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To the Rescue
Evangelical denominations offer a wide range of services to churches in trouble.


Attendance was declining, and the church was so far behind budget it was about to lay off its pastors. The church leaders decided they had no option but to close the church.

The night before they planned to announce the closure to the congregation, the leaders met with a denominational minister. He suggested that things were not as bad as they seemed and offered a recovery plan. The pastors resigned. The church board also resigned and was replaced by an interim leadership team consisting of leaders from both inside and outside the congregation.

Within a week, an experienced pastor was installed to minister on a part-time basis. During the next four months, he helped the church choose a new leadership team and make plans for the future. The congregation is now growing, finances have improved and the church is actively looking for a full-time pastor.

An unlikely scenario? No, such success stories happen all the time, say denominational ministers.

And they wish it would happen more often.

Help is available

Even without the hierarchical authority of mainline denominations, Evangelical denominations offer a wide range of services to churches in trouble. The first level of support is simply to listen. Robert Friesen, associate conference minister for the B.C. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, says churches are like human beings. "Sometimes just talking to a friend can help you see the solution to your problem yourself."

Listening is important especially if there has been a communications breakdown in a church, or if people are so caught up in a situation they can't hear what other people are saying.

Denominational leaders have several tools to facilitate "listening." One is the Natural Church Development program, which essentially surveys members of a congregation to discern strengths and weaknesses. This tool is most effective before problems have reached the critical stage.

If there is a problem among church leaders, denominational ministers can listen to both sides and try to mediate a solution.

If the problem has spread to the congregation, more widespread listening is needed. This might involve a congregational meeting, for instance.

Fellowship Baptists have adapted the Metanoia Ministries program, which trains teams of lay volunteers to go into a church and spend several days listening to all members of a congregation. (The congregation pays the team's living expenses for those days.)

Saying what needs to be said

The second level of denominational assistance is advice.

Sometimes this is as simple as the denominational minister sitting down with the pastor or church board and making suggestions. Friesen says sometimes local leaders are "too close" to the situation, while denominational ministers have experience with many congregations and can be more objective.

At other times, the "advice" can take the form of specific recommendations.

Rob Stewart, district superintendent of the Lower Pacific District of the Evangelical Free Church of Canada, uses a program from Outreach Canada to help churches establish a vision for the future.

Bruce Christensen, regional director of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in B.C. & Yukon, says sometimes the problem is a lack of leadership ability on the local level and that denominational leaders can be more "innovative."

When a program like Metanoia is used, formal recommendations flow out of the listening process.

Friesen says sometimes denominational ministers can say things others can't. They might advise a pastor to resign, for instance. Or they might advise a church to support its pastor or board.

They might advise a church to pay its pastor adequately or make sure the pastor has time off for renewal. They might confront sinful actions or attitudes. They might advise a church that continuing in a certain direction will lead to disaster.

Steve Berg, conference minister for the B.C. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches notes that many denominational ministers have no structural authority to tell a congregation what to do, but that frees them to have spiritual authority, to speak into a situation from the Word of God.

More than words

The third level of support is more hands-on. For instance, local church leaders can temporarily cede control to the denominational minister, who can then take the heat for difficult decisions, such as the decision to close a church or the decision to replace leadership.

In some cases, denominations have closed congregations and then restarted them a short time later with fresh leadership and vision and without some of the "baggage" that was holding them back.

Berg says temporary denominational control can work something like "bankruptcy protection"—to remove outside threats and "create an environment where healing and thinking can take place" to free the church from dealing with immediate problems so it can listen to God again.

Denominational ministers can also recommend an interim pastor. Christensen and Berg emphasize this is not just someone to fill the pulpit. Good interim pastors are experienced, highly gifted specialists who can help churches make difficult changes. And since they won't be there in the long run, these interim pastors are seen to be doing what is best for the church and not trying to further their own program.

Denominations can also provide some direct assistance, like paying to send a traumatized pastor to a healing program such as Oasis. However, the help congregations often ask for—money—is something that denominations don't offer. Denominations simply don't have the financial resources for this. Berg says that might not be wise anyway because imposing a solution from outside will decrease a congregation's sense of ownership.

Reluctant to accept help

With all this help available, why don't churches get help more often?

The denominational ministers say it is because congregations either don't know help is available or they are reluctant to ask for it.

Berg says there are two main reasons churches are reluctant to ask for help.

First, churches are often like troubled individuals who refuse to go for counselling because asking for help is perceived as an admission of failure.

Friesen says this fear is unfounded because leading a church is very difficult, and rarely can a church's problems be attributed to the actions of a single individual or group of individuals. Denominational ministers are there to offer help, not lay blame for failure.

Second, Berg says churches don't ask for help because they are afraid the denominational leaders will take control and impose a solution they aren't comfortable with.

Unfounded fear

This fear is also unfounded since in the structure most Evangelical churches use, authority remains with the local church. The denominational minister can make recommendations, but the church has the final say on whether to accept any recommendations.

… they wish congregations would ask for help much earlier in the process.

The denominational ministers also say they are often only urging pastors and churches to face reality. A pastor who rejects advice to resign is likely going to be fired anyway. A church that rejects advice to change is likely going to fail and close.

Asked if they would like to have the power to force congregations to accept their recommendations, the denominational ministers say that would be an awesome responsibility, they don't know the local situation as well as the people who live there and that sort of power would destroy the sense of ownership of the local congregation who must make the church work. Stewart notes that denominational ministers can be as fallible as local church leaders and that in mainline churches sometimes the bishop creates more problems than he solves.

What the denominational ministers do agree on is that they wish congregations would ask for help much earlier in the process. Under the structure most Evangelical churches use, the denominational minister can come in to help with a problem only if he is invited. He can offer his services, but the decision rests with the church.

In practice, this often means that a church will wait until a small problem has become a crisis. By this time, the whole congregation may be involved in a dispute, with people firmly entrenched on both sides.

Or a dwindling church will wait until it is out of money, its best leaders have left in frustration and attendance has dwindled. Then the church is often upset that the denominational minister can't solve overnight problems that have developed over months or years.

That is one reason Berg and Friesen have decided to make planned visits to all 110 congregations under their care. The hope is that they will be able to help prevent many problems from developing, or at least help solve them while they are still small.

Stewart says the key is for the denominational minister to develop a trust relationship with the congregations, so that they will ask for help when they need it.

James R. Coggins is a writer and author based in Abbotsford, B.C. His website is www.coggins.ca. See his latest mystery, Mountaintop Drive, available through Amazon.ca.



Originally published in ChristianWeek, March 17, 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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