Ageing Churches Face Slow Death

John McNeil | Special to ASSIST News Service | Monday, March 13, 2006

Ageing Churches Face Slow Death

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND (ANS) -- “Pastors are gasping for life. They are so trapped in the place where they are ministering, they can’t get out of the box in which they are caught.”

That was the sobering evaluation brought to a pastors’ conference at Waimate by Captain Richard Dyer, South Island field worker for the Church Army, a society of evangelists within the Anglican Church.

Captain Dyer highlighted two factors among many: the increasing age of congregations; and burnout from trying to implement church growth strategies.

He said that in mainline denominations at least, the average age of those in ministry and those in the congregations was going up.

“I was at a church recently, and they now have no Sunday School, no youth ministry, they have no 30-year-olds in the church, I don’t even think any 40-year-olds. That’s not unique. I’ve taken seminars in churches where the youngest average age would be in the 50s.

“Inevitably they are going to die. So a lot of the energy, particularly for people in pastoral leadership, then goes to caring for those who become sick and die, and particularly for the grieving people who are left.

“In my last parish I buried 50 active parishioners or their spouses over a five-year period. That takes a toll on the ministry leadership. It captures a lot of your time, which means you are not available to perhaps be focusing on new life stuff.

“And it affects the congregation. In one year I buried 16, and I can still remember vividly that when I announced at a service that someone else had died, the reaction was like they’d been hit in the stomach.

“So you’re dealing with that on one side, and you’re trying to work on hope and rebuilding and connecting with young on the other. That’s a very difficult tension.”

But Captain Dyer says that if a minister expends a lot of energy on trying to put church growth principles into practice, but the church does not grow, it can also be disabling.

“It costs a lot of energy to make those shifts, to encourage a congregation to embrace them, and then to enter into them, and if you don’t see some kind of return it raises a lot of questions. The consequence is also that pastors end up getting burned out or ill.

“Because you follow church growth principles does not automatically mean your church is going to grow. It would appear that in a number of models on which the church growth movement is founded, there were also sociological and historic factors that contributed to that.

“I am not saying that a church should not get involved in church growth. I am absolutely committed to the principles, because we have to get better at our leadership, welcoming, teaching and the way in which we organise ourselves. Those who absorbed it were the better for it.

“But it’s not the entire answer – whatever the answer might be – for a church to grow. It is a contributing factor. That’s the message a lot of folk weren’t hearing. It’s what we need to do, but don’t expect it to be a magic cure,” said Captain Dyer.

The message was not all pessimism, however, and Captain Dyer said there were counters to burn-out.

“Since I’m a pastoral supervisor, I have to say one of the ways to avoid it is to make sure you’ve got good supervision – someone who’s outside the system, who’s not an authority over you, whom you can talk with and who will help give some objectivity.

“There needs to be a growing in churches’ understanding that pastors have permission to take real time off when they need it. All the self-care things need to be put in place – indeed, a culture of self care in the life of the church will help everybody.”

Captain Dyer particularly advocates that churches move from being an institutional structured church to a relational church, where relationships take precedence over structure.

“That requires a long-term view, and I have worked at that with some interesting outcomes. When I talk with other pastors and ministers about moving to a relational model – which means you need to teach 40 per cent of your time explicitly on relationships – their insecurities come to the fore because they fear people will point the finger at them and say, ‘But you are not doing that’.

“A serious hindrance to building relationships is that ministers change churches every three years or so. As a general rule, that has had a negative effect, because it is quite clear that long-term ministry – and living with your mistakes and working through them – actually helps a church to grow.

“If you move on too soon without resolving your mistakes, you are destined to reproduce them in the next place you go, or the people in the church impose their past mistakes on the next person who comes in.

“I have also come to see clearly that when changing ministers we need to be consistent in values. Often when we change ministers we look for somebody who will make up for the weaknesses of the previous one, and forget that they also had strengths.

“What’s important is not for a parish to dream about what they want in the next minister, but rather start to ask what are the critical values we have in the life of this church that we want to continue?

“A continuum of theological emphasis is also important for a church to grow. If the nature of the leadership is conservative evangelical, the next one should follow the same thrust. If it’s liberal, put a liberal in.

“When there is radical change of ministry style and theological perspective, it swings the people in and out. They go along with what the minister wants, without any real commitment, knowing that it will change next time,” Captain Dyer said.

© 2006 ASSIST News Service, used with permission