July 15, 2012

Naming the Issue

Part 2 of 4: Exercising Leadership with Viability Threatened Congregations - The Congregation's Leadership Responsibility.  Read Part 1 here.

Several months after an Episcopal parish church closed I gathered its former members to engage them in a reflection process on the closing of their church and their individual processes of re-incorporation to one of three local Episcopal parishes. In a group process I asked three reflection questions of each person present. One of the three questions was "when did you know that your parish church was at risk of closing?" Several people said they had a sense over fifteen years ago! Others said they knew five to ten years ago. None present however were surprised!

While none were surprised, it is also true they admitted that none knew what to do. They agreed that they did not know how to connect their concerns with the inevitability of their parish church closing. They did not know how to name their viability challenges. Also, they did not want to believe that their beloved church was at risk of closing, so they continued to enjoy their life as a community. They hoped that their communal joy would eventually be contagious and bring more people to their parish, growing them into viability. Their hopes were not realized.

The experience of this congregation is not unique in The Episcopal Church. Often the vestry, rector and entire congregation find themselves hopeful, but cannot admit that their beloved church is "at risk", "in decline" or "non-viable". The naming of a congregation in this way is equivalent to giving up and preparing for the final service. The reality though is that naming is a critical and necessary step of recognition that the congregation in its current state is not viable. Once this recognition is named and shared then it is possible to consider all the options to enhance viability and life. The decision to do nothing accelerates the decline of a congregation so that eventually it is no longer viable and there are no more options but to close.

It is a paradoxical choice to acknowledge that a congregation in its current state is not viable. The making of this courageous statement is to choose life for one's congregation. Life will come through the identification of a variety of potential means that bring enhanced viability. Often times the means that would make a difference cannot be seen by the congregation's insiders (rector and vestry), but only through an independent, unbiased assessment. The value of an independent congregational assessment by one who has no stake to keep the parish open or to close has immeasurable value. In those cases, when all possibilities have been explored, but the congregation realizes no option will restore viability there still is hope for renewed life. Life might also come through the celebration of a parish's life with a celebratory close rather than an unexpected funeral that many congregations have suffered.