In case you haven’t noticed, tremendous changes are taking place in the American church. A number of pastors, scholars, and leaders, both within and outside our denomination, have issued dire warnings about the future of the Mainline church and of the United Church of Christ. For instance,
- In his book Transforming Congregational Culture, pastor Anthony Robinson writes that American churchgoing culture has shifted. Where once, churchgoers were motivated to attend weekly services by a culture of obligation (and the lack of alternatives to Sunday morning churchgoing), Americans now live in a culture of options and choices. Today, many people have stopped attending church or go only once a month.1
- Pastor Molly Phinney Baskette predicts in Real Good Church that “something like 80% of mainline Christian churches will be dead” in 20 years.2
- In Beyond Resistance, UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer reveals that many UCC and Mainline churches are so financially strapped that “full-time, seminary-trained, ordained clergy are [now] an impediment” to their mission and outreach. In effect, the mission in these churches has become holding rummage sales and fundraising dinners “in order to keep paying a full-time pastor’s salary.”3 Meanwhile, aging buildings—undoubtedly beautiful but expensive to maintain—are posing problems for congregants. Increasingly, churches are faced with the Faustian dilemma of having to either get rid of their pastors so they can keep their buildings, or ditch their buildings so they can afford their pastors. (p. 7, 9-11)
- Pastor and church historian Steve Johnson reminds older churchgoers that the halcyon days of the 1950s—when stores were closed on Sunday, worship services were packed, and well-scrubbed children wore nice dresses, white shirts, and ties to church—were an anomaly in American church history. The norm for religious institutions has always been a struggle for noses, nickels, and numbers. Yet many aging Baby Boomers persist in remembering the 1950s as the norm to which we must return.4
How should we evaluate these claims? Are Robinson, Baskette, Dorhauer, and Johnson right? I suspect they are.
In June 2015, two important UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) studies (available on this website) confirmed these dire forecasts. The first, Futuring the United Church of Christ: 30-Year Projections, shows that over the next three decades, the number of UCC congregations will decline from over 5,100 churches today to approximately 3,600 churches. Over the same time period, the number of UCC members will drop precipitously, from 1.1 million to just under 200,000 adherents. Yikes!
A second CARD report, Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence, was based on a national survey of UCC churchgoers. It identifies four “marks of ministerial excellence” as correlating significantly to congregational vitality:
- The ability to equip and motivate a congregation.
- The ability to lead ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation.
- The ability to read the contexts of a congregation’s ministry and lead it through change or conflict.
- The ability to frame, articulate, and test a congregation’s vision.
Unfortunately, the report added, “these four marks were the lowest-rated items” of survey-takers’ evaluations of their churches’ and pastors’ ministries. Indeed, the skills and traits that are most directly relevant to congregational vitality and church revitalization seem to be the ones that UCC pastors are the weakest in! As Dorhauer put it, “Clergy trained [as] pastoral counselors, preachers, and spiritual guides now have new expectations placed on them: raise money, market, and attract new members. As budgets shrink and membership rolls decline, we now want our clergy to become CEOs and growth strategists.” (p. 99)
Yet such leadership and entrepreneurial skills are “specialized fields” that require years of training and expertise, Dorhauer insists. “Even in their best weeks,” clergy won’t make these tasks “their highest priority”—not as long as there are sermons and services to prepare, sick people to visit, youth programs to organize, and classes to teach. (p. 99-100)
In a strange way, I wonder if what we’re seeing is not the “politician-ization” of authorized ministry in the United Church of Christ. As you may have witnessed in this present political campaign cycle, many of the candidates running for elected office have captured the public’s attention with some jarring, polarizing remarks and actions. Are not the brashness, cocksure confidence, and decisiveness of some candidates—at local, state, and national levels—exactly the traits and skills that we pastors need if we are going to turn failing churches around? Our congregants don’t really care if we authorized ministers have studied the Bible thoroughly, or if we can parse Walter Brueggemann’s theology, any more than if constituents are worried that their candidate of choice has held no previous political office—do they? And even if some of these candidates are not elected, wouldn’t they make ideal revitalization pastors?
In case you’re wondering, yes, I did write that last paragraph with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I believe strongly that mastering theology and the Bible—the stuff of traditional seminary studies—is still vitally important for ministers. But it is telling that Dorhauer and other scholars and church leaders are openly wondering if, in the future, pastors who have entrepreneurial and organizational skills will really need seminary training or even ordination.
You may say that many of these political candidates are showpeople, and I will agree readily with you—I am no fan of this brand of politics. But I will also tell you that good pastoral leadership—the kind that turns struggling churches around—contains more than a modicum of showmanship, and is not only a matter of administrative skills and biblical and theological knowledge.
The times, they are a-changing—and so is the church. But we pastors need to remain steady, stay confident, and know what we’re about. Here’s hoping we can continue to learn and grow, improve our leadership skills, and begin to turn some of our declining congregations around. In the meantime, we can remember that not all change points to decline and loss. Some points of celebration:
- We can celebrate the many things we do well, even as we strive to improve our marketing, fundraising, vision-framing, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills.
- Some churches and Christian institutions will close. It is inevitable. We celebrate their legacy and faithful ministry over the decades—or centuries—of their continued operation.
- We celebrate the new things that God is doing—even if we cannot see those new things yet, or tell exactly what it is that God is doing.
As Easter people, we celebrate resurrection. Jesus overcame the grave. New churches rise up and begin to worship and thrive, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of their predecessor. The two stories are one and the same. Death is always followed by new life.
- Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans), 2003, pp. 4-8.
- Molly Phinney Baskette, Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can Too (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2014), pp. 10-11.
- John Dorhauer, Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015), p. 15.
- Overheard in a conversation with Steve Johnson.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he an an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.