The Work of the Church with More Less-Available People: Old First E-pistle 06.17.16

The Work of the Church with More Less-Available People: Old First E-pistle 06.17.16

Last week at the Penn SE Conference’s Spring Meeting, the first plenary speaker, a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Dr. J. William Lenz, asked the clergy what had changed most in their time of doing ministry. (The first response I thought of was “my hair color!”) .

A colleague shot her hand up: “the biggest change in my time of doing ministry — a little less than 10 years — is that the people in church have less commitment.”

That occasioned a murmur, both of agreement and recognition… and some concern with fine tuning her observation. Some back and forth occurred among the clergy in attendance, but pretty quickly there emerged a slightly amended formulation with almost universal support:

“Our folks are less available for church participation and volunteer work because they actually have more commitments in their lives than they did some years ago.”

Does this sound right to you who the clergy were talking about?

Recently, I was talking about the same phenomenon with one of our lay leaders. We had begun noticing this trend as early as 2012. Our church community was continuing to grow. People were making commitments in church membership, leadership positions and financial support. But participation — both worship attendance and availability for the other work of the church — was becoming more irregular, less frequent. Back then I was scratching my head and wondering: “when there are more people in the community, does everyone feel less responsibility to show up each week?”

By 2012, the fall in frequency of participation was already obvious! Many people missed worship more often; even the old standard regulars weren’t there every week. Already four years ago, this had made it harder for folks to stay in touch and harder to recognize when someone’s missing.

This trend also changed “the conversation” — in the sermons and prayers and worship, with one another and with God. Rather than an continuous, multiple-partner communication that we are all plugged into and a part of, the conversation (that church really is!) had become something harder to follow — as more and more people were constantly dropping in and out, and few were consistently present.

Likewise, more people seemed to have less time and effort to contribute to the ministry and administrative work of the church. Even the inner circle of leaders congregations traditionally depend on — “the small percentage of people who do most of the work” — even they acknowledged they were finding follow through and consistency harder. The net cumulative effects of these changes meant it was getting harder to get some of the basic work of the church done.

If the trend was obvious four years ago, how much more pronounced is it now! That said, I’m not concerned that it means church is less important to our folks. In fact, by another measure, financial support, we have seen a steady increase such that overall our financial position — ending the year in the black — has gotten easier. (Folks, it’s still church, and money is always going to be an uphill, but overall, the base of our financial support is trending in the right direction.)

People care deeply about our community and appreciate its role in their lives. But they — and their lives — are just available less to participate and offer their time. In such a situation, can the church figure out how to have sway in people’s life at a distance. And how to get its essential work?

There are a host of complicated sociological and ecclesiastical factors accounting for the lack of time in our lives. But few of them can be controlled by the church. And since multiple congregations are experiencing similar trends, rather than complaining (or tilting at windmills!), we need to focus on doing church in these changing circumstances: what’s it going to look like; how can we do church at a greater distance?

In a staff meeting recently, we wondered if Sunday School could be reorganized. Holly wants to work regularly with the children to do music in worship, but the most practical time puts kids’ music in competition with kids’ christian education. And since kids already have so many different calls on their time and attention, Sunday School already struggles with their attendance.

Could we reorganize Sunday School into a series of 6 to 8 week modules with shorter 3 week interludes when Holly has the kids for music? That might make it much easier for an adult to sign on to teaching Sunday School — not a whole year commitment, but a 6 or 8 week commitment, a run of Sundays here or there with time off in between. However, such an accommodation might could it harder for us to establish an age-appropriate theological conversation with the children we want to raise in the faith.

Conversely, we have had real success with involving people more in Outreach. The move away from a 36 hour a week, one year intern to a half-time, hopefully longer-term employee (welcome again, Alesha!) has necessitated more volunteers getting involved in hosting / overseeing both Shelter dinners and Saturday morning breakfasts / cupboards. And it has worked. Not with one person taking on the whole load, but with coteries of people agreeing each to do it every so often and when they are available. It takes some real oversight to make sure we have the volunteers we need. But it’s been exciting and strengthening for outside groups coming to serve to get to meet and know more members from Old First.

I am perfectly willing to admit I don’t know exactly where this all going or what it means for the church. Maybe we need be, as a congregation, talking about what the essential work of the church is, and how we are expecting to get it accomplished (even if those bigger, meta-conversations are harder and harder to produce and orchestrate)?

At Old First, since implementing the new governance structure in 2007-2009, we have said to ourselves over and over again (more often than we’ve actually listened to and followed through with this self-discipline!) that “if there is no one to do something, that is our sign that it does not have to get done.” That’s a very helpful reassurance when it comes to even dear traditions that have outlived their usefulness and no one cares enough to volunteer to keep them going. But it may not be the appropriate response when we find we don’t have someone to do something that is still essential!

What’s this all mean? Well, whether we like it or not, we’re going to find out!

We may have to get more creative figuring out how to “package” volunteer roles so they work better for people’s lives today. Or perhaps we are going to have to ask a higher commitment of our members? A bad habit we fall into — in part because our congregation does not live close to church and it’s hard to get folks to church at off
hours — is transferring tasks to staff, but that actually undercuts our congregation’s involvement and investment in church and ministries.

I wonder if maybe also, with people having less availability, church communities are not going to have to become appreciably larger — so that we have a bigger pool to draw smaller, individual commitments from. One of the comments one hears from church gurus these days is that larger congregation are better situated for the future than smaller congregations. What would Old First have to do to serve a larger congregation?

However we figure this all out, likely there will have to be more players involved. More people doing distinct and perhaps smaller “jobs” (alongside everything else they are juggling in their lives). That’s a challenge to communication and coordination (especially when people are less present together on Sunday mornings), but it might just promise, ironically, a larger percentage of the congregation doing something besides participating in worship! While worship is the most basic church experience Christians need to have as part of their lives, I also know that Christians are changed — matured — by the ministries and leadership they offer in the church and in the wider community.

What do you think? Do you have suggestions? How do you think the church should respond? Instead of fretting that we haven’t figured it all out, isn’t it it more faithful to trust that God will help us make a way, even when it seems like there is none?

See you in church,

Michael