Clergy shortages and dying congregations and bears, oh my!

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” is one of the most famous lines from The Wizard of Oz. It’s turned into a cliche that can express the fear of three things all occurring at the same time. In the case of the institutional church we know about clergy shortages and struggling congregations. I’m not sure what would be on par with those, but I’m sure there are plenty of candidates.

Frederick Schmidt posted an article on Patheos on March 4 titled, “The Clergy Shortage and Congregational Survival.” It’s a common topic in church circles. An article about congregations trying to figure out how to survive and about the clergy shortage that exists which also impacts the situation. And he points out many truths – the congregations, the larger church, seminaries, and it seems like everyone else is trying to figure out what to do because no one really knows. At the very end of the article he lists things local congregations should so to help their survival and concludes with this: “The worst thing a parish can do now is follow the maxim, “Trust the process”, because the process is broken.” Indeed, the process is broken. Schmidt has some other good points in the article and it is well worth a read. And I disagree with some of what he writes too, but I give him credit for tackling this issue. There isn’t a person out there that knows “the” answer.

And I’m not convinced that there is an answer either. Maybe we’re trying to “fix” something that isn’t fixable. I suspect that fixing things isn’t the solution at all. Mostly because fixing implies repairing what’s broken so that you can carry on with how things normally are. Except we’re way past that. What’s normal? Are we still thinking that having full sanctuaries on a Sunday morning is normal and what we are trying to get back to? Are we still thinking that the ideal clergy person looks like me – mid to late 40’s, white, heterosexual, married, with multiple children, and a dog? While I might look the part, there’s plenty of congregations that I really wouldn’t fit in for a variety of reasons and I’m quite alright with that.

One of the best sections of Schmidt’s article reads this way: “The problem was, few leaders wanted to make the hard decisions involved in making adjustments.  So, just as seminary administrators road into the storm without making adjustments, denominational leaders also allowed things to drift.” All of that is true. And let’s offer some grace here. I’m not convinced they knew what to do. It’s not like denominational leaders get some kind of special education on organizational change in relationship to societal change. They, like everyone else in the church, didn’t and doesn’t know what to do.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I think this is true for the church as well. I wonder if our thinking is stuck. I wonder if we have equated the church to the institution without seeing anything beyond the boundaries of the building and the institutional structure. Where is there room for God in that? Where is Jesus when we limit the church to just the institution? Jesus didn’t have an institution. I’m not opposed to the institution. As I’ve said many times before I think the mission and the institution should be and can be and have been and in some form will be partners. What I see in the clergy shortage and struggle for congregations to survive is that we need a new way of thinking about church. That’s not a great way to phrase it though. I’m not talking about jettisoning the mission or the message. I’m not talking about scrapping everything and starting over either. I’m talking about taking a look at what Jesus is calling us to in this time and place and responding.

I appreciate that Schmidt offers some ideas for struggling congregations to embrace. I think that’s helpful. I have my own list. These aren’t universal by any means either. Just as Schmidt doesn’t know, neither do I. And neither do you. But we aren’t called around to just sit and do nothing in the sense of just waiting for the inevitable death of a congregation, or institution, or anything else. So, here’s my list:

  1. Every congregation, institution, organization, non-profit, etc. has a life span, just as every human does. We preach and proclaim life, death, and resurrection. But do we really believe it? It’s ok for these things to come to an end. It’s normal. It’s often healthy. Death leads to resurrection. I have said many times that one of the purposes of death is to get in our face and scream at us that we are not in control. It is only then that we can be resurrected. I often wonder if we are controlling our churches right into the grave because we think we know what we have to do and we are convinced of how right we are. Whose church is it after all? Ours of Jesus’? Death can mean literal closure. Or it can mean that an idea dies, or the way something has been done dies, or some other form of death. Death makes room for life.
  2. Mourning is broken. When is the last time you, your congregation, your denomination, etc., intentionally mourned something? I’m talking about mourning ideas that no longer apply. I’m talking about assumptions and expectations. I’m talking about mourning what was and what our preferred memory of that thing was. I’m talking about mourning the budgets that we flush with funds. I’m talking about mourning the empty pews and the children’s Sunday School classes and the tons of volunteers who made everything run in the church, and more. I’m talking about mourning the changes in neighborhoods from what it was years ago. I’m talking about mourning how society has changed. It is only by mourning that we can then finally see what is now as it actually is and have a chance at seeing a path forward to the future. This isn’t about judging the past or the present. It’s about life, death, and resurrection. It’s about acknowledging the pain of loss and dealing with it so that we can embrace the hope for the future.
  3. Our congregations and denominations have a hidden treasure. Do you realize what you have? Yes, there’s the physical facilities for many churches, and money in savings, and a long history that shows persistence. But even more, there is a message of hope and a community of people who (hopefully) trust one another. That’s not small. The early church had the same thing. And they didn’t have money or property. I wonder how many of our congregations have forgotten the hope that they have been entrusted with. It’s a hope that they need to reengage with directly. It’s really hard to offer hope to others if you aren’t buying for yourself. What is the hope that our congregations have? That our denominations have? The hope isn’t about fixing things to go back to someway it was. No the hope is offering people a new way forward from what they have been experiencing. That’s the message we have been preaching. How about we embrace our own message and live into it. Hope doesn’t offer us control. It’s offers something better – life.
  4. Why does the church exist? This may be the most important question that we can ask. Why does this congregation exist? Why does this denomination exist? Could your answer be copied by another type of organization that isn’t a church? Then why do we need the church at all in that case? Sure, our churches do some wonderful things – feed people, get them clothed, do social justice, offer a moral code to live by, educate youth and adults, provide care, and so much more. But so do a ton of secular organizations. So what makes the church different? We have Jesus. Not just as the foundation of who we are and what we are about. That answer usually ends up being stretched to fit anything. Rather we have Jesus to offer. It is in Jesus, and what he offers that makes all the feeding, clothing, social justice, moral living, education, care and more far different than what secular organizations are doing. it is in Jesus that we touch on a part of life that so often is ignored but is so very important – the spiritual part of life. Spiritual isn’t about a prayer, or a feeling, or a dogma or any of that. It’s the immaterial touching the material in ways that the material can’t explain. The spiritual is the connection we have to each other and to the rest of creation. The spiritual is our connection to God – individually and communally. The spiritual is about meaning and purpose and what drives us. The spiritual gives life meaning. The spiritual offers hope. So why does your congregation exist? What is its spirit?
  5. Reimagine what the church is. The church hasn’t always had buildings. The liturgy hasn’t always been the way it is. The vestments haven’t always been this way. The hymns haven’t always been familiar. The collection hasn’t always collected US dollars. The pastor hasn’t always had the same description of what they do. We’ve never been called to preserve things the way they are – as if this way is God’s way and can’t be changed. I think there is an unspoken assumption that our first encounter with a church, a pastor, music, how a church functions and makes decisions, what the budget looks like, what pastoral care looks like, and more becomes the standard by which we judge all future parts of the church. Why? Why do we assume this? Why shouldn’t we assume that what we first encountered was the wrong way to do church? Maybe all those assumptions are fine for a particular context and time. But that doesn’t mean they are universal. So given what Jesus is calling us to now, in our context, what assumptions can be put aside so that we are free to answer Jesus’ call now. Maybe Jesus knows what best for the church better than we do. It is his church after all, not ours.

The clergy shortage will continue. Congregations will continue to struggle and close. Denominations will be forced to adapt, merge, dissolve, and more. And yet, in spite of all of that, the church will persist. I won’t look like it did or does. And you know what – that’s ok. Because it will change (maybe with great resistance) to live into Jesus’ mission for the church. I have full faith in that. Because it is Jesus’ church and not ours. And he’ll get what we wants out of the church in spite of our best efforts to stand in the way. He always does. And the church will look nothing like what we expected or in some cases wanted. But it will be the church that Jesus knows it needs to be. That’s the hope I have. And that’s why I’m hopeful for the church going forward.

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