A Tale of Two Faith Communities (Vitality-Based Discernment in Action)

by Ken Howard

In our early days of consulting with congregations and dioceses around issues of congregational vitality and sustainability, I had the opportunity to consult with two imperiled congregations: an inner city congregation and a suburban congregation (represented in the above maps on the left and right, respectively). In both cases, our work was pro-bono. In both cases, we were brought in at the request of the bishops and for obvious reasons, will not be identifying the congregations, their dioceses, or their bishops. 

With the exception of their locations – different cities in different dioceses, one in the inner city, one in the near suburbs – both congregations were in very nearly the same condition:

  • Depleted membership: under 50 and falling. 
  • Bare bones attendance: under 25 and falling.
  • Aging out: Few if any children (mostly aging Boomers),
  • Unable to afford a full-time pastor.
  • Majority of revenue from rental income.
  • Majority of operating expenses from a rapidly-decreasing endowment (both said that if they really stretched it they could eke out another 10 years before they went under).
  • Spiking increase in Giving per Household (both congregations were proud of this, but it’s usually a last ditch attempt to stave off the seeming inevitability of closure).

Discussions with imperiled congregations are always fraught with emotion: denial, fear, anger, sorrow, guilt, resentment, and more. This is probably a big reason why, in most cases, congregations and their judicatory leaders avoid talking with each other about it (though both have seen the proverbial “writing on the wall”) until it’s too late to turn things around. And even then, there is a lot of “crap” to cut through, because most imperiled congregations have had a long time (sometimes decades) to come up with great (often blame-ridden) reasons about why the judicator should invest lots of resources to keep them afloat, most of which begin, “If only judicatory would [insert “Hail Mary” solution here].”

One of the great advantages of doing data-grounded Neighborhood Missional Assessment with an interactive, demographic analytical tool like MapDash for Faith Communities is that it cuts through the crap and rapidly facilitates transparent discussions about the vitality and sustainability of the congregation, and mutual discernment and planning around what, if any, strategies might revitalize the congregation.

In the case of the urban congregation (above right), we helped them see that while their Congregational Vitality was very low (red dot on map) according to every Vitality indicator (red dots on popup), the area in which they were located was increasing in Missional Opportunity (driven largely by increasing diversity and turnover in their neighborhoods), and ought to be able to sustain a vital congregation, if only they could engage the emerging opportunities. 

This led them immediately to a realization that their current way of engaging the community was not working, which in turn led them to dive into exploring the population characteristics and community characteristics of their neighborhoods. They confirmed that they were largely of a different generation and social class (Boomers) than those who lived in their urban neighborhoods (Millennials) and they themselves lived in the comfortable suburbs. They realized that they were in the community but not of the community: they provided services to the community but had not really been open to their neighbors becoming part of the congregation, and their part-time pastor could not afford to live in the neighborhood.

As a result, they decided that they would invest heavily of their time and remaining endowment in a 3- to 5-year strategy designed to better engage the opportunities and challenges of their neighborhoods, spending two-thirds of their endowment to call a young, energetic pastor and pay what was necessary so that he or she could live near the church, and keeping the rest in order to effect an orderly closure if it didn’t work. And to do this, they had to decide whether they loved their neighborhood enough to give themselves and their congregation to it. That congregation has not only survived, but is thriving.

In the case of the suburban congregation (above left), we helped them see that their low vitality congregation was in an area in which missional opportunity was receding and which could no longer sustain a typical congregation. As they looked into the underlying demographic trends, they discovered that population, diversity, and median income were decreasing, while poverty, unemployment, and median age were all increasing. And they saw on the map that when the state built the new highway through their area, it went around their community, with the closest exit nearly a 15-min drive from the congregation.

Their reaction was, in effect, a collective sigh of relief. “It’s not our fault,” they were able to tell themselves. We could do everything right, and the congregation in its current form could not survive. 

As a result, they decided that rather than eking out another 10 years and going out with a whimper, they would go out boldly. They would close now, sell the building, give away their liturgical goods and furniture to congregations who could use them well, and bequeath the remainder of their endowment and other accounts to the judicatory to use to support missional endeavors, including outreach ministry to their declining neighborhood.

A tale of two faith communities. Both made faithful and courageous decisions. One lived faithfully. One died faithfully, in a way that furthered God’s mission in the world.

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FaithX is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and Ken’s faith-based consulting practice at FaithX is carried out under an extension of ministry from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.