“To everything there is a season”These well known words from Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) acknowledge that God is the one who determines events, their time and their timing. This refers in equal part to those events that just happen to people, like being born and dying, and to occasions to which people must respond, like planting and harvesting. The words also describe poetically the journey that each person makes as their own life unfolds from birth to infancy, to childhood and adolescence, to young adulthood and the prime of life; from maturity to old age and finally to death. Books describing the stages of life use this imagery and are thusly titled The Seasons of a Man’s Life and The Seasons of a Woman’s Life. While every person is unique, there are enough similarities between persons that allow for useful generalizations to be made about life’s different stages.
Just as people move through the phases of a life-cycle, some have observed that the birth to death progression could also be used as a way of thinking about the vitality of schools, businesses, organizations, programs, or even relationships. Marti Saarinen is one such person who has devised a way to apply the life cycle concept to religious institutions.
The Congregational Life Cycle
This diagram illustrates how the life cycle could be applied to a congregation like Good Shepherd. Some explanatory notes are in order to help interpret the diagram:
1. Religious organizations have a “gene” structure made up of four major components: energy, program, administration, and inclusion. Energy refers to the level of excitement and participation in the life and ministry of the congregation. Program includes all the organized ministries in a parish and those to the larger community, things like Sunday School, fellowship, outreach, etc. Administration includes communications, fund raising, maintenance, staffing and all those functions necessary to sustain an organization’s life and purpose. Finally, inclusion names that part of the community’s life that has to do with attracting, welcoming, involving, and serving members.
2. At each stage there is a presentation of the gene structure that describes and defines that phase. An upper case letter indicates increasing function in that particular area, the lower case indicates diminished function.
3. Please note that each stage of the growth side of the cycle is always characterized by an upper case “E” for high energy. Correspondingly, the decline side is always characterized by a lower case “e” for decreasing energy.
4. A congregation like Good Shepherd, 141 years young, has undoubtedly been through this life cycle several times already! Unlike human beings, organizations are always cycling through the stages.
Moving to the decline side is inevitable and unavoidable for congregations. The challenge for leaders of these organizations is to recognize when that has happened and to begin to take the necessary steps to renew and revitalize the congregation’s self-understanding and purpose. The further the congregation descends on the decline side, the greater the dynamic of denial in the congregation about its true situation. It also follows that correspondingly the deeper the descent into decline, the greater or more radical change that will be needed for rebirth.
Application Beyond Good Shepherd
Before applying this to our parish, I’ll offer a few opinions as to how this way of looking at religious organizations might be applied to some other religious organizations that interest us, such as our diocese and our national church.
I think that the Diocese of Georgia is in the Birth stage of the life cycle. We have a new bishop who is just beginning his ministry and there is much excitement about how the Diocese of Georgia might renew its mission and purpose. Diocesan leaders are reassessing programs, the Diocesan staff has been restructured and new efforts are underway with respect to administrative functions. We’re just getting started! Yet no one can know how long, or how challenging, even bumpy will be the journey to Prime, fully firing on all our cylinders, so to speak for, the sake of Jesus Christ and this church in South Georgia.
How about the national church? In my opinion, and there is sure to be disagreement with this assessment, the Episcopal Church is in the Bureaucracy stage. Like all mainline denominations experiencing decades long numerical decline, we are caught in important controversy, incurring significant legal expenses, and stuck in Christendom (see Part One) assumptions about the church. Again, in my opinion, denominational leaders are in deep denial about the state of our denomination and it seems that many of them are pursuing authoritarian approaches to try to stem the hemorrhaging of people, assets and energy out of the church. As noted in Part One, our denomination is significantly impacted by the dramatic shifts well underway in our culture.
Remember: the Anglican Church has been on the American scene for four hundred years and has been constituted as the Episcopal Church since 1789. Obviously, the Episcopal Church has been through this cycle before.
Application to Good Shepherd
So, where do you see Good Shepherd in the congregational life cycle?
When the Vestry and Staff first asked ourselves this question in early 2009, almost all of us placed Good Shepherd somewhere between the Maturity and Aristocracy stages.
We have struggled for some time to interpret some parish trends. For instance, Average Sunday Attendance at Good Shepherd has declined from a high of 575 in 2002 to 480 in 2009, yet Great Wednesday participation has been going up and remained steady all throughout this past year. The average financial pledge keeps increasing year after year, even in the down economy, from an average of $2,837 in 2002 to $3,839 in 2010; but the number of households financially contributing has decreased from 539 in 2002 to 467 in 2009. Our membership has held steady and we have even experienced 1% growth. Participation in service ministries has remained strong but participation in Christian Formation opportunities has been soft.
The Congregational Life Cycle model was helpful to us as we worked to understand and interpret what was going on at Good Shepherd. More importantly, this model offered a way to renew and redevelop parish ministry and move us forward to the energy side of the cycle again.
A Last Piece
There is one last piece to assembling the puzzle of what is going on at Good Shepherd. As Christians we follow Jesus who said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21) We are called and sent into the world to share the love and revelation of God as it is presented to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. In Christ, God is loving and saving the world for his purposes. Put another way, God has a mission to the world and he also has a church that is to be an agent of his redemptive project in the world.
This point was powerfully made for the Vestry at the retreat at Kanuga in January of 2010. The Reverend Dr. Reggie McNeal spoke convincingly about the full blown post-Christendom culture in the United States (see Part One). The Vestry enthusiastically received his comments as both accurately descriptive and a call to congregational response. A series of articles have since appeared in The Shepherd’s Fold reviewing Dr. McNeal’s book, The Present Future, that addresses the shifts in emphasis that congregations need to make in order to partner more faithfully with God in his mission to the world in the 21st century.
Putting it Together
The Vestry participated in the annual Vestry Conference at Kanuga in January 2009 and January 2010, not expecting anything more to happen than having a good team building weekend together, reviewing the past year at Good Shepherd and establishing some goals for the upcoming year. Little did we know that the presentations there on two separate occasions, each separated by a full year, would each speak to us clearly and in tandem of the call to renew and refocus congregational life and ministry at Good Shepherd so that God’s purposes might be honored and that people might be led to more intentionally follow Jesus as Savior and Lord in these times.
Since moving back into a wonderfully renovated Parish House in November of 2004, parish leadership has sought new focus for Good Shepherd’s mission and ministry. A number of worthwhile and productive efforts have been undertaken, but none of them have successfully addressed the sense of complacency at Good Shepherd, most widely experienced as diminished energy about the parish, its life and its mission.
The Congregational Life Cycle as a tool helped the Vestry and Rector to name its sense of what was happening in the parish and to begin to address it creatively and constructively.
Reggie McNeal’s inspiring and exciting vision of a God of mission on the move in the world persuaded the Vestry that Good Shepherd should ask God to show us a way to more faithfully and more fully align our energies and efforts with his purpose, at this moment, in this place.
We began this section of the series by quoting Ecclesiastes, “to everything there is a season,” and acknowledging that God alone is the one who determines the who, what, where, when, and how of his purposes. Exciting things are happening all around the world where Jesus Christ is concerned. There is a new movement of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. We have determined to discern how Good Shepherd, by God’s grace, might be part of it. As much as we would all like to know exactly where this is headed we must remember that God’s call never comes with a detailed plan but only with the assurance that if we say yes, that he will be with us.
Look to Part Three for an introduction to the year long process of discernment, now in progress, to renew and refocus our mission and ministry in Augusta.