Can Churches Be Vital in These Times?

This week we welcome a new writer to Vital Signs & Statistics, please welcome Rev. L. Gail Irwin!

Rev. L. Gail Irwin has served UCC and PCUSA churches as a settled and Intentional Interim Pastor. She is a freelance writer for The Christian Century and author of Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection (Wipf & Stock, 2014), which was written under a Louisville Institute research grant. Her blog can be found at



For decades, declining church size has been causing congregations to trim their program and mission budgets. In more recent years, pastoral staff cuts have become commonplace, with full-time pastors switching to part-time and churches sharing pastors to make ends meet. A few churches are even experimenting with having no settled pastor at all. In the current climate of social distancing, as church budgets are stretched even more, this trend may accelerate. 

These changes have brought much loss and grief to congregations. And that grief can erode a church’s vitality. Both clergy and laity may feel depleted, and there is less energy for compassionate outreach to the community when it is needed most. Some churches may turn inward for self-protection. 

But other churches may find resilience and even renewed vitality amid declining resources and staffing. 

Church consultant Rev. Linda Kuhn shared with me the story of a small Presbyterian congregation that functions like an active “house church”.  They no longer have a settled pastor, but instead, employ a “round-robin” of preachers who each commit to lead worship for several weeks. One area pastor is available for emergency pastoral care, while lay leaders keep the church going day to day and care for each other. 

Recently (before the COVID-19 quarantine) they learned on a Thursday that their weekly preacher was hospitalized. Despite the fact that they have three retired clergy members in their church, it was lay leaders who stepped up to lead a lively service the following Sunday. 

Kuhn writes of her work as a church consultant, “We’re beginning to work with more churches who are trying to be creative, faithful, and have theological integrity without their own pastor. We’re thinking about what kind of training needs to happen and what resources need to be available.”

Is it possible for churches to maintain their vitality, even while adapting to less pastoral leadership? 

We can glean some insights into this from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, who recently wrote a new study for the business community called Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less—Here’s How”. Pang researched businesses that adapted to a shorter work week for their employees. He found that these companies were often able to maintain or even increase productivity in the workplace. They did so by:

  • Renewing their focus on their core mission and prioritizing tasks that supported that mission;
  • Allowing workers to be innovators in figuring out how to fulfill their mission more efficiently;
  • Promoting more collaboration between individuals and groups, which naturally led to greater teamwork and loyalty to the organizations they work for.

If we translate Pang’s findings into a congregational context, I see some opportunities for churches who must downsize their staff:

  • Congregations can and should focus their mission more tightly. What is God’s primary purpose for your congregation in its context? What previous programs and processes can be eliminated so you can focus on what matters most? In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are already getting a sense of which areas of ministry are most significant and which can be let go, at least temporarily.     
  • Once you’ve agreed on your core mission priorities, congregations can innovate and collaborate with each other and partner organizations to turn our priorities into mission action, instead of each leader or church trying to “go it alone”.
  • Clergy and laity alike will need to let go of our old ways of carrying out the work of the church. New ministries will emerge not from “what the pastor can do” but from the core mission and spiritual gifts expressed by everyone in the system.  

Maybe instead of weekly, in-person worship, area pastors can share preaching assignments and distribute worship services via the internet. This would allow more time for mission outreach or in-person education. A single Confirmation program or adult bible study might gather students from several area churches. Lay leaders might “adopt” homebound members for visitation and home communion. Multiple churches might share one building and stagger their worship times for in-person services. 

While these downsizing options will require significant change and loss, they should be geared toward maintaining and growing the vitality of our most important mission tasks. If they do, I believe a renewed sense of unity and solidarity will break out in the communities we serve. 

Among the many heartbreaking effects of COVID-19, I believe some resurrection light will emerge. Just think of all the amazing ways churches have already adapted to continue their ministry, with and without full-time pastors. God will make us resilient and restore our vitality if we are willing to work collaboratively to accomplish God’s mission. 

3 thoughts on “Can Churches Be Vital in These Times?

  1. Thanks Gail for your great blog. I appreciate you lifting up emerging missional vitality in these difficult days. Phyllis Tickle, in one of her last interviews, saw that one of the realities of the emerging church would be small home churches served by a pastor shared with other home churches, or pastored by the members themselves.


  2. Gail, so much of what you have included are what our small church affinity group has been discussing, the element that is critical has to do with how these small congregation entertain and move with these insights.


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