Chronicles of an Old Urban Church

17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9.17)

Second location of St. John's in 1888

The church I serve is one of the few successful revitalized churches that I have encountered. More and more churches are looking for options for their future: revitalization, closure, mergers, or survival. Questions that are often asked are about how a church moves from a struggling existence to a revitalized ministry and what did the journey of transformation look like. How long did it take? What were the changes that were implemented? What type of leader did it take? What was the involvement of the congregation?

As the Presbyterian Church (USA) looks to the future, more attention is given to planting new churches, killing dying churches, and revitalizing struggling churches with promise. This is an acceptable strategy as long as we are all in it for the long haul. A standard denominational redevelopment and new church development grant is five years. However, it takes at least three times as long to successfully launch a church or turn a struggling church around. I have been at my church eight years and have seen some significant changes, but that was due to the hard ground work that my Head of Staff put in for the 13 years prior to my arrival.

Church revitalization is difficult and almost seems impossible. The reasons being that there are so many factors and ingredients that are needed for a successful revitalization. A perfect recipe is when there are equal amounts of:

  • the right time – the leadership, the congregation, and the pastor are all open to do what is necessary to change.
  • the right leadership – the skills, passion, and the vision of the pastoral leadership are in sync with that of the elders and leaders of the church.
  • the right place – a particular need of the community requires unique resources that the church can offer.

Unfortunately, there is no easy version of this recipe. This is not a 30-minute meal, where a limited amount of time is needed to produce a quick and healthy meal or one that you can throw in a slow cooker all day and forget about it. This recipe takes time, constant stirring, and cooked on a low simmer. This recipe reminds me of the soup that my mother-in-law makes, where she stands over the pot all day, gently skimming the unwanted fat from the top until all that is left is a beautiful, rich broth. Without the needed time and commitment, it doesn’t matter what skills you have, how open you are to change, or how experienced you are. Any changes made will be like “new wine into old wineskins.” The skins will burst, the wine will run out, and the wineskins ruined. Therefore, I share with you the chronicles of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco – a church filled with a lot of history and a lot of changes over the years. By sharing the ups and downs and process of how this 142 year old church moved from a new church development to a 800-member church in its heydey to a struggling church of a faithful 30 to a now healthier 130-member congregation of young and old, kids and families, I hope to paint a visual picture of what it looks like for a church to change throughout time.

In the Beginning

In 1870, St. John’s Presbyterian Church was a church plant of Calvary Presbyterian Church. St. John’s began with 61 Calvary parishioners in downtown San Francisco and grew to almost 400 under the pastoral leadership of Dr. William Anderson Scott, founder of San Francisco Theological Seminary. The church did well until the end of the century when membership had declined and the mortgage was too great to bear. Calvary came to the rescue and took over the rest of the mortgage and offered to merge with the what was left of the congregation. However, Dr. Scott’s son-in-law strongly believed that this growing city needed a new Presbyterian church and financially backed a move to westside of San Francisco to a developing neighborhood.

In Easter 1906, the first service was held after the completion of the church building. Three days later, the 1906 earthquake hit and destroyed everything. Amazingly, the congregation was able to rebuild and move on, providing food and shelter for families displaced and homeless from the earthquake.

The Glory Years

1927-1960 were truly the glory years for St. John’s. If you look at some old photos and newsletters, there was so much going on. During this time, membership grew from 400 to 800, doubling the membership. Lots of programs, building campaigns, children, and mission projects were prevalent. St. John’s was active during the Depression providing food and job referrals to the unemployed and special programs for soldiers and their families stationed in the Presidio.

What’s interesting is that even during this time, it is obvious that the pastor, Rev. Lloyd Carrick was meticulous and almost obsessed with the rise and decline of membership. He kept copious notes and graphs on the fluctuations of membership and the possible reasons for it. I find it fascinating that in his documentation, it is clear that the issues that St. John’s faces today are the same issues that they faced way back then: attracting young people, urban flight of young families, and the quality of public education.

Before My Time

After a couple more long tenures of pastoral leadership and one short one that ended in a sexual misconduct, my Head of Staff came onto the scene. He came to St. John’s in 1991. On a good day, there were 30 in the seats. That is a huge difference compared to the glory years of when there were more than that in the youth choir. One of the first things John noticed was the lack of community. Even though they were small in number, people didn’t really know each other and therefore, there was no common vision for the church.

A huge strength of St. John’s at that time was that there were a handful of dedicated Seniors who were committed enough to be willing to change and grow and tired enough to not stand in the way of what was needed to change. There were not many pillars left by the time John had arrived, people who were obstacles to change and doing things differently.

The first thing the church had to tackle was their financial reality. By 1995, they were in the hole and heavily dependent upon income that came from a day camp renting space. Session meetings were 3-4 hours long, solely dedicated to their financial crisis. Out of this crisis, St. John’s launched a financial campaign that was meagerly successful, but it got the ball rolling. A part of being at an old church is the opportunity to reach out to a variety of people whose family at one time had connection to the church. Slowly, the budget was restored. Slowly, an endowment was built. This was the turning point for St. John’s. Financial freedom, stability, and relief gave room for hope to grow. Session meetings can now make room for planning, visioning, and dreaming.

After years of neglect and with some financial resources, St. John’s began to set goals on improving the actual building of the church. In a way, they were “cleaning up the house in preparation for guests.” Whether we like to believe it is true or not, visitors judge by what they see and how it makes them feel. A dilapidated church doesn’t make much of an impression. (A caveat to this would be if the ministry and identity of the church supports the unique look of the building. For example, worshipping in a warehouse or home.) These improvements were incremental and small. It started with painting the church, updating the sign, and ripping out the old carpet – no huge building campaign.

In 1999, John got the seven year itch and began wondering how long he could stay at St. John’s. Like most pastors, he experienced isolation in ministry and loneliness. It was during this time that worship attendance began to increase. San Francisco was experiencing a growth from the dot com industry.

John began attending conferences and tried applying what he learned to his ministry. One concept he tried was “to figure out what you want your church to look like and act like you are that church until you get there.” Since St. John’s was one step below being a programmatic church, he began to set up a series of programs that were unsuccessful. He hired a series of part-time youth leaders, but it was difficult to find qualified and dedicated people. He tried tracking the ups and downs of worship attendance, hoping to capture a glimpse of reasoning behind the fluctuations.

These trials and errors led to an epiphany, which ended up being John’s mantra of ministry: It’s not up to me. It’s not my task. It’s God’s. He stopped. He let go. He gave up. He stopped obsessing over worship attendance. He let go of looking for the next big thing or cool idea. He gave up trying to control what he ultimately couldn’t control.

Moving On to Today and Beyond

This is where I come in. In 2000, John began working towards his Doctor of Ministry. This began to spark in him a desire to hire an associate pastor. He was looking for someone who would be free to dream, execute changes, and help St. John’s live out their vision. This was quite a venture to convince the elders to undertake. It is unusual for a 130-member church to have two full-time pastors.

In all honesty, my first two years at St. John’s was confusing. It didn’t help that I got pregnant in the first three months and John took a 3-month sabbatical in my first year at St. John’s. But what was really confusing was the discrepancy in the elders’ expectations of my position compared to John’s expectations of my position. Given the increase in young Chinese-American families moving into the neighborhood, the elders thought that hiring me would attract this particular population to St. John’s. This became painfully clear when there was a review of my position two years into my being there. During a congregational meeting, concerns were brought up that my presence hadn’t brought in more Chinese-American families. Growth was crucial because there was only enough money to fund my position for a total of three years and two of them already passed. Fortunately, this expectation was broken when a member asked, “Isn’t Theresa Korean?”

This was a turning point for me in my ministry at St. John’s. We were able to start from scratch, develop an outreach strategy plan that we were actually able to live into. Lots of changes were made, which I have previously blogged about. It wasn’t until my fifth year at St. John’s that we really started to see the hard work pay off and where the hopes of our outreach strategy plan was actually being realized. The result wasn’t an increase in membership. We are still the same size, but an increase in health in all areas: finance, mission, and purpose.

Now, I would say that John and I are in a “what do we do next” conundrum, but we rest on the rich history of the church whose ministry always paralleled the needs of the community. If you ask John what were the key elements in turning St. John’s around, he would say:

  1. Demographics – know your neighborhood and the needs of the people in it.
  2. Visibility – evaluate how visible or invisible the church is in the neighborhood. Can it be physically seen? Is it known to be a faith community that is engaged in the happenings of the community?
  3. Longevity – how long is the pastor willing to stay? John’s been at St. John’s over 20 years. I am still at my first call, going on eight years. Incremental change takes time. Revitalization takes trial and error. John would say that he spent most of the years un-doing stuff.
Given the timeline of a church revitalization, three questions come to mind:
  1. Is the Presbyterian Church (USA) willing to commit and support struggling and new congregations for the long haul?
  2. Pastors currently working or looking into working in struggling congregations, are you willing to let go and see things through even when you can’t see where it is heading?
  3. To the seminaries . . . there are a lot of churches needing pastoral leadership. There are a lot of seminarians looking for their first call. However, there are not a lot of churches who can afford a full-time pastor. What are we doing to help equip and prepare seminarians to provide leadership in these kinds of churches, especially when struggling churches are increasing?

The life of a church has its ups and downs, much like how our own lives do. When in the immediate crisis of our ministry, it is hard to step back to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And although it is true that some churches are going to have to face the reality that this may be the end of their life cycle, church revitalization is possible. But it takes time, patience, and endurance. As the saying goes, “It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”

6 responses to “Chronicles of an Old Urban Church

  1. Thank you for this, Theresa. It’s a helpful perspective for any church leader, of any denomination – the time commitment and patience needed, and remembering that it’s God that brings the growth and we prepare the ground. Many blessings to you and John and St. John’s!

  2. Theresa,

    Thanks for this assessment of your own experience. It’s helpful, especially this revelation:

    “During a congregational meeting, concerns were brought up that my presence hadn’t brought in more Chinese-American families. Growth was crucial because there was only enough money to fund my position for a total of three years and two of them already passed. Fortunately, this expectation was broken when a member asked, ‘Isn’t Theresa Korean?'”

    -That really drives home the point that congregations cannot simply hire themselves out of stagnation or decline. It also suggests an undue burden on ethnic minority pastors to both be and attract the diversity. I’m glad that what came after that discussion was a plan to be realistic and more committed to outreach. Question for you: How did elder and deaconal leadership figure in your congregation’s revitalization experience?

    • Hi Joe,

      Great question. Elders and deacons played a huge part. A big part of the outreach strategy plan was completely reconfiguring how our elders and deacons met. Previously, our deacons were mainly in charge of hosting coffee hour after worship and planning events like potlucks and fellowships. Session meetings were all about discussing business where each elder was assigned to a “committee” such as Christian Ed, but basically they consisted of the whole committee.

      The new configuration was merging the elders and deacons into one meeting. The first hour, we worship and break up into 4 teams that focus on mission, worship, stewardship, and fellowship. They spend their time planning, dreaming, and implementing their ideas in these areas. Deacons are then excused and the second hour is spent on elders approving “business” like budget.

      The strategy plan set a process, but the elders and deacons actualize what things and changes they will try. Every session meeting we evaluate whether what we do is outreach focused.

  3. Theresa,

    Thanks for the reply. That’s a helpful look at how your elders and deacons really changed gears in order to share more deeply in the commitment to revitalize and reach out. Did it take the elders and deacons long to get the hang of that new style of meeting and strategizing or were they eager beavers? Given your experience, if you could change the way we as a Church call, form, and empower elders and deacons, what would you do?

    • Joe, it did take a couple years for all of us to live into the new style. There were a few skeptics, but mostly were willing to try the new model. Even after 5 years, we are still finding ways to better what we do.

      We still struggle with what most churches struggle with, which is full commitment from elders and full participation, but we find the new model still works better than our older ones. A lot of our parishioners are very new to our denomination (PCUSA) and so it is refreshing in ways and gives us opportunity for education. There is a lot of trust between the pastoral leadership, elders, and deacons. So there is lots of freedom to try new things and better old things. We do have to constantly remind them that just because we did it last year, doesn’t mean we have to do it this year.

      I didn’t quite answer your question, but in some ways we are still figuring things out.

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