4 Guidelines for Pastors of the Declining Church

By Danielle Shroyer

I’ve been interested in the work and writings of Margaret Wheatley for many years now. I just read her book, with Deborah Frieze, Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. They used the title “Walk Out, Walk On” to describe those who have chosen to leave behind systems, structures, ideas, and/or relationships that have become restrictive to the work they seek to do in the world. They are people who are walking on, moving toward people, communities and practices that will foster creative embodiment for change. It’s a fascinating book, a beautiful glimpse into the work of resilient communities of people bringing about innovative change where they are.

Of course, as I read it my thoughts often turned to people in ministry who are feeling overwhelmed by all of the change and decline happening in the structures of the church. Some choose to walk on from within, and others have chosen to walk out and walk on. Bravery is required of everyone, and good can come from them both.

Here are a few helpful things Wheatley and Frieze shared that I believe is of great benefit to those of you reimagining faith community:

  1. Scale across, not up. For the last 50 years, the emphasis in church growth has been one of scaling up. You find a model that you like, and you export it to your own context and put it into place, and voila! Growth! Although this does actually produce “success” in many cases (up to today, even), it can also be problematic in a number of ways. The most glaring is what often gets lost in the scaling up. Communities are unique, but scaling up requires communities to react and sustain a system that is foreign to it. It may fit, but at what cost? Where does the unique flavor of the community go? And what about the voices of the people in that community? How do we empower a community of people to be active in faith when we do not trust them to come up with their own designs for life together? Scaling across, then, is a way of shared learning. We talk with people from other communities who say, “We did it this way” or “Here’s something that worked for us” and then, instead of plugging it in directly, we consider what wisdom from these experiences we can draw from in our own community building. We do not expect the same results, or belittle ourselves if the same thing doesn’t work for us like it did for them. We realize that deep growth doesn’t shoot up like we’ve been told; it grows slowly, with a committed community of people. Scaling across means starting locally, and then connecting with others to share what we’ve learned from what works and what doesn’t work. (The great people at Inhabit are doing this so well. If you don’t know them, you should!)
  2. Do you want to play at transforming the world? I love this question from the Elos Institute in Brazil. What if we saw our efforts at transforming the world less as work and more as play? What if we honored play, and the joy of the human spirit, rather than focusing solely on results and efficiencies? I am guilty of this as much as anyone. Seeking to be a force of good in the world can feel overly earnest, like it’s too important to joke about or make light of or dance through. But precisely because it IS such deep and often difficult work, play is necessary to keep our souls in joy. And joy is the energy behind our perseverance. I loved this line: “Cave paintings from thousands of years ago depict our ancestors dancing, not sitting in meetings. How did we forget who we are?”
  3. Start anywhere, Follow it Everywhere. When a problem feels overwhelming, we tend to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get our minds around it. We reduce it down to smaller chunks, we weigh which one we should tackle first, we get frustrated when the interconnected complexity of it all becomes obvious once again, and we feel like we’re holding a tangled net. Just this past week, I was part of conversations with ministers who feel like they don’t know where to start. Which squeaky wheel of declining church life gets the first grease? So this may be the most freeing thing you can hear in the midst of that: start anywhere. There is no right answer. And also, since they are all connected, your choice is arbitrary at some point anyway. Start anywhere, wherever seems best. And then follow it everywhere. It will lead you to what’s next. It will likely be messy and slow, but you can only begin by beginning, right?
  4. Forget efficiency. Aim for resilience. We’re addicted to the idea that we can find an optimal state of being and then remain there. If my church can just get X, then we will be fine. It’s time to fess up: there is no such thing. There is no optimal state, and if there were, it would be fleeting anyway. What is constant is change. So rather than punishing yourself and your community for not being efficient, focus on fostering an atmosphere of resilience. Can we roll with the punches? Can we respond to whatever is going to come to us around the next corner? We are in this state of deep change in the church (and culture) for a long time. It is time to lay down our desires and false hopes that we will be able to stabilize forces so much bigger than us by the sheer power of our own will. Instead, let’s embrace the waves, and practice resilience instead.

I love the bold red print on the back cover of the book: NO ONE IS COMING TO HELP. NOW WHAT? I know we are looking for someone to tell us what to do, to make sense of our contexts and give us a roadmap into whatever is next. And sure, by connecting with one another, we learn and we grow. But it’s also important to listen to those words in red. If it was just you, and just your community, and nobody was coming to help, now what? Can you trust that you have what you need where you are? Can you trust that you can lead from there, and empower others to lead with you? Do you believe that you can begin to live into your future right now, in the practices and rhythms and actions you take? Because that’s the way the church is going to continue. One day, one community, at a time.

Danielle Shroyer is the author of “Where Jesus Prayed: Illuminations on the Lord’s Prayer in the Holy Land” (Paraclete, October 2015). She lives with her husband and two children in Dallas, Texas.