This last month we had an in-person Presbytery Leaders meeting in Greenville, SC...
This year we have had quite a discussion among staff and some pastors surrounding the Ministry Information Form that we ask each of our churches to fill out and submit annually. This form has some standard questions such as numbers of current covenant partners, updated contacts for various ministry areas such as students or missions, as well as financial information to help calculate denominational support. In addition, there are questions related to metrics that have traditionally been associated with flourishing, such as average worship attendance. Obviously, including worship attendance on a 2020 Ministry Information Form provides meaningless information! Either numbers would be significantly lower because physical attendance has obviously diminished or numbers would be artificially higher simply because online views are often higher than normal. Using these numbers compared to previous years would be comparing apples and oranges. Our current reality raises questions that we have been talking about for years but is now more pressing than ever before. “What is flourishing – and how do you know if you are flourishing?”
Let drill down into two deeper questions that are at the heart of these questions. First, “Do you have to be growing in order to be flourishing?” This is a challenging and understandable question because we often talk about growth or decline in comparison to worship attendance and numbers of people who come to faith. We talk about these numbers in overall statistics but also as individual churches. Even at our recent Virtual National Gathering, I did an interview with Rev. Jerry Fourroux where we talked about his church in transformation and how (pre-Covid) he had experienced his attendance grow from 140 to 180.
On the one hand, I agree with Paul Borden (who leads our transformation cohorts) that healthy things grow and multiply. I think it is clear from Scripture that the goal of the church is to make a greater quantity AND quality of disciples. If this type of growth is not happening over time, it would be hard to say that the church is flourishing.
At the same time, there are seasons where pruning takes place. There are times when even Jesus makes the call to discipleship and people who had been following Him walk away. It makes me think of Middle Church in Mount Pleasant, PA. You may recall Pastor Linda Snyder who shared at our 2018 National Gathering. Middle made significant changes to the ministry of the church during their transformation process and lost 25% of their people. However, they ended up reaching over a dozen new people for Christ and strengthening the discipleship of their current covenant partners. So while worship attendance was down for a couple of years, I would have said they were flourishing! By the way, Linda has announced her retirement and the church is looking for their next pastor to continue their trajectory of transformation and flourishing! Check out their job description here.
COVID certainly has also been a season of pruning for many. No doubt there will be people who won’t return to worship or other ministries as a result of the pandemic. It has definitely been harder in this season to build or grow relationships with those who don’t know Jesus and especially to introduce them to the Good News. As a result, I don’t think numerical growth is as important of an indicator in flourishing right now.
The follow up question then is, “What is flourishing in this season?” I think back to the pruning analogy. In the first house Beth and I owned, we had 21 rose bushes. I had to do some minor pruning weekly to “deadhead” the roses. Then annually I had to take the better part of a day to remove about 80% of what was present on the bush. If this big pruning wasn’t done, all of those roses wouldn’t grow properly or fully the next year. When pruning occurs, all of the resources of the plant are redirected toward productive growth. The point is, how do we utilize this season, that may include a loss of people and finances, to allow us to prepare for a new season of growth?
The key to pruning is that one has to be very intentional. One has to intentionally remove branches so that the bush can redirect resources in the right area. I think sometimes we go through seasons of loss and we call it pruning, but in reality it is actually dying because we aren’t intentionally using the opportunity to strengthen foundational health.
The key to any church is to be healthy. While we sometimes talk about numbers or growth, we don’t do so for the sake of the numbers themselves. We often talk about numbers to point out that the tough and challenging work that pastors and elders have done to start new churches or strengthen existing churches has had a positive result. However, fundamentally, the key aspect of flourishing is the underlying health of an organization or leader.
So how can you intentionally allow this season to be an opportunity to prune? First, I encourage you to look again at ECO’s six flourishing church measures. As you read these measures, you will see that none of the statements related to flourishing ask about any related to numerical growth. Nor are the questions dependent upon a Sunday morning worship expression. They are instead core questions related to the systemic health of the church. Second, identify a particular question or two related to the fundamental health of the church that would be great to address in this season. For example, many churches are saying, “This the season to articulate our unique identity and calling, given the new realities.” Others are saying, “Because we don’t have programs in the same way, there are some questions under the measure of “Expects disciple making” that we could make some great traction on right now before we pick up old habits again going into the fall.” When we ask these kinds of questions, we can allow God to use this incredibly challenging season to ultimately make our churches healthier, which will (eventually) lead to growth and multiplication.
Know that I am praying for you as you seek God’s direction to lead, encourage, and connect with your congregation during these challenging months. It is not an easy time. We will continue to fix our eyes on Jesus and put our hope in Him, trusting that He is at work among us as we seek to flourish in a variety of ways so that others may come to know the saving love of Jesus.