annual conference church ministry renewing the church

What to Do with Unhealthy United Methodist Congregations

I recognize there is debate about how to determine what makes a congregation healthy.

What to do with an unhealthy United Methodist congregation is more difficult to determine than what to do with inffective United Methodist clergy.

Kick them out of the denomination? In some cases, this might allow the congregation to become healthier. It clearly doesn’t help unity in the church.

Appoint a new pastor? This may or may not have results. Understanding the congregation as a family system suggests that this may not have much impact.

Put them on probation? A period of time with focused efforts at renewal may be helpful, however there may not be much of an incentive.

Can you help me out with what to do with unhealthy United Methodist congregations?

By Andrew Conard

Christian, husband, son, brother, homeowner

11 replies on “What to Do with Unhealthy United Methodist Congregations”

In at least one conference I know of, the idea is to appoint ineffective clergy to ineffective/unhealthy churches. This, of course, refers to both clergy who de not want to develop the skills needed to leave and churches that do not wish to take the steps to become more healthy and effective. This works within the current structure of guaranteed appointments. It is another issue is that is changed. Perhaps, at least, not appointing the most trained clergy with the potential to develop those leadership skills to those churches. The churches then would eventually close, or be forced to reexamine their mission and take steps to become effective.

This may depend on why the church isn’t effective. Is it because the population has moved and there is a remnant of members left? Is it because there is a spirit of discord and rebellion among the members? Is it because they haven’t had great leadership? What makes it ineffective?

When a church is ineffective because of a spirit of discord and rebellion, don’t appoint a pastor and require them to do a paragraph 13 study with a group of clergy and laity from the conference.

If it’s because they’ve had managers rather than leaders, appoint a great leader.

If it’s because the population has left, help them find ways to merge with another congregation in the area.

Identify the reason for the ineffectiveness and meet the need in the best way to bring that congregation to health and vitality. What is health and vitality? That is another question – but we already have some great resources – some older, some newer – by Dan Dick, Bill Easum, Jim Collins, and others (Adam Hamilton included!). It may look different (WILL look different) in different areas of the country, but there will be ways we can identify what is healthy and vital – just as I suggest with clergy effectiveness.

Based on recent experience with several small churches that wore the “unhealthy” tag, I’d say provide partners in Christ, laity and clergy, to listen lovingly and help the congregation name what Christ has done and may do through their faith community. Heidi Chamberland, one of the New England Conference UMC District Superintendents, has developed a short term model to facilitate this. A 6 person team of clergy/laity/congregational members leads a look at spiritual life (present and past), finances, and facilities with demographics provided. Fndings are presented to the congregation for their discernment and decisionmaking.

Karen – Thanks for sharing this model. I appreciate the value here in finding an outside / objective voice to take a look at what is really going on. This is good stuff!

I’m reminded of Tolstoy’s opening in Anna Karenina: All happy families are the same. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

What makes a church – or clergy person – ineffective (whatever that means) should have a huge say in how we react to or treat them.

Essentially the same thing Starbucks did with their ineffective coffee shops. Close those suckers down, sell off the property and re-appropriate it to areas of growth. I’m reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’s famous statement “Love is killing the United Methodist Church” What he meant is that our misplaced notion of love, namely sentimentality and permissivism is killing us. Tough love baby: You have 3 years to turn things around, or face the executioner.

Either that or they could hire Labron James, because apparently that guy will fix any situation!

I can see the value of closing unhealthy churches after a period of focused effort at renewal/revitalization. What message do unhealthy churches send to their communities? Why not remove the unhealthy church so people will not be distracted and can be influenced by healthier churches in the area.

But before that, I think there needs to be an intentional plan to bring revitalization to the congregation. Pastors/leaders who are gifted and/or trained in turning around unhealthy churches should be sent to turnaround unhealthy churches.

Letting unhealthy churches go/continue and *hope* they’ll turnaround probably isn’t going to work!

I’m good with closing ineffective churches. They can do more harm than good. But I think we have no idea of how to differentiate healthy from unhealthy. Jim Collins monograph on Good to Great for the non-profit really helped me to see that in the UMC we almost solely measure inputs not outputs. I served a healthy, vital congregation of 35 people who at the corner of 3 gravel roads and 1 dirt road did the best they could to serve their immediate community. It just happened that there was no community around other than themselves. Yes it’s a dying congregation, but we can still be vital in our dying days. I’d love to find some good metrics for whether or not our churches are truly growing disciples and transforming the world rather than just stuffing more paying participants into the sanctuary.

Amen to David’s comment. But is a better system of measuring really the answer? Most of the comments in this stream point to top down denominational power. In the emergance era, local power and networking are going to be the forces to reckon with.

If the denomination makes a “clean sweep” of statistically “unhealthy” churches (defined by who….General Conferences where the vast majority of reps are from large congregations?) perhaps the washed landscape will be ready for new faith communities to be planted, but there will be deep local distrust of the denomination that did their beloved icons in. Who then will plant the new churches?

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