I’ve been talking with leaders of once-sizable churches. Every week they face the painful picture of a shrinking flock amongst the sea of empty seats.
Thousands of churches today are declining to the point of unviability. Many will be forced to close their doors in the near future.
For the faithful members and staff, this attrition feels like a vague terminal illness. They’re not certain of the cause or the prognosis. Often, I’ve heard a wistful member ask, “What will we do when the endowment runs out?”
At the same time, a new “ministry strategy” has emerged among the younger churches in town. Some call it “steeplejacking.” National ministry organizations advise local pastors to target declining congregations and overtake their properties. It’s like a churchified foreclosure and eviction process as the ambitious ones attempt to acquire buildings at little or no cost. “All for the sake of the Kingdom,” they say.
Once in awhile, all ends well. Both the overtaking and the undertaking congregations find ways to meet their challenges and simultaneously serve their communities and honor God. They find win-win solutions. Both see their years of faithfulness, hard work, and sacrifice developing into something valuable and durable.
But sometimes steeplejacking becomes an unnecessarily divisive and destructive exercise. This usually comes about when raw pride and hubris enter the scene. I’ve seen leaders of a young church communicate coldly with a struggling church, boast of their attendance numbers, and tout their plans to establish multi-site locations all over the landscape. They attempted to intimidate the shrinking church into surrendering their keys or “face the possibility of closure.”
Predictably, such predatory overtures are not received warmly. And they run the risk of damaging the cause of Christ in the community, positioning Christians as those who seek to euthanize the old in order to provide a cheap place for the young.
Now, it’s true that many churches are dying. It’s true that many will be unable to support their facilities. And it’s true that other churches in the same communities could make good use of vacant or underused church properties. And when handled with humility, love and sensitivity, churches can come together to bring new life during challenging times.
Some simple approaches can help growing churches and struggling churches come together to accomplish something honorable and worthy for the Kingdom.
FOR THE STRUGGLING CHURCH
- Be open to the possibility that God may have new purposes for the faithful work and investment you’ve made over the years.
- Involve the entire congregation in celebrating the blessings of the past, and opening hearts to what God may do in the future.
- Proactively reach out to other churches to explore how you might work together to serve your community.
FOR THE CHURCH NEEDING SPACE
- Pray for humility and sensitivity.
- Understand and appreciate the deep pain experienced by those in dying churches.
- Take on the compassion of a Hospice nurse, rather than the bloodlust of a predator.
- Use good relational skills. Initially, meet personally and informally with leaders from the struggling church.
- Don’t tell about your success. In fact, don’t tell at all. Ask questions. Ask about the challenges the struggling church faces. Ask how you might help the struggling church.
- Rather than talking takeover, talk first about less threatening options, such as renting space or sharing ministry initiatives.
- When considering lease or sales figures, don’t be ruthless. Make reasonable offers that reflect current market conditions. The selling congregation may have good plans to invest the proceeds in other God-honoring ministries that resonate with their mission.
These are challenging times for many churches. These times call for the Body of Christ to summon abundant doses of love, respect and compassion for one another.
Thank you for keeping this volatile and emotional subject in perspective. The testimony of God’s witness in this broken economy and culture needs to be upheld and given a renewed and respected reputation. Challenging times is an understatement! Can Christians pull together or pull apart?
Our congregation was surprised when a struggling congregation “gifted” us their building. They sensed their time was winding down. They were aware we had a campus on their site of town that involved a lease. Generosity is one of their core values and so they came to the conclusion it was the right thing for them to do. Each congregations leadership showed up at the others annual meeting to swap stories of what God was doing. It was in one of those meetings that we were surprised to learn that 30 years prior our church had help them launch (we have poor memories, we Baptists).
The experience allowed them to end in a way that was true to their spirit while encouraging ours. We move in two weeks.
Your comment is about 2 yrs old – but I stumbled across it because our church may be looking at a similar situation. I was wondering how things are going for your church now, 2 years later? Were the 2 congregations able to join peacefully?
The key phrase in the post: “raw pride and hubris.” I’m a member of a church that’s the object of an attempted “steeplejacking.” In a very short time I’ve seen lots of pride and hubris, and it isn’t pretty. There’s a 2-year-old independent church, led by a “lead” pastor who split (along with a small band of followers) from a local independent megachurch. The “lead” pastor has ambitious notions (in his words a “bold vision”) for dozens of satellite campuses of his church in our state–as soon as possible. They’re meeting in a local school. He arranged a meeting with our board chair and vice chair at a local coffee shop. They weren’t told ahead of time what exactly they were meeting about. He presented them a four-page single-spaced proposal that essentially said, “You’re dying–we’re growing. You have a debt-free facility in a prime location. We want a debt-free facility in a prime location. Disband your congregation, convey all of your real estate and personal property to us, and in return we’ll add a boring traditional worship service for your dwindling group of old people.” Our astonished leaders reminded him that our church constitution states that if we disband, our property is to be conveyed to our denomination. He brushed that aside and said his lawyers have told him there are ways to “get around” that little obstacle.
After the meeting, they showed me the “proposal” and I was speechless. Having been involved in churches for decades, I thought I had “seen it all” in the pastoral arrogance department. His proposal proved me wrong–way wrong.
A little follow up research revealed that we’re not the only local struggling church who’s been the object of this “lead” pastor’s steeplejacking ambitions. I’ve also learned that there are national “leadership” organizations that are training “leaders” of large churches how to do mergers, acquisitions, and takeovers. Sort of like an unholy union of megachurch pride (or in our case a wannabe) and Wall Street tactics.
The sad thing is, we probably would have been open to sharing space with the fledgling congregation. We already open our facility to numerous outside groups.
I don’t know this “lead” pastor personally, but have listened to enough of his online sermons to verify my concern that he struggles with “pride and hubris.” For starters, he would do well do to read and digest Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. But he’s probably too busy and too blinded by his ambitious notions, aka his “bold vision” of dozens of satellite campuses of his church.
My goodness. That’s horrible!
I know you wrote this comment two years ago, but my church is currently the object of an attempted “steeplejacking” that is being led by a mega church in Brooklyn. We are a small congregation, but we own our property with no mortgage and we have plenty of money in the bank. We are located in an upscale part of the city, so our property is worth a fortune. The mega church sent over enough members to flood our church and out vote the current members… I would be interested in communicating with you, if possible. Maybe your experience can be of some help to us.
Yes I’ve seen this happen in our local community and its sad when churches shrink instead of grow but often leadership gets burned out and I’ve heard it said that if the church is not growing it is dying.
We need to be doing more to support the pastors and church leaders out there to stay the course and avoid the inevitable burnout that comes from years of ministry.
I don’t think big church taking over little church is always accurate. Seems to me a hand off between a church that has served it’s time well to a church seeking to serve it’s time is a better description. Big and little need to be periphery issues. I worry as churches have and continue to build what could become a millstone to hang around the neck of the next generation.
I’m an assistant pastor who has experienced a merger…not due to finances. But one thing I can tell you that works is what was mentioned in the article-we did not come in with a take over mentality/attitude. We partnered together and worked with what was already in place, we honored their faithful labor of love (this chuch has been in the community for almost a century). We did implement minor changes such as having greeters at the door and ushers who seat people when we first merged. When changes have been made we’ve communicated as to why those changes were being made. Let me tell you that in the almost 4 years since we’ve merged we’ve put 4 more people on staff (that means people that are being paid for ministry & maintanence of the campus) giving has gone up every year since the merge and there are now 5 more home bible fellowships than there were, and we’ve planted 4 churches in those 4 years. When the right seeds are planted- seeds of growth, seeds of building the Kingdom together, getting rid of such language as “us” and “them”, building relationships with people, honoring the past while looking towards the future and building the Kingdom TOGETHER- I believe God has honored it and we are seeing the fruit of it today. Hope this helps.
Some of the things we are doing to and in the body of Christ,are so wrong.
Churches can’t survive because they can’t figure out who they want to cater to, who is the target audience? They’ve made up the nonsense categories of beliver and unbeliever, but the only real category is wicked and righteous, that is immoral or moral. Churches can’t decide whether they will cater to the moral or immoral. Will we cater to the moral by teaching moral rules? Will we cater to the immoral by teaching justification by faith alone? Hmmm….its too hard to decide, so let’s try to do both at once and just confuse and piss off everyone. Epic fail.
the immoral no longer need to be nominally christian to justify their lifestyle with faith alone bs……so they go atheist.
the moral are tired of hearing the faith alone bs and the teaching that its taboo to life a good life because that’s “trusting in works”……so they go full pelagian or deist.
So the churches have lost both categories because they can’t figure out which category they want.
A similar situation is happening to our church…. We were dwindling down to just a couple of dozen of members and were hard hit by the harsh winter… with heating bills and all. A larger church in another town does the satellite church thing… they have teams that travel to different places in an organized way. When they started coming, the congregation was told that this was a “marriage” between the churches… But I have noticed that everything has to be their way… our Pastor rarely preaches anymore, someone from their church is always on the keyboard or leading the worship (one in particular drives me nuts the way he goes about it)… Now another church in our city was losing their building, they had a decent membership, but not a decent building…. Our church building is paid for… so … We are in the process of merging with them, while still in this satellite relationship with the other church. We have had one service altogether… was going well until they said to make out our checks in the name of the satellite church with our city…. They are taking over and now it looks like our name is gonna change too. I really am struggling with this because I hate it! I am praying that if this is HIS will, that He would give me a peace about it.