Ten Observations of a Dying Church

6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. (Matthew 13.6)

I recently wrote a blog about how to kill a dying church, asking questions about what to do with so many churches dying. I think the challenge is recognizing the signs that a church is dying. The problem is that churches tend to wither, which is a slow, gradual, and often subtle process. It is difficult to pinpoint when in the withering process it is time to take action, to make changes, and to make some vital decisions. Without a sense of urgency, churches are not motivated or compelled to make necessary changes that often push them out of their comfort zones. Often times it is when it is too late that a church will attempt to rejuvenate itself. I have seen this happen many times.

Dying or withering is a lonely process. Many times churches feel abandoned, hopeless, and isolated in having to deal with these issues. In June, I am part of a planning team that is organizing a gathering where all the Presbyterian churches in San Francisco will come together to address the state of our congregations as well as ways we can partner with each other. Small congregations are not the only ones that are vulnerable to withering. Larger congregations also find themselves in a place where they are not maintaining huge memberships like before and are having to re-look at their mission and vision.

For six years, I served on a committee that dealt with churches in transition – either looking for a new pastor or some type of new leadership; new church developments; racial ethnic and immigrant congregations; and churches in redevelopment – “withering” churches that are looking to revamp their ministry. For the past eight years, I have been serving a congregation that hired me to look at ways the church can be more welcoming and more relevant in the community. For the past year, I’ve been serving as Vice-moderator of the Presbytery of San Francisco and working closely with our transitional Presbyter on addressing issues that Presbyterian churches in San Francisco are facing.

While there are many reasons for a church dying, here are some practical observations that I have noticed in my experience. This list is certainly not exhaustive. It is also a list that my congregation has personally had to face, so I give examples of how my congregation has addressed these issues.


The church building always seems to be the downfall or albatross for churches. The repairs or maintenance of the building becomes too big of a burden to bear for small congregations and either depletes the savings or endowment fund or goes unaddressed and building falls in further disrepair. It also doesn’t have to be about the building. It can be about the organ, the stained glass windows, the pews, or a painting that a long-time member painted or donated.

For my congregation, it’s all about the sanctuary and everything in it. Everything in our sanctuary is about 100 years old, which doesn’t mix well when the congregation is mostly young families with kids and toddlers running around. In a previous post, I share how we converted broken pews to something kids in worship could use.


More and more churches don’t have the energy to go through the traditional process of finding a new pastor due to conflict, lack of energy, lack of vision, and finances. More and more churches in our presbytery are seeking what we call a stated supply or designated pastor. These positions skip the traditional search process and relies on the presbytery to suggest pastors that possess appropriate and specific skills. Instead of waiting for up to 2 years, churches can receive a new pastor within months.

However, I’ve experienced where congregations of 20 to 50 people making the interview process more cumbersome than it needs to be – making pastors jump through more hoops than a traditional search process. Sometimes this is because of not truly understanding what they need and are looking for. Sometimes it is an unwillingness to take a chance with limited financial resources on new leadership. And sometimes, it is evidence of the conflict and breakdown of the congregation.

When my congregation hired me, my salary drew from designated funds that had enough to fund my position for three years. If my position wasn’t able to be funded in the regular budget in three years, my position would have been terminated. Now going on my eighth year, my salary is a part of the regular budget, but that only happened through thoughtful changes and a willingness to take a chance.


One way congregations stay afloat is by renting out space in their church to renters. This is a great way to have the community use church space for AA groups, toddler classes, before and after school programs, music lessons, weddings, etc. The danger is when the rental income far outweighs the income from weekly tithes and offerings. The danger is when the church’s ministry and use of space takes a back seat to the needs of renters.

This one particularly hits close to home. Our congregation is heavily dependent upon rental income. We currently rent to a preschool, AA groups, weddings, camps, and music lessons to name a few. We used to rent to two other congregations as well. With the downturn in the economy, those two congregations recently closed their doors, the amount of weddings have decreased, and other renters have had to move away as well. This left a huge hole in our budget. Our budget is pretty bare bones, so we had to find creative ways to communicate our financial situation to our congregation. I wrote in a previous blog, what we did this year and it seems to have increase awareness as well as tithing.


Like most denominations, the Presbyterian Church keeps track of membership. Depending on the size of membership determines how many voting representatives a congregation has and the amount of per capita a congregation pays. What a size of membership does not determine is the health of a congregation. Bigger is not always better. I can’t tell you how many congregations, both big and small, that I have visited that say on paper they are 200, but worship at 30 or say they are 700, but worship at 300. It’s hard to rejuvenate a dying church when one is not realistic about its current state in membership.

When I was first hired, one of the goals and hopes attached to my position was that the membership of the church would grow – maybe even grow back to the heydays of when membership was at 700. However, San Francisco is like a revolving door. People move in as quickly as they move out. I am proud to say that our membership has maintained at 120, but the health of our congregation has increased tremendously.


Along the lines of membership, it is important to get realistic about the staff design of one’s church. I’ve met with many congregations that worship at 30-50 and have an almost full-time janitor or secretary and yet are only willing to hire a part-time pastor because they can’t afford a full-time. Just like the size of membership doesn’t determine the health of a congregation, the size of staff doesn’t either.

I will first admit that my congregation is unusual since it has two full-time pastors at the size of 120. I will also say though that besides two part-time music staff, we have no other staff. We are currently eliminating our church secretary position since my Head of Staff and I do a lot of our own secretarial work. And we outsource our janitorial needs.


It is not a good sign when a congregation has decided that it is more important to maintain the traditions of the church than to explore ways that they may need to change and adapt in order to be relevant in their community. Churches that have existed for a long time seem to have the most challenges in doing this. However, communities change, demographics change, circumstances change, not to mention the needs of people change. Churches that seem to be vulnerable to this are those that have enough of an endowment for them to exist until the very last member.


This touches on #6, but I can honestly not stress enough how one of the clearest signs that a congregation is withering is when they are not able to see ministry beyond the existence of their church. Take a serious look at what is holding your congregation back from being a vital, healthy ministry. Let those things that seem broken inspire change, creativity, and a new sense of energy to do exciting and relevant ministry in the community. Look at how to partner with new church developments or racial ethnic churches that need space. In a previous blog, I share how broken pews inspired change to look at our sanctuary space and how we worship.


No matter what your style of worship – contemporary, traditional, casual, or formal – the most important part of worship is how visitors feel included and welcomed when they visit.

  • When visitors arrive, is there someone greeting them at the door? Is there someone accessible to tell them about Sunday School, hand them a bulletin, and other pertinent information?
  • Do visitors get a sense that they can sit anywhere or do members give off a vibe that certain seats “belong” to certain regular attendees?
  • Are there traditional practices in worship that regular attendees recite by heart and therefore assume visitors would be familiar as well such as the Lord’s Prayer or certain times when congregation stands?
  • After worship, is coffee and fellowship hour located in an accessible location? Is the room set up for clicks and groups to sit off by themselves?

Visiting a church for the first time can be intimidating. Eliminating as many barriers as possible makes it easier for a visitor to feel comfortable. The community my church sits in is full of young families. In a previous post, I share ways that we changed our worship space to make it more welcoming for young families. These changes did not come easily. We are currently going through some growing pains and recently made a series of covenants that hopefully address some of the feelings and anxieties of having 85 kids in a church of 120 members.


There is no safe way, technique, or strategy that will lead to a congregation becoming healthier. There is risk involved. In the end, after all the study has been done, the congregation has been surveyed, and “experts” have been consulted, it will take a leap of faith and a commitment to see it through. If a congregation is not willing to take a chance on what could be then all that is left is to maintain a steady decline.

#10 TIME

This leads me to time. It takes time. There are no quick fixes. Necessary change is a long term process. Sure, in some instances there will be some immediate and positive results, but to change an institution or a system takes time no matter how big or how small the congregation is.

When my congregation hired me, they were hoping to see significant change in three years (when the funding ran out.) What happened instead was chaos. There was a misunderstanding in expectations of my position, direction of the church, how outreach should be executed, and ultimately what the identity of the church was. What ended up happening at the 3-year mark was completely starting from scratch and going through a process where there was a clear direction, focus, and purpose. This led to revamping the way our elders and deacons functioned, the way we worshipped, and the way we reached out into the community.

These are just some of my personal observations. What has been your experience and observations? How does your congregation address some of these?

8 thoughts on “Ten Observations of a Dying Church

  1. As usual a very insightful piece Theresa. I am serving two (half time) dying congregations as interim. I am going to pass this blog around to them. Thx. Mark W. Wendorf

  2. Thanks Mark. I’ve been thinking about this a long time and mostly speak out of frustration with seeing potential in churches but then see them get in the way of their own progress.

  3. Great assessment, Theresa. I spent more than 7 years with a dying congregation in Davenport, IA. Thought good descernment the leadership eventually decided to recommend to the congregation that they close, though they were not out of money. They voted in April of 08 to close at the end of December. It was painful, to say the least, but a faithful process. I now am interim in a small congregation in Chicago that is a recent merge of two with very strong leadership (but about 15 folks who do almost everything). We have sold two church buildings and worship in a Metra station – the plan of union was to do a ‘whole new thing,’ be out in the community/visible. Wonderful things are happening (and there is certainly money because of the building sales), but critical mass is an issue.

    I have a couple of comments: my first congregation died partly of niceness. I arrived there just after 9/11 and was puzzled because no one was talking about it. The culture was such that Sunday mornings had to be peaceful (cacoon-like), no one’s feathers could be ruffled, anyone who got angry had to leave. When things have to be kept pleasant, there is no room for passion because passion invariably generates conflict at times (maybe good conflict). With no passion, no energy, no deep commitment etc.

    Second – focus on membership numbers/growth is deadly. When that is the background ‘goal’ sooner or later each activity (whether successful or not in and of itself) is measured in terms of whether or not it ‘brought in more people.’ If an event does not bring more people to worship (and the membership rolls which also means onto the Session/into doing the work/giving funds), the members quickly decide it is not worth the effort. They drop it. Over time they do less and less (and begin circling the drain) and consequently become less and less attractive to the outsider seeking a church home.

    A third problem with my first church was pastoral leadership that “did everything himself.” When I arrived I followed two pastors who were there a total of 40 years (27 for the guy just before me) and had done everything themselves. The lay leadership was very weak. They had what I came to think of as “pigeon hole leadership” meaning that their understanding was that they came on Session, took a committee and were responsible for a list of tasks assigned to that committee (and responsible for nothing else – there was no Session-wide sense of overall responsibility for the church). Everything and anything not on someone’s committee list was the pastor’s by default.

    I do not blame my colleagues because I found it incredibly difficult to make even small changes to that system, but it was hard to know at my time how much was congregational culture in general (most of them mainly wanted a Sunday chapel) and how much was having been trained this way by pastoral leadership style.

    Sorry to run on, but you open an area about which I have pretty strong feelings – and, I guess, opinions.

    1. Thanks Anne-Marie for your thoughtful comments. I agree. I have had colleagues experience similar issues. One of our problems is leadership at the Presbytery level to even deal with churches like these. We are only beginning to address these issues. Knowing it is a painful process also doesn’t mean it needs to be avoided because I too would like to see the financial resources used in exciting ways. We will see.

  4. At the congregation I had to leave, our interim minister helped us to come up with a plan to change our leadership structure and hire an additional 1/2 time minister by accessing our endowment fund as Theresa’s congregation did. We made a lot of changes during the 2 year interim process, and tried to visualise our mostly elderly congregation’s past, present, and future. We went through the standard search process with the mandated committees and everything. We got a full-time minister who, though he said he was on board with everything the accepted interim report had asked, he liked to do everything. The part-time minister was allowed to do “girl things”. The elderly people, especially the men, were glad to have a good, strong pastor again to lead the Church. The middle-aged women mostly left.

    1. That certainly is upsetting Sandra. Especially since so much good work was done before hand. Certainly pastors can muck it up. The best is when their is a great fit between a congregation willing to change and work and the right leadership. Sorry to hear about that experience. That may have to be a next blog: the kind of pastors needed to “transform” congregations.

  5. Anne-Marie’s comments about niceness really resonated with me. The congregation I attend is seriously serious about being nice, not ruffling feathers, avoiding hot button topics … and they are dying and I am leaving.

    It is helpful to realise that nice is not always good.

    Tony Barry

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