A Tale of Three Churches: Strategic Missional Planning in Imperiled Congregations

By The Rev. Ken Howard

On the surface, they were three different congregations in two different parts of the country – one in a northern urban city, one in a mid-Atlantic suburb, and the other in a suburban southern resort area – but otherwise seemed very much the same. But all three were imperiled (e.g., in their judicatories’ version of hospice care), and their human and financial resources were dwindling rapidly.

Their average Sunday attendance was between 30 and 40, with Christmas and Easter attendance hovering around 60, in worship spaces with a capacity of 3-10 times that total. They were rapidly drawing down their endowments, none of which were above $25,000, and roughly two-thirds of their normal operating income was from rentals. Their giving per household was exceptionally high (a point of pride), but this is frequently the case with congregations that know at some level they are in danger of closing soon. They were still imperiled.

That’s when we were called in…

We took all of them through a process we call Neighborhood Missional Assessment, in which we explored the missional opportunities and challenges in the neighborhoods they serve, their vitality strengths and weaknesses, and whether and how they could leverage their strengths to better engage the opportunities and challenges, as well as address their weaknesses. We ran Neighborhood Missional Intelligence Reports to explore key demographic trends and projections that define neighborhood missional opportunities and challenges, and MapDash for Faith Communities to dive more deeply into the demographics and projections they deemed relevant. We used our free Congregational Vitality Assessment to explore their vitality in 10 areas of congregational life, as well as their likely sustainability (with those whose judicatories subscribed to MapDash, we explored their vitality and sustainability scores). And we did trend analysis and projection on their weekly attendance, membership, and income to determine when they each would flatline (all within 10 years).

Here is what we found and how each congregation responded to combat their being imperiled…

Northern Inner-City Congregation

As we compared their neighborhood opportunities to their vitality, they discovered that while their congregational vitality was low (or imperiled), their sustainability (e.g., the missional opportunity in their neighborhoods) was high. This helped them realize that they were not effectively engaging the neighborhoods they served but mostly providing programs that helped but did not invite engagement with the congregation. And that helped them realize if they changed their organizational behavior in ways that would invite engagement, they had the opportunity to become a very vital congregation. Taking a bold leap of faith, they approached judicatory leadership with a plan to use two-thirds of their endowment and as much of their other income as they could spare (holding in reserve the remaining third to execute an orderly closure if they did not succeed). Today they are a vital, growing congregation, highly engaged with their community.

Mid-Atlantic Exurban Congregation

As we compared their neighborhood opportunities to their vitality, they discovered that both their congregational vitality and their sustainability (e.g., the missional opportunity in their neighborhoods) were also imperiled. Their neighborhoods were depopulating, becoming less diverse, and rapidly aging, and there were insufficient people and resources to support a typical congregation like theirs. Once they understood this dynamic, there was an almost palpable sense of relief and a release of guilt. In fact, one lay leader said, “This is such a relief, we thought it was our fault the congregation was dying.” They also took a bold leap, but of a different kind. They decided that rather than eking out a few more years out of their endowment and savings, they would close that year and designate all remaining funds (about $30,000) to their judicatory for missional work.

Southern Suburban Resort Congregations

Not every congregational situation becomes a success story, because not every congregation is willing to face the reality of their situation or make the changes necessary to take the informed leap of faith it would require. Faced with dwindling attendance that was leaving their 600-seat worship area one-tenth full on Christmas and Easter, a flat-line projection of 9 years, the observation of one vestry member that they would lose critical mass much sooner than that, and an offer by another congregation to purchase their building for over $1 million, they decided to continue on their current path and hope for a miracle. My solemn parting words to the congregation were, “If you truly would rather die than change, God will permit that.” They were and chose to remain imperiled.

In summary, when a congregation is imperilled, data-ground discernment can reveal many faithful alternatives that they may decide to take. But to take such decisions in faith, they must first overcome their fear and their resistance to change.

Coming Soon: FaithX Missional Book Reviews

The FaithX blog will soon include occasional book reviews, published on a roughly quarterly basis. If you have recently read a great book on a missional subject and would like to share your thoughts about it with fellow readers, just write a brief review (500 words max), including author name, title, publisher, and summary of what you learned from reading it.

Available Now: New Book Offer for FaithX Readers

Our friends at the Global Center for Religious Research have just released a new book by anthropologist Jack David Eller entitled, “Trump and Political Theology: Unmaking Truth and Democracy,” and are offering FaithX readers the opportunity to download and read the first three chapters free.

Click here to access the download page

“Here is an analysis of the Donald Trump phenomenon that goes deeper and wider than anything I’ve read.” –Mark Galli, Former Editor-in-Chief, Christianity Today