I like my doctor. Even with all the needles and probes, I trust that she’s using the information she gleans through my brief discomforts to tell me something I need to hear. But I don’t always pay attention.
For several years we had a little ritual over one persistent health issue:
“Your cholesterol is high.”
She gives me a wry smile. “Yes, still. I think we ought to look at a treatment plan.”
“Didn’t you suggest that last year?”
“Yes, and we decided you would try controlling it through diet.”
“Because you wanted to put me on pills and I don’t like the idea of taking pills every day.”
“Right. But maybe you’d like to try them to see if it makes a difference. This is a long-term condition for you and it could be dangerous if you don’t lower your bad cholesterol levels.”
“Thanks, Doc, but I think I’ll try diet again.”
One year (and frequent slips involving BBQ beef brisket) later, we’d have the same conversation. Until finally I realized that my doctor was trying to tell me something important. I started on the pills.
Kay Kotan and Phil Schroeder, both directors of Congregational Development for United Methodist annual conferences, know the interplay we have with our doctors. The ways we appreciate their knowledge and yet resist making the changes they recommend. The ways we often come around when they can get us to face the facts. That’s why Kotan and Schroeder use a medical metaphor to diagnose options in their new book Small Church Checkup: Assessing Your Church’s Health and Creating a Treatment Plan [Discipleship Resources, 2018].
Sometimes your doctor needs to shock you into recognition that there is a problem, and that’s where the authors of this book start on the first page. Quoting Charita Goshay, they say, “an estimated 80 percent of churches are flat or declining; 5,600 close every year.” (15) That’s the future for churches that believe that they can just get by on the way they’ve always done it before (weaknesses for BBQ brisket be damned!). But Kotan and Schroeder want to offer a way forward:
“We can choose our story. We do not have to allow our story to unfold without our intervention, intentionality, faithfulness, and prayer. We can choose.” (15)
What follows over the course of the next brisk ten chapters is a practical guide to diagnosing your congregation’s condition and choosing a course towards a different future.
Kotan and Schroeder believe that most small churches (fewer than 100 in attendance) fall into one of three types:
- Not Yet Big Churches that are vital and growing and may move to becoming medium-sized or large churches.
- Stable Small Churches that have found a way to stay vital and to serve the community despite not growing numerically.
- and Smaller Churches, which are declining in numbers and face serious questions about their ongoing viability.
The authors provide “Lab and Test Results,” encouraging small church leaders to look at a number of measures to determine their congregation’s health. For instance, mapping the membership of the church can indicate how well the congregation is connecting to its surrounding community. What’s the state of the church reserves compared to five years ago? How much of the building is being used and who’s using it?
Along with this, the authors advise having some field trips to other churches and crucial conversations as a church to acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ is not an option. After doing this work, congregations should be able to identify their condition and review the appropriate treatment plans available in three chapters related to the three types of small churches.
The treatment plans are not easy. Some involve major reorganization of a congregation to focus on priority items. For instance, one recommendation for ‘Not Yet Big Churches’ is to develop a signature ministry and to empty the church’s calendar to plan for it. Using ‘zero-based calendaring’ the congregation should ask: “If we were to do nothing that we have ever done before, what is the one thing we must put on the calendar?” (86-7)
For other churches, the hard part is emotional. When a congregation has determined that it’s future is discontinuance, there can be a range of options from denial (and continuing until the resources run out) to a planned closure (with acknowledged grief work and a legacy gift to other ministry) to death and rebirth as a new congregation.
A book alone cannot make the difference for a small church. Kotan and Schroeder seem to recognize this when they conclude by saying, “If you are struggling to choose a treatment plan, please reach out. Sometimes this road is just too hard to journey alone.” (121) My own experience is that churches need the prompt and coaching of outside help to navigate a real examination of their mission.
On the Eastern Shore District, where I serve, we have developed a Church Transformation Team with the help of Plowpoint Ministries that initiates a “health assessment” in churches through a 2-hour Bible Study and crucial conversation, inviting teams of church leaders into a more extended study that incorporates much of what Small Church Checkup recommends. Our team uses an excellent resource by Beth Crissman and Nancy Rankin, Choosing the Faithful Path: A Bible Study for Discerning a Faithful Future.
The unusual period that began after World War II and extended until about the turn of the millennium, obscured the reality that refocusing on mission is a perennial task of the church. When the culture was supporting church life and financial resources were plentiful, most of the mainline churches coasted on that wave. We are in a new day now and there are still opportunities for growth in small churches. But we will need to remember why we’re here and heed the advice of those who care for our health.
By the way, I went back to the doctor last month for my annual physical. Two years in to my treatment plan, she called my cholesterol level ‘excellent.’ Now about this weight thing…