by Gary Gilbertson
The Church expects her parish clergy to be successful in leading congregations that grow spiritually, numerically and financially: congregations whose servant ministry reaches near and far. Clergy that are successful are rewarded with additional opportunities as rector or pastor: unsuccessful clergy are fired, forced to resign or encouraged to seek a vocational change. Its the American way, its the Episcopal Church way to track growth or decline in: (1) active membership, (2) average Sunday attendance, and (3) income.
So each year we turn out tons of new clergy - of all ages - some with seminary degrees or increasingly the home-schooled who are seeking a "call" so they can be successful (employed.) But! Mainline Christian congregations are in decline; that's a fact. There are fewer and fewer full-time clergy positions each year. In the American Episcopal Church over 40% of our 6,736 congregations are not able to have full-time clergy. Less than 2,500 of our congregations provide for a single full-time rector; but wait - more than half those congregations are in decline.
The chances of a declining congregations being turned around is dismal. Most church researchers, like the Barna Group, state that trying to revitalize a declining church is probably a wasted effort; the death of that church is usually unavoidable. Clergy who don't value being recognized as successful leaders and who are unconcerned about their next position are well suited to these 3500+ congregations in the Episcopal Church or in a similar pastorate in their own communion.
Parish clergy, do you want to improve the odds? Then discern carefully where God is calling you. Try to avoid congregations on prolonged plateaus. It may be helpful to understand some of the many factors that destroy a congregation's momentum: (1) inadequate prior leadership and management, (2) demographic changes, (3) capital campaigns and building costs, and (4) judicatory interference and incompetence. These problems are often compounded by a membership that is too self-absorbed and resistant to change.
Again the question, "Parish clergy, do you want to improve the odds?" First, you must be a strong leader. Barna's studies found that churches that "call" caretakers, healers, managers, administrators, teachers or consensus builders fail to gain ground. Good intentions coupled with the title of Pastor or Rector is not enough. Barna states, "toughness is requisite for leadership in making decisions that disturb the status quo but benefit the body." The point is that leadership is not about being loved by everybody. It is doing what is best for the parish even though it may stir up some complaints or disturb tranquil settings.
Another way to improve your leadership odds is to be filled with energy and enthusiasm plus a commitment to work hard. Being a person of prayer who can share a quality sermon also raises the odds. Enlist a core group that will assist, support, and be honest with you. Expect to be a workaholic rather than getting comfortable on cruise-control.
Unfortunately, many of us have friends that failed to beat the odds.