At the Next conference, I shared about a gathering where we gathered the 22 churches in San Francisco to see how we could better partner with one… Read more “How to Shape Conversations in the 21st Century? Part III”
13 Some people brought children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded them. 14 “Allow the children to come to… Read more “Help the Children: Empower or Save?”
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“The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.'” (Matthew 22.8-9)
The parable of the Wedding Banquet speaks of a wedding reception that was fit for a king and yet all those typically considered unworthy were invited to the feast. There was plenty for all. In the month of October, my church focused the whole month on hunger awareness. Interactive prayer stations are a wonderful opportunity for people to reflect on their participation, experience, and thoughts on hunger issues in the community and the world.
The interactive prayer stations are meant to be intergenerational. (For more specific instructions on layout, purpose, design, and more ideas, you can view previous posts tagged under “Interactive Prayer Stations.”) You can see more pictures of these prayer stations here.
Interactive Prayer Station #1: Appetizer
Materials: Basket, Leftover Communion Bread
These are the leftovers from last Sunday’s communion. Is grace offered only for some or for all? How do you approach food that already has “bites” taken out of it?
How might others feel getting our leftovers?
for their children?
for their future?
take time to let this settle into you now . . . invite God to place this in your faith journey.
Interactive Prayer Station #2: Main Course
Materials: Stone Soup Story, Pencils, Paper
NOTE: The story Stone Soup was read before the interactive prayer stations. Participants were instructed to bring a vegetable or ingredient from their pantry to worship.
Tell your own story about food, of being hungry, of having plenty, of sharing or of receiving.
reflect on the significance of this now . . . invite God to add this to your faith journey.
Interactive Prayer Station #3: Dessert
Materials: Dessert Plate, Fork, Knife, Spoon, Dinner napkin, Pencils, Paper, Paper Coin Boxes
What action do you intend to take as you step away from your meal and as you acknowledge Jesus as the bread of life, for all people?
You may wish to take a coin box and return it at the end of the month, to feed a family or two in our Harvest Pantry Ministry.
allow this to become part of you now . . . invite God to add this to your faith journey.
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)
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:
- Demographics – know your neighborhood and the needs of the people in it.
- 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?
- 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.
- Is the Presbyterian Church (USA) willing to commit and support struggling and new congregations for the long haul?
- 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?
- 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.”
8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that… Read more “Here I am!”
. . . the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop,… Read more “Interactive Prayer Stations on the Parable of the Sower”
15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him… Read more “Interactive Prayer Stations on Evangelism, Discipleship, Servanthood, and Diversity”
20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18.20) Back in February, I led a process sponsored by the… Read more “How to Shape Conversations in the 21st Century? Part II”
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.
#2 SEARCH PROCESS
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.
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?