Dying congregations

FernLeeHagedorn
11/08/2010

Dying congregations

Our membership was declining, finances faltering, Sunday school in the single digits, and the same group of people showing up each Sunday.

What happened to our once thriving congregation?

There are over 10,000 congregations which identify themselves as ELCA. Of that number, more than half report worship attendance at fewer than 100. And of that number, almost half see fewer than 50 people in church each week.

As is the case with many older (ours is over 140 years old) and smaller (45 weekly worshipers) congregations, St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Narrowsburg, N.Y., has a faithful group of lay leaders that keeps it going -- many of them are well past 50 years old.

As one of five area Lutheran congregations "in trouble,” together we spent eight months studying ourselves to find out "where we went wrong” and what the future would hold for each of us.

There were monthly meetings, sometimes two in one month. At one session, we were told that in order to grow, and even to survive, our annual operating budget needed to be over $100,000, and, in addition, that budget had to increase by at least 3 percent in successive years to factor in inflation.

We had to experience a net increase of our membership by 10 percent each year -- otherwise we ought to be planning for our demise in about five years.

That seemed overwhelming. Although we knew membership was declining, we never thought we were dying.

The challenge of increasing our membership and our giving seemed unattainable. It was a reality check.

As is the case with a human health diagnosis, you start to think. You wonder if there's any way to reverse the downward trend and become healthy again.

There is a slogan: "Teeth don't die a natural death -- you kill them.” Is this what we did to our congregation? Have we been witnessing and perhaps aiding and abetting a slow death?

At first, there was anger among some of our members. "They” can't close our church. Then people signed up to talk some more. Meetings produced new ideas and new energy.

We made a big push for vacation Bible school. With the help of many volunteers, we had 24 children for the weeklong program (last year we had only two children who attended).

Some say this turnout was a miracle. Yes, we prayed for our vacation Bible school every Sunday for 13 weeks.

This miracle also involved the grunge work of organizing, planning and publicizing. Woody Allen once said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up.” We did just that.

We began with five congregations meeting to take stock -- we are now four. One congregation could not sustain itself and closed down this summer.

The four of us that remain continue to meet bimonthly to discuss common issues and to plan events together. We are not out of danger, but we are hopeful that our working and praying together will bear some fruit.

I don't think our four congregations are alone in this predicament. There are others that are struggling to be faithful and wondering where they can get the help and energy needed to remain faithful servants.

We who are in this struggling mode look vertically -- to God. We pray, continue to study the Scriptures, worship and work.

Then we come down a few notches and look for help from the churchwide organization and our synods. But perhaps we also need to look horizontally -- how can we harness the faithful energy of the people of God to help congregations like mine?

Is there a lateral partnership that can be developed and nurtured? Is there a model we can develop to help each other stay alive, thrive and serve?

Perhaps a role for the churchwide organization or the synods is to help organize such a model, a mentoring clearinghouse where congregations are matched and then covenant with each other for support and mission. We are, after all, the body of Christ. We need each other.

On June 6, 2010, my congregation voted to stay open. We made promises to God and to each other. Our Sunday school is still in the single digits. Our weekly worship attendance is still under 50.

We have a long way to go, but we have taken the first step.

But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.
-- "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

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