’s hopes, dreams, and challenges. What elements of last year’s nests do we want to keep? After all, the gifts of earlier generations are vital to our identities as Christian communities. But we know that we still have work to do share Gospel news with the world around us, and not everything about last year’s nests lend themselves to that unfolding and evolving work. Indeed, we risk overlooking important opportunities for spiritual growth when we hold on with too much caution and fear to nests that are emptying if not already abandoned. How do church leaders and communities embody Gospel ministries in today’s unpredictable and often ambiguous environments?

Some leadership resources call the worlds we inhabit now worlds alive with “adaptive” problems. What are adaptive problems? Different than “technical” problems, which can often be solved by applying known skills or expertise, adaptive problems resist familiar plans and programs. Adaptive problems instead require leaders’ and communities’ most innovative sources of imagining, thinking, and embodying.

Adaptive thinking is at heart Gospel thinking because it requires deep soul-searching, Spirit-sparked creativity, and Christ-centered relationship-building. Adaptive thinking is also “story” thinking. When leaders embody adaptive thinking, they seek out all of the stories of faith communities—success stories and messy stories—in an effort to ensure that new practices are woven together in authentic ways with the unique DNA of particular and peculiar people and places. This story-grounded approach is based on a belief that a significant part of God’s Story today is our diverse communal stories woven together by God’s ever-present, ever-dynamic Spirit.

What does adaptive thinking require of leaders? One of the biggest challenges to adaptive change is fear—fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of moving away from familiar identities. Adaptive leaders stand with communities in these fears as together they name and embrace the frightening prospects of past and future and seek God’s guidance.

I photographed my rescued nest. The next day I decided to take a few more photos of it. But the nest was no longer where I had left it. Perhaps another critter took it. Then I spotted the nest about halfway up the sidewalk toward my house. Perhaps the wind had blown it there.

The next day the nest was even closer to the house. I noticed that it was smaller, too.

That’s when I realized that this year’s birds were using bits and pieces of last year’s nest to build for this spring season.

Verses from an ancient text, Ezekiel 17, came to mind as I reflected on last year’s nest: “Under that tree every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”

I like the idea of a tree full of every kind of nest.

Doesn’t God invite all of us to nest in God’s tree? Isn’t this invitation the way God sustains the earth and communities of faith? Perhaps this is one of the powerful truths of Eastertide: as God did in the beginning and in the resurrection, God continues to do a new thing in us.

And might it not also be true that a bit of sapphire yarn, and a few choice twigs from last year’s nest, are just what are needed to remind present and future nestlings of the gifts and challenges of the past, and to make the nests we are now building places we can call home?

 

Resources:

Virginia O. Bassford. Lord, I Love the Church and We need Help (Adaptive Leadership Series). Abingdon Press, 2012.

 Dottie Escobedo-Frank and Rudy Rasmus. Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge. Abingdon Press, 2012.

Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones. Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Posted in: Congregations, Future

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Vital Merger: A New Church Start Approach that Joins Church Families Together

By Dirk Elliott

DownRiver Church celebrated its first worship service as a new church start on July 7, 2013, with 186 people in attendance.  DownRiver is a Vital Merger of four churches in the Detroit area.  In December, 2012, each of these four churches voted, with over a seventy percent majority, to become a new church together.   On July 7, 2013, Carlisle UM Church also celebrated their first worship service as a new church.  Carlisle UMC is a Vital Merger of three churches.  They celebrated their first worship service together at the grandstand of the Carlisle Fairgrounds.  Over 600 people attended their first worship service in their newly remodeled and updated facility on July 14.

These two examples of Vital Mergers provide a model of merging churches in a way that produces a healthy new church.  As a Vital Merger, they made commitments to each other to:

  • Sell all church buildings and relocate to a new location
  • Worship in a neutral location from the day of the official merger
  • Reset the new congregation’s focus on the mission field and begin new ministries to reach the new mission field
  • Receive a pastor that has been assessed and trained as a church planter
  • Choose a name that is not a part of the name of any of the merging churches

Sometimes, people hear the word “merger," with anxiety because it implies uncertain change. Some people view the idea of a merger as a hostile takeover with winners and losers. Others immediately see issues involving loss of identity. Any kind of merger requires foundational change that on the surface, tends to feel impersonal. Still others may point to a merger that did nothing but more of the same.

It is true that some church mergers have failed to create health, growth, and vital ministry.  What makes the difference? The answer often lies in the process used to vision, transition, blend cultures, and form healthy leadership-teams.

Church mergers take various forms. Traditionally, the most common form has been two or more churches deciding to consolidate their resources by moving into the best facility they already own and retaining only one pastor. These mergers rarely bear the fruitful ministry anticipated by the merging churches.  While there may be occasional exceptions, often the resulting congregation from this traditional form of merger will eventually lose participation and decrease in attendance to the size of the larger church before the merger. So instead of 1+3=4, you get 1+3+ much drama = 3.  Often, the lack of fruitfulness and growth in traditional mergers stems from its primary motivation: the need to survive rather than the need to further its mission.

Research of traditional mergers from 2000 to 2015 reveals that traditional mergers have not brought the significant growth that the merging churches had anticipated. A study of thirty-three mergers during this time showed that twenty eight churches never achieved the worship attendance of the combined worship of the merging churches. In fact, twenty-two of the merged churches lost the equivalent of the attendance of the smaller church within one year.  Traditional mergers seldom result in the growth or health of churches.

In response to the poor results of traditional mergers, while addressing the fact that many churches can no longer be viable as a single-church parish, a new model of merger is needed to decrease potential conflict and increase healthy growth. The Vital Merger model was developed over a ten-year period, working with the pastors and lay leaders of several mergers.

Instead of consolidating resources, the Vital Merger strategy creates a new church—a healthy, growing, new-church-start with a fresh focus on the mission field and new ways of doing ministry. Using a Biblical metaphor, the traditional merger is attempting to pour new wine into old wineskins. The Vital Merger, on the other hand, creates new wine that is poured into a new wineskin.  Vital Mergers create new churches that are stronger, healthier, and more fruitful than any of the individual churches were before the merger.  Attendance is greater than the combination of the merging churches, finances are healthier, and more people are involved in mission and ministry.  

Vital Mergers have worked with churches in urban, suburban and rural areas.  Small churches have merged together, as well as mid-sized and large churches.  The churches need to commit to work together as partners, agreeing to the five basic commitments, and have a willingness to be in ministry together.

Want to learn more about vital mergers?

Dirk has successfully led congregations in vital mergers all across the United States. He will personally lead a Vital Merger workshop on March 10, 2016 in Winston-Salem, NC. The workshop will be held at First Baptist Church, 501 West Fifth Street from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm.  The workshop is sponsored by the Center for Congregational Health. You can register for the workshop by clicking here.

Dirk’s book, Vital Merger: A New Church Start Approach that Joins Church Families Together, will be available for purchase at the workshop. You can also pick up a copy at www.vitalmerger.com.  Vital Merger is a practical handbook that outlines the key elements necessary for a Vital Merger and provides instructions for exploring, beginning, and walking through the Vital Merger process.  The advice, examples, and stories are taken from actual churches that have merged—including processes and practices that have and have not worked well. The stories from these churches inform and infuse the process with authentic insight and witness.

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More Looking

by Les Robinson

Recently, Chris Gambill, Director of the Center, wrote a blog (A new year, a new look at congregations) about the Faith Communities Today 2015 national survey of American congregations. He was referring to their most recent survey. Since 2000, this group has worked with the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership and Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research, to study congregational life in the U.S. Every five years, they conduct a major study and then report on and update their findings in the in-between years.

In addition to the stats Chris reported, there also was interesting, if not enlightening, information about the financial health of congregations. As most of us painfully remember, our country suffered a financial recession that began in 2008. The truth is, the percentage of American congregations who were experiencing some or serious financial difficulty had grown well before the recession. However, the full impact of the recession peaked shortly after 2008 as its negative effect trickled down and out throughout the economy.

At first, congregations were able to stay at the forefront of helping individuals who had suffered great losses, especially those who were laid off from work or whose jobs were eliminated. But, as more members of these faith communities began to experience cutbacks and downsizing in their personal lives, congregations also had to pull back. In 2008, two-thirds of congregations reported some decline in income because of the recession, and almost 1 in 5 reported a serious drop in revenue. Congregations began dipping into savings or investments, postponing capital projects, and reducing mission and benevolence giving as ways of dealing with their financial shortfalls.

This latest report indicates that with the broader economic recovery, the sense of financial distress among American congregations has eased somewhat. This seems especially significant because with declining worship attendance and the increase in smaller congregations, there were a lot of pressures for further financial strain.

Of course, financial stress is bad enough in and of itself. However, it can become the catalyst for other negative things. For instance, those congregations that were negatively impacted by the recession experienced an increased level of conflict within the faith community itself.

Another telling fact is the drop in congregations with full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders. Staff layoffs and delays in filling positions were among the least chosen options at the beginning of the recession. Nevertheless, in 2010, 71.4% of congregations had full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders; today, only 62.2% of congregations have full-time paid senior or sole clergy leaders.

The looming question in the midst of this latest data is, “Is the increased sense of financial stability found in the 2015 survey due more to staff downsizing than to a return to pre-recession fiscal heights?” With the median budget dropping from $150,000 in 2010 to $125,000 in 2015, it appears that the reduced financial distress level in congregations is because they have become more comfortable doing with less, including professional staff.

Posted in: Congregations, Future, History, Leadership, Ministers

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The power of a glass half-full

By Chris Gambill

It turns out that whether you view your filled-to-half-capacity glass as half-full or half-empty is much more than just a rhetorical question. It says a lot about how you tend to interpret situations and may indicate a tendency toward pessimism or optimism. A tendency toward optimism can have a significant, positive impact on your health, resilience, success at work, and in other areas of life. I believe it can also significantly impact your faith community. As another year concludes, how do you see the “glass” of your faith community? When you think about your congregation’s future, do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty?

Most established, traditional congregations--no matter what denomination--are experiencing significant challenges. Attendance is typically dropping and giving is declining. Most congregations are increasingly older with fewer young adults and children sitting in the pews. By most of the ways we measure success or effectiveness, most congregations would say they have in some measures (if not several), declined. Congregation members often hold widely varying interpretations of this situation and the prospects for the future. If they tend toward the pessimistic, they may only be able to see what they have lost. They look at the congregation and see the empty seats on Sunday morning. They look at the budget and see how much giving has declined. They look at the gray heads in the congregation and feel sadness that the pews are not full of younger adults and children. For them, the congregational “glass” looks half-empty.

But there is another way to interpret the same situation. I sometimes ask congregations tending toward the glass half-empty interpretation, to try and pretend they are just getting started. I ask, “If someone were to give you a great location for a church, a building with little or no debt, in a neighborhood that is growing, and a core group of people who genuinely love God and each other, could you grow a church with those resources?” From this point of view, the congregational “glass” is half-full, not half-empty. And, with some faith, hope, and love, it can quite possibly be a thriving congregation again. But, probably not if no one believes it can happen. The congregation desperately needs people who believe in what can be, not just in what they see at the moment.

The case for being positive, optimistic and hopeful about the future of a congregation can be made not just from a scientific point of view, but a theological one as well. As I am writing this, it is the Christian season of Advent. It’s a time of expectation, anticipation and waiting. Advent itself is not a time of joy--it’s a time to anticipate and prepare to experience the joy of Christmas and the coming of the Christ child. My friend, Dr. Mary Foskett, Kahle Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University, recently taught a series on Advent at our church. She reminded us that Jesus was born into a world that probably felt dark and hopeless to most ordinary people. The Jewish people were under the dominance of a foreign government and most people struggled to obtain the basic necessities of life. God’s promises to them seemed unfulfilled and probably unobtainable. Yet, into this glass-half-empty world came a baby and suddenly, the world and the future changed forever.

If any group of people in the world ought to have reasons for hope--reasons to be optimistic and to believe in what can be--it ought to be God’s people. The biblical story and our own lived experience of faith has surely taught us that there is reason to believe God can do a new thing--even with (especially with!) a congregation.

How you view your congregation’s “glass”--half-full or half-empty matters--a lot. If the dominant story is one of loss and decline and there is little real hope for the future, then that’s likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If instead, a congregation is dominated by the belief that there can be a future where the congregation thrives, then that can happen. Congregation members have to believe that God can do a new thing among them and that they actually practice the faith, hope and love that is the foundation of any healthy congregation. If their congregational “glass” is half-full, then there is the strong possibility (no guarantees in the life of faith!) that the congregation can continue to be a transformative presence for their community. The power of faith, optimism and hope is made manifest in the glass half-full.

 

Learn more about optimism:

Forgeard, M. J. C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Seeing the glass half full: A review of the causes and consequences of optimism. Pratiques Psychologiques, 18(2), 107–120. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.prps.2012.02.002

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Reprint edition). New York: Vintage.

Smith, E. E. (2013, March 1). The Benefits of Optimism Are Real. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/the-benefits-of-optimism-are-real/273306/

The Benefits of Optimism. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/post/the_benefits_of_optimism

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