Becoming the “Turnaround Denomination” is a great article by E. Stanley Ott in the Presbyterian Outlook (requires free registration) which I overlooked.
It would be easy to just assert that congregational transformation is primarily the responsibility of the presbyteries. Well, it is very true that every General Presbyter feels the weight of how to sustain and turn around congregations whose numbers have been falling for years. At the same time, for a denominational turnaround, those presbyters and presbyteries need all the support they can get from both the national church and the local church. We need to legitimize risk and change at the local level and we need to link people with all the help being offered by teaching congregations, congregational consultants, and seminaries. Again there is an opportunity for a denominational center to offer vision and support. This is not at odds with the general diffusion of like-minded networks we see emerging throughout the denomination. Strong organizations have often balanced a visionary center with the initiative and network of relationships at the grassroots level.
A study of the history of New Church Developments (NCDs) in our denomination conducted by Charles Denison, former Associate for New Church Development, reveals a major focus on new church starts in our denominational past. For example, between 1890 and 1900 we started some 2000 congregations and in the 1950s some 1,345 new congregations were begun. When the authority to launch NCDs passed from the General Assembly to the presbytery level in the 1960s, Denison’s study reveals a sharp decline in new church starts – due to issues of funding, “turf,” and the like. Last year we launched 40. The annual hemorrhage of members we are experiencing will not be arrested solely by the transformation of our current congregations into turnaround, community-engaging, transformational, missional fellowships. We need at least 200 NCDs a year every year for a decade, which averages only four per state per year. It is perfectly do-able but it will require a much higher level of commitment from every level of the church.
Movements such as the transformational, emergent and missional church movements are all about design, but few of the graduates of our seminaries know how to introduce such ideas into the lives of thoroughly traditional and frequently declining established congregations. Without such design skills and significant leadership competencies, pastors will continue to struggle with how to lead congregations whose programs remain rooted in the 1950s.
What is at stake? Our future. With the vast majority of our congregations in a numerical or declining plateau led by pastors developed by the seminary system of the last half of the twentieth century, clearly we need pastors who can honor the traditions of the past, and who know how to design ministry that actually engages the people of their communities. Teaching theologically sound approaches to the design of ministry is a new field of endeavor for the church and is little addressed in the seminary environment. Seminaries in partnership with teaching pastors and teaching congregations can certainly develop theologically rooted leaders with expertise in the design of ministries that are transformational and missional.
Way to go Stanley! I encourage you to read the whole thing. Excellent thoughts.