Monday, April 25, 2011

Catalytic Change or Creeping Decline?

Church’s in Crisis-Decline Cycle

After twenty years of serving local churches, and years before as an active lay leader, I am seeing a pattern of behavior that seems to be relatively consistent over time for our churches facing decline.

Crisis—desperation and the call for assistance. When a church is in crisis mode, people are leaving or numbers have fallen well below sustainable levels panic sets in. The church appeals to the denomination for any assistance to insure its continued survival. Staff positions are eliminated, facilities are neglected, and ministries are abandoned. The church in crisis mode is only interested in anything that will insure continual survival. In the interest of surviving they accept the…

Challenge—accept of the radical challenge to reverse negative momentum. Churches, like people, are willing to do anything to alleviate a life-threatening crisis. They beg for new leadership since all church failure is “caused by” or “blamed upon” the pastor. The pastor is the easiest thing to change in the situation and the variable that ends up accepting the majority of the responsibility for the crisis. Comparisons to a previous Mythical Perfect Pastor abound, and they begin looking for a savior instead of to the Savior.  To accept the challenge they are willing to accept any…
 
Change—initiate radical action needed to survive crisis. Initially the new leader’s ideas are embrace with eager acceptance. Attendance may experience a slight “bump” as those peripherally affiliated with the congregation come to have a look at the new pastor and his new “ideas” to save their ailing congregation. This initial positive energy may last for as little as a few weeks to as long as eighteen months until finally things settle down and the congregation experiences a sense of…

Calm—achievement of post-crisis stability, usually at a lower level of ministry, attendance, and performance than the pre-crisis era. The crisis has past and so has the active engagement in many of those desperate to save the congregation from eminent death. New ideas have lost their initial engagement and the congregation begins to experience…

Complacency—tendency to relax since the worst of the crisis is over. There is the general acceptance of a lower level of ministry, attendance, and performance that prior to crisis as acceptable or even preferable (the “uncommitted” left, development of the remnant attitude). The “business as usual” attitude begins to set in. There is a push to return to previous ways of behaving and you see the rise of phrases like, “we should do what we used to do…” or “I remember how much we loved to do…” When new ideas run into conflict with previous ways of behaving a group begins…

Complaining—there is a growing voice for those who desire to return to formally comfortable, pre-crisis ways of behaving. Resistance to support ongoing change or accept change instituted during crisis begins to get louder, even if it is only a few of the members of the congregation. Sensing a loss of influence, some members resist any new idea or desire to change in order to be more effective. Pockets of resistance form until it precipitates a…

Strategic Choice & Period of Chaos: 
Catalytic Change or Creeping Decline

o      Creeping Decline—clinging to previously ineffective systems, behaviors, and activities. Organization/church limps forward in a survival mode until the next crisis. With every occurrence of crisis the congregation continues to perform at a lower level. Evangelism is essentially abandoned and the survivalist mentality becomes part of the operating process for the church. If this continues a sense of apathy takes over that insures eventual death.

o      Catalytic Change—acceptance and support for long-term, often radical change. Development of new mission, vision, and core values that provide a structure for all decision making and future ministry. This is a difficult decision to make for most churches. It means that while they honor the past, they are willing to move boldly into the future by continuing to clarify God’s new mission for them. They establish new patterns of leadership and begin seeing their mission field around the corner and around the world. Evangelism takes central focus in the organization, as does local missional engagement.

I believe that God is raising up a group of leaders in The United Methodist Church that are forcing the hand of our congregations and pushing them to make Catalytic Change. What I do know is that if we continue on the path of creeping decline, we are accepting the reality that God has finished its prophetic work in us and we are giving up on living the life of a resurrected people. God send us leaders and prophets to force us to decide between creeping decline and catalytic change. 
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