November 01, 2015
Repositioning the Church for the Future
Bob Farr and Jim Ozier had been getting a lot of questions from their colleagues around the country. Many Conferences were dealing with all of the aspects of closing churches that had faded, while trying to start new, vital churches, and trying to put those two things together in a way that is both effective and efficient.
As the people who relate to this process for the Missouri and North Texas Conferences, Farr and Ozier had seen examples of this working very well, and sometimes not working at all, when the closing church becomes a second campus of a vital church. It was a topic that needed discussion.
“We put together the New Wine Skins conference to convene the beginning of a national conversation around this idea,” Farr said.
A national conversation it was, with people showing up from every jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. About half of the attendees were district superintendents, in some cases nearly the entire appointive cabinet of a Conference was present.
The location of the Conference in St. Louis supported the underlying theme of the meeting. “The Clayton campus of The Gathering was a great place to have it, because they have the facilities to host it, and it’s an example of one church becoming the second campus of another that has gone very well,” Farr said.
The church is entering an era when most large churches will be multi-campus churches, Farr believes. “Multi-campus churches will be the primary way we start new churches, and we restart fading congregations,” Farr said.
Rev. Junius Dotson offers a cautionary tale when it comes to launching a new campus where there was an existing church. It has a happy ending, but it isn’t without its drama. Dotson told the whole story to everyone gathered at the New Wineskins conference in Clayton. His church, St. Mark UMC in Wichita, Kansas, is a 103 year-old-church. It was feeling called to launch a new campus to reach new people and to create a more diverse congregation. St. Mark’s is a predominantly African American congregation.
Another United Methodist Church in Wichita named Epworth was in rapid decline. It was a large facility in good condition. The District Superintendent contacted Dotson and explained that Epworth was surviving on its savings account, and at the current rate that would run out in about 18 months. The District Superintendent didn’t want to lose a United Methodist presence in this historic part of Wichita.
Dotson did a tour of neighborhood and talked about possibilities. He talked to God about it. He thought it would be a great place to do ministry – the southeast part of town is the most diverse area in Wichita.
Both churches started a discernment process. For Epworth, they had to consider if they were ready to give up control to live beyond themselves. For St. Marks, they had to consider if this was the right time, right location and right opportunity to take on an initiative as bold as launching a second campus.
Dotson wanted Epworth to know exactly what the church was getting into: there would be no official leadership from Epworth. The church would be a second campus of St. Marks, and part of one church, with one vision and one mission. All financial control would go to St. Marks.
It was during this discernment process that unfortunate actions were taken. Epworth spent $40,000 on new cabinets for the basement, an area which Dotson said no one was using.
“It was sabotage,” said Dotson. It wasn’t just the Epworth congregation that had mixed feelings about the merger. Plenty of people at St. Marks were nervous.
“We were a 103-year-old church, about to give birth to a new baby,” Dotson said. “A lot of people at St. Marks were not happy about that. When the parents bringing home a new baby, who gets the attention?”
Epworth voted on the merger. About 60 people came to the church meeting, which was more than had been coming to church. It passed, by a one-vote margin. St. Mark took their vote following week. It was the largest church meeting in 13 years, with more than 150 people attending.
After some discussion, one person shared his own personal testimony, talking about his journey to St. Mark, and how it was the first time in his life that he had found a church that loved him and made an impact in its community. He asked “Why wouldn’t we want to extend that to another community?” The vote passed 133 to 13.
Dotson had decided that it didn’t matter if there were dissenting votes – once the votes passed the church was going to go in and do ministry. But there was immediate volatility when the keys were turned over.
“I found this important difference between a large church and small church – not everyone has keys to a large church,” Dotson said.
“When we went into Epworth, we discovered, man, a lot of folks here have keys.”
First the drums went missing. Then someone came and collected the salt and pepper shakers. The worship team resigned. Then social media started blowing up, with comments such as people saying their grandparents would be turning over in their graves because Epworth was never intended to be a black church.
“It was vile stuff from people who call themselves believers in Christ, and call themselves United Methodist,” Dotson said.
Within a week the church put in alarm system. Soon the police were at the church, with someone in custody who was trying to break-in to reclaim her items.
“The police officer looked at me and said, ‘This is really sad, that I have to be in the middle of a church issue’,” Dotson said. “It was embarrassing. We were trying to be accommodating and understanding, and to be honest, looking back I think we wasted a lot of time and energy trying to be accommodating and understanding.”
Dotson’s faith in God remained strong, but his self-confidence was a little shaken.
“I was disappointed, because I believe I’m an effective leader, and I thought I could paint a picture (of the vision) and people would get on board,” he said.
They proceeded with having worship at Epworth, while preparing to launch a new campus of St. Mark’s there. The launch team came up with a four phase plan to connect to the community:
- Prayer Walk: “This was a literally transforming event. People were asking for prayers, saying I’ve been waiting for you, we ended up with stack of cards of people to follow up with. We knocked on doors, and 99.9 percent of the people gracious and hospitable. 200 people showed up.”
- Community Block Party: “We simply wanted to have an opportunity to bring the southeast community together. We collected names by having people register for give-aways.”
- Gas Buy-Down: “We partnered with Quicktrip to give people $20 worth of free gas. This was when gas was $4 per gallon. We had cars wrapped all through the neighborhood. I was out talking to people waiting in line, because people in the cars were captive audience
- Open House: “After the launch Sunday, we did an open house invitation to every executive director of every non-profit in town, and to the Chamber of Commerce. We had a room filled with community leaders.
The goal was to launch the church with 300. In the six month lead up to the launch they did direct mail and radio advertising, but also had a personal presence, including going door-to-door.
“There are a lot of pastors who have never knocked on a door, never done that type of evangelizing,” Dotson said.
He met with editorial boards to introduce St. Marks Southeast so they could come to know the church’s unique story.
“The Saturday before launch we were on the front page of the Wichita Eagle,” Dotson said. “You can’t buy that kind of advertising, and it doesn’t happen by accident.”
The goal was to have 300 people for the big launch, and they had 399. Regular attendance started at about 160, climbed to 220 in a few months, now is close to 300. St. Marks now has a 9 a.m. worship service at their main camps, and an 11 a.m. service at St. Marks Southeast. The two campuses average close to 1,200 in worship.
One thing Bob Farr is certain about – when it comes to repositioning a church, the future is uncertain. There is no step-by-step formula with guaranteed results.
“Our process is firmly in jello,” Farr said. “Every time we go to do one of these, things turn out differently.” Farr was addressing a group of United Methodist Conference-level leaders, primarily district superintendents and Conference staff, who came from all across to the country to meet at The Gathering in Clayton (St. Louis) to talk about multi-campus ministry.
Although every church is different, Farr has learned a lot from each individual church he has worked with in the repositioning process. There are now 18 churches in the Missouri Conference who have been through these steps through Farr’s center of Congregational Excellence.
The process typically includes a church recognizing that it does not have a viable future on its current trajectory. Without a major shift, which would usually include a closure and a restart, the church will continue to decline while being unable to afford even basic maintenance on its building, and cannot invest in renewed efforts for ministry. But even in extreme situations, it can be very difficult for someone to see their church close and give itself over to something different.
“People feel grief and anger which can lead to dysfunction. But even if they are working against the process, you must remember these are good people. Each person thinks they are defending the church that they love,” Farr said. “Many of these are generational churches. People can tell you about the grandparent who planted church, sometimes these were the first generation in the family in the country. As clergy this a painful process for us, but we’re not experiencing the same kind of pain as a member who is seeing the break-up of a lifelong relationship with his or her church. Sometimes I’m driving home with this on my heart, saying ‘What did we just do?’”
It seems it would be easier to let a church in decline simply continue to decline, and eventually fade away. But to do so would not be staying true to the mission of the United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“We must try not to be held hostage and end up missing the ministry of Jesus Christ,” Farr said. “People may get angry and leave, but when that happens they usually just go to a different church. By taking action, you’re not jeopardizing anyone’s salvation. But if you just let them be, you may miss the mission of Jesus Christ.”
When Farr talks about repositioning, 15 out of the 18 he has worked with in the Missouri conference has involved starting a new church as a second campus of another church. Being backed by a vital church makes many steps of the process easier, and opens more possibilities. But sometimes taking this as a new disciple-making opportunity isn’t easy for people to accept.
“Some people in a congregation may feel that by taking on another campus, they’ve become a two-point charge, after they’ve worked hard to become or remain a single charge,” Farr said. “In these cases nothing we could say would convince them that they hadn’t been demoted.”
There is one problem with the plan of doing a church repositioning with the mother-daughter church new plant model: it takes a mother. There are more small churches edging closer to closure that need a restart than there are large, vital churches to initiate a restart.
“I have a dozen requests on my desk from churches who are interested in becoming a legacy church, and closing to give their building and resources to a new-church start,” Farr said. “Out of our 800 churches in Missouri, we only currently have about 40 that are well-positioned to launch a new campus, and most of those are in one of three geographic areas. Some churches that are hoping to become part of another church are more than two hours away from a large church.”
Facilities can also be an issue. Some church buildings are too large, or too far gone in terms of deferred maintenance, to be good candidates for a new church start. Rev. Matt Miofsky, senior pastor The Gathering, which was hosting the Conference, said an example of that is St. John’s UMC in downtown St. Louis. The beautiful, Theodore Locke designed building of woodwork, stained glass and marble was too large and would require too much money to be a location where they could start something new.
After it closed, the building proved hard to sell, and was on the market for years, eventually receiving only a fraction of what would have been market value some time earlier.
An example of being right-sized was the church that was the location of the Conference – The Gathering at Clayton. This church was still in good condition and had money in the bank when it voted to close and become a new campus of The Gathering. The building was also the right size to launch something new.
Someone asked Miofsky if he was concerned that the sanctuary at the Clayton campus would limit the size of the congregation because it isn’t big enough. He said he didn’t think it would be an issue.
“With multiple services we could grow this site to 500 – 600, maybe more,” he said. “If it needs to be able to accommodate 1,000 someday, we’ll cross that bridge when get there.”
Even smaller churches in good condition can require quite a bit of money during a restart.
“A building like this will take $150,000 - $200,000 to get up to speed. Even when it’s fine, it’s dated,” Miofsky said. “It’s hard to start something in a big space. This place will feel good with 150.”
A person from Texas asked about a church in her district that was valuable due to its location in a downtown commercial district, but was near closing and wasn’t an attractive church building. Should it be sold, or revitalized? Farr replied that it is important to have a strategy for the entire area. Someone from Georgia replied that they consider the “highest and best use,” and in most cases like this the church would be sold. Miofsky said you have to keep the mission in mind.
“Are we in this to invite new people to follow Christ, or are we trying to save the churches that we have?” Miofsky said.
Farr outlined a three phase conversation process that takes place between a district superintendent or Conference staff person and a local congregation that is considering closure so their church can be repositioned. The process is not for the timid.
“We’ve had many churches go through conversation 1 or conversation 2 and decide not to go onto the next step,” Farr said.
Looking at the Life Cycle
Church consultant Jim Ozier views churches on a continuum of a life cycle, and breaks that cycle down into the stages of birth, growth, maturity, maintenance, decline and death.
“It’s important to have a Conference strategy to identify and assess declining churches,” he said.
Ozier has planted three new churches. He’s now the director of new churches for the North Texas Conference, and has worked as a consultant in 30 United Methodist Conferences. Ozier is passionate about addressing churches in decline, because he’s seen too many slowly fade to death without taking action. It’s not just a United Methodist issue, thousands of churches a year close across denominations.
“If you’re a District Superintendent, a reality that will swamp your life is church closures,” Ozier said.
When Ozier is doing assessments, every church is a different quadrant on this matrix: Growing in a Declining Area, Growing in a Growing Area, Declining in a Declining Area or Declining in a Growing Area. After working with 42 churches last fall, Ozier came to the realization that most churches start considering the need to change far too late.
“In some cases we only had one or two people showing up – not even enough to do an assessment. There wasn’t anyone left,” he said. “Rather than intervening when a church goes from 40 to 20, we need to look at churches that are going from 180 to 150, or 450 to 400.”
For more from Jim Ozier, go to www.oziercoaching.org