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The American Congregation 2015: Thriving and Surviving

The American Congregation 2015: Thriving and Surviving

Reviewed by Rev. Alan Mead

Have you wondered lately what in the world is happening in congregational life and mission? There are continuing reports of decline, both in numbers of people and in resources, with an increasing number of people describing themselves as being spiritual but not religious. With the help of major Canadian and American surveys we have been given helpful snapshots giving us data to help us understand societal trends. But what is going on in the local congregation? What is working and what isn’t? And for us who specialize in transition ministry, how can we use these resources to better help congregations through major times of change?

Faith Communities Today 2015 (FACT 2015) recently released its latest report of their 2015 survey of American congregations, entitled “The American Congregation 2015: Thriving and Surviving.” The report was written by David A. Roozen, Retired Director, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research and current of Director, Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership (CCSP). The FACT surveys began in 2000 with random sampling of over 10,000 American congregations with the questionnaires completed by a key informant, typically the senior pastor. The entire series, with reports in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2015 includes responses from over 32,000 randomly selected congregations from all denominations and faith traditions.

The latest survey “focuses on an initial look at core trends across the survey series and a first look at new sets of questions introduced in the 2015 Survey, with several focused reports to be released early next year.” An intro statement to the major, decadal report states, “American congregations enter the second decade of a new century a bit less healthy than they were at the turn of the century.” The 2015 report “might be characterized as more of the same, but a little less so and with a few interesting twists.”

The report is full of useful, sometimes encouraging and, even fascinating information. There are twelve sections, from “For congregations, size matters,” to the concluding section, “The continuing erosion of vitality and growth not withstanding, when all is said and done, more congregations are thriving than struggling.” In between are eye-opening indications of many realities in congregational life today.

Some examples: In 2005 46.6% of congregations had a Sunday worshiping attendance under 100 and in 2015 that figure is 57.9%, with a median worship attendance in 2005 of 129 but a drop to 80 in 2015. Now for an interesting finding, of those congregations 37% with an attendance of over 100 report a high spiritual vitality while that percentage drops to 19.4% in congregations under 100. Is this difference simply a matter of having less organizational and programmatic resources? Do you need more people to have a higher spiritual vitality?

The FACT 2015 report continues looking at growth in the following sections, “Growth Matters: For Some Theologically, For All Organizationally,” there are fewer growing congregations, down to 47.9%; but of those that indicated they had spiritual vitality, 35.8% are growing; but where a lack of spiritual vitality was indicated, 19.1% are actually in decline. Another observation in this section is that growing congregations engage young adults better, with the survey indicating that  congregations with a membership of at least 15% young adults that 33.7% grew 2% or more in the past five years. Growth Matters, But What Matters For Growth,” and “What A Congregation Can Do For Growth.” The answers that emerged seem obvious but are worth noting: “Serious conflict crushes growth,” with a higher number of congregations experiencing some conflict growing than those congregations experiencing no conflict in the past five years; but the least growth was seen in congregations that had experienced serious conflict. Second observation: “Get your laity involved in recruiting new people” with a whopping 90.1% of congregations that stated they had a lot of involvement growing more than 2% versus 34.7% where laity were not at all involved. Third observation, which is right along with a modern marketing society where church, faith and practice are choices among many: “Distinguish yourself from other congregations in your community.”

Other observations that interested me in the above sections were the the graphs that showed fewer growing congregations, that growth and spiritual vitality go together, with growing congregations engaging young adults better.

Some “Good News: The Downtrend in Financial Health Has Reversed” but a caution is that “while congregations may be feeling more positive about their financial situation it is because they have become more comfortable doing with less rather than because they have more to invest in their ministry,” with a drop in median budget from $150,000 to $125,000 although one way that more congregations seem to be coping is by renting space to another congregation or school, with 32.7% of congregations reporting that they receive rent for use of space.

Of particular interest to those who specialize in transition ministry, regarding worship there is less willingness to change, with less innovation in worship and a seeming plateau in contemporary worship. And just as in every area of society, use of technology is increasing, with 52.9% of congregations reporting that they use visual projection and other forms of modern technology in worship.

Perhaps connected with budget realities there is a decline in member oriented programming, although the survey shows that of congregations that have at least one program specialty have higher attendance growth and higher vitality. Another trend is that there is a slight shift toward being very conservative theologically. Along with this trend, there is a decline in emphasis on social justice issues and less multi faith engagement continuing after a surge following 9/11.

Young adult ministry is not a priority for a majority of congregations where “only two in ten congregations have young adult ministry as a main or top priority,” but of those who make it a priority, 41.4% show a thriving young adult ministry.

Not only is there a decline in willingness to embrace change in worship; but there is a corresponding decline in willingness to meet new challenges, perhaps connected with such rapid and profound social and cultural change. The survey shows that congregations can find change to be a good thing in unsettled times when they have a high vitality and keep conflict to a manageable level, addressing and resolving the conflict before it becomes serious.

For those of us who specialize in a ministry that engages congregational life during times of profound and major change, as one pastor leaves and assessment of identity, heritage and resources begins and occupies much of the energy of a congregation, it may be wise to heed the results of the past 15 years of these FACT congregational surveys. I have heard more than one interim say it is a time to shake things up and help the congregation experience different styles in worship and leadership. The survey should help us to be cautious with unnecessary change, and to encourage focus on that which builds spiritual vitality, with energy and commitment continuing for young adult needs and ministry as a priority.

Another implication for those of us who are intentional interims is that there are fewer congregations that can afford the skill and training level of a trained and experienced interim. Helping congregations with less resources to be served by the ministry skill levels that can help them thrive as they transition to new leadership and new identity must remain a challenge that we in IMN are willing to engage and accept. I believe we will continue to find ways to serve and perhaps to redefine interim ministry with a growing number of smaller congregations. It is a wonderful time to be in ministry, especially interim ministry!

Transformational Task Forces: Leading Congregations Away from Minefields

Transformational Task Forces: Leading Congregations Away from Minefields

by N. Graham Standish

When I was an associate pastor, I witnessed first-hand how a congregation with everything going for it could let its own growth lead to decline. We think of church growth as a good thing, as a self-perpetuating thing. But when churches grow, they enter new areas that they have no experience with, meaning that they can do what seems to be the right thing in a way that unhinges everything they have been building.

As our church grew, we badly needed to expand our building to accommodate our ministry. So, the senior pastor asked a real-estate developer in the congregation to work with him to envision how we might expand. They gathered information, considered an appropriate area to develop (the church sat on 16 acres, much of it undeveloped), and conceived of possibilities. Then they shared their proposal with the members of council (or the session, as we Presbyterians call it). The elders accepted it appreciatively, recognizing what a good plan it was. The sticky point, though, wasn’t the proposal itself. It was what side of the building to build the project on.

Several of the strongest members of the session argued that it should be built on the other side of the church from the proposed area, in a grassy field we called Presbyterian Park, rather than the flat area proposed by the developer, which actually made more sense. What was obvious was that the Park-ers chose their side mainly because they weren’t consulted ahead of time. They really didn’t care that much, but it was their way of saying, “We should have had more say.”

The session got bogged down debating the merits of each side. Over the ensuing months they were split in two, both supporting the building, but each convinced that their side was the proper side to build. It reminded me of a Dr. Seuss book, with star-bellied and bare-bellied sneetches arguing over who was better, or the north-going and south-going Zaxes refusing to give ground.

So, a task force was created to research the problem in-depth. By the time the task force was ready to complete their work, I had left to finish my Ph.D., and the senior pastor had left, frustrated over the continual battles with those who just wanted control no matter how it might impact growth.

Since then the congregation has struggled through a number of pastors, seeing its congregation dwindle from about 525 members down to a little over 200. Reflecting on the incident, I have learned a lot. The senior pastor was really a tremendous pastor. He was the best mentor I could have worked with, and every congregation he has served has grown healthier and larger. In his work with this particular congregation, he had done all the right things before this incident to grow the congregation. Something was different this time, something that taught me an important lesson about congregational transformation. Churches will follow leaders, especially pastoral leaders, but only if they feel as though they have had a say in the envisioning. That say can be either direct or vicarious, but they want a sense that they have contributed to the chosen direction.

Renovating the Sanctuary

After finishing my doctoral work in 1995, I felt called to return to congregational work as a pastor. I came to Calvin Presbyterian Church in 1996, a church that had been in the midst of a thirty-year decline. During my first year we began to have modest growth, and the attention of the congregation turned to many things that had been pushed aside for years. The pastor prior to me was a wonderful man, and a good pastor, but he held a strong belief that money should be focused on mission projects outside the church. He preached that money spent on the church was selfish and self-focused. Thus, when I came to Calvin Church, little attention had been paid to the church itself.

The sanctuary had been neglected for many years. The lighting was dark, the sound system was tinny, the carpet was wrinkled and threadbare, and the paint was cracked and peeling. Similar problems existed throughout the church: peeling paint and wallpaper, cluttered and messy classrooms, and a décor that had only minimally been updated since an expansion in 1954.

I faced a problem. I still remembered my experience as an associate pastor. It was very clear that doing anything to upgrade the church could lead to conflict because everyone had their own opinions. I didn’t want to end up experiencing what the senior pastor did in my previous church, so I decided that the best course of action was to reverse what my senior pastor had done. He had put together plans for expansion, and then when conflict arose, created a task force to deal with it. It occurred to me that perhaps this is backwards. Perhaps the task force should come first. If I loaded it with already trusted church leaders, then they could convince the congregation of the right path to take.

So I went about creating a task force. I spoke to the session about the need to renovate the sanctuary and to possibly do a small capital campaign to raise funds to do the proposed specific renovations. I then asked the session to help me create a task force to lead us. I outlined for the session what I thought the qualifications for serving would be:

  • They would represent the different ages and theological positions of our church (we didn’t have a very racially diverse congregation, so racial/ethnic diversity wasn’t an issue).
  • They would have some sort of ability in property, interior design, or at least what seems like good judgment in these kinds of issues.
  • They would have a desire to seek what God wants for the sanctuary, a sensitivity to the congregation’s needs, and an ability to work well with others.
  • They would be willing to serve on a task force for about five months.

The session gave me a list of about eight names and I agreed that I would invite them and explain the process. We wanted a task force of five members. Within three weeks we had our Sanctuary Task Force ready to go. In our monthly newsletter, we explained to the congregation what their purpose was, who was on the task force, and what the outcome would be.

I met with the task force initially and did a short training session that focused on several areas. I explained to them the purpose, which was to renovate the sanctuary in a way that had a clear theological purpose underlying it; a clear spiritual focus on helping people experience God through the aesthetics; and a clear understanding functionally of what we needed in terms of space, lighting, and sound. I also set the agenda. Over the course of five months they would read articles about worship in order to give them a foundation for thinking through what we should do. They would visit other sanctuaries in the region to get an idea of what’s possible. My role was to select the articles to read and to suggest the church sanctuaries to visit. I was part of the task force for the first three months, leading discussions on the readings. Their final two meetings were without me. I wanted them to own their decisions, with no one thinking that their proposal was really mine. They had my suggestions, and that was part of the mix, but it was their judgment that I wanted to be put forth.

In the end, their suggestions were better than anything I could have anticipated. They had pretty much thought of everything. They had thought theologically about the sanctuary, reworking our pulpit, lectern, baptismal font, and communion table so that there was an emphasis on Word and sacrament. They proposed getting rid of the lectern, and placing the baptismal font in its place. They proposed putting the communion table between the pulpit and the baptismal font in a way that created a triangular (Trinitarian) pattern between the three. They also said that they wanted the structure to lead everyone’s eyes up to the cross at the front. They also suggested that we add theatrical lighting and sound to accommodate a better worship experience, and to be adaptable to our drama program, which used the sanctuary once a year. They also made a number of other proposals, all that became part of our eventual renovations.

What was key was that it was their proposal, not mine. Because I had worked in a way that helped them take ownership, I also enhanced their trust in me. They saw me as empowering the congregation to what was right for them, rather than bullying them into what I wanted. The leaders of the task force ended up leading the congregation through the renovations. I was really pleased at how well this worked; and I now had a template for future transformations of the church.

A Legacy of Transformational Task Forces

Over the years, this template of using transformational task forces (TTFs) led us through many changes: the restructuring of our session and committee system, the purchasing of property next to the church, the restructuring of our Sunday morning worship and education times, the creation of a supplemental songbook, an expansion and renovation project (one task force to suggest what we need, another to work with an architect on plans, and another to work on the decor), and a present task force looking at how we might change our worship services to meet a new generation that isn’t coming to church. In each case, the task forces have led the congregation through the transformations with very little resistance, and a lot of success.

Initially, before developing a policy of creating specific, targeted task forces, we had set up a long-range planning task force (LRPTF) much as other churches do. After a few years I realized that I was treating it more like a short-term transformational task force that was in place longterm. I had an epiphany: when looking for long-term task force members, we were focusing too little on whether they had the skill to investigate a particular possibility for the church, and too much on whether they would agree to a three-year term.

This “aha” moment came to me as the task force studied what we might need to do architecturally if we kept growing at our present pace. The “aha” came during the consulting architect’s meeting with our task force and session to go over possible plans. At the end of his presentation, a member of the LRPTF raised her hand and said, “I have another suggestion. Instead of looking at construction, why don’t we just ask all those people who want the church to grow to leave and start their own church?” I was stunned. I thought secretly to myself, “Wow! If we did that, she and a handful of others would be left with this big building, and 70 percent of the congregation would leave with the staff and me.” I realized that LRPTFs, by nature of being longterm, don’t call forth members who have the targeted skills to lead the congregation through a specific task. They focus on getting people who will serve for three years. Targeted, short-term task forces have the advantage of attracting people with specific, harmonious talents. Within a year we disbanded the LRPTF.

Since then any time we have faced a major transition or transformation, we have created a specific TTF to lead us through. Each time, the process has led to a better way of moving forward.

Setting Up Transformational Task Forces

In originally setting up these task forces, I was going on intuition as to how to proceed. Now, looking back on 16 years of employing them, I recognize basic rules that are important to creating healthy and effective task forces:

  1. Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge: One of the primary benefits of these TTFs is that they overcome what Chip and Dan Heath, researchers in the field of marketing, call “the curse of knowledge.” This is the reality that “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what is was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge

with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners’ state of mind.”1All pastors are cursed by their seminary education, the “groundbreaking” books they’ve read, and the numerous conferences they’ve attended. They forget that their members haven’t had this training. What seems like such small steps for us pastors may feel like miles to our members. TTFs bridge that curse of knowledge by exposing members to ideas and concepts that the pastor knows but has a hard time communicating. Having the TTF members spend 8 months reading different resources, they gain knowledge that they can pass along to the members at large when proposing changes.

  1. Pastor as Resource: One of the great things about TTFs is that the pastor doesn’t have to be responsible for generating the ideas. Instead the pastor becomes the resource person introducing new ideas to the members while letting them generate their own conclusions. Typically, when establishing a TTF, I assemble materials for them to read and then distribute them once a month. I make sure not to overwhelm them with too much (our curse of knowledge can afflict our choice of readings, too). For example, right now we have a Future of Worship Task Force

that is considering changes we may need to make to reach the younger generations, while remaining a multi-generational church. So each month I’ve had them read selections from books as diverse as Emerging Worship by Dan Kimball, Reformed Worship by Howard Rice and James Huffstutler, Turn Your Church Inside Out by Walt Kallestad, and my In God’s Presence. In choosing resources, I try to be wide-ranging to look at all possibilities. Also, we have the members of this 15-person task force visit a different church each month. We’ve sent them to several emergent churches, a few contemporary ones, a very traditional High-Church one, an African-American one, and a Taizé service. I expose them to ideas and services that I already have experienced so that our collective knowledge can become equivalent.

  1. Pastor as Facilitator: In the actual meetings, my role is not one of pushing ideas. I facilitate the discussions. In the task force mentioned above, we meet for an hour­and-ahalf. For the first hour we discuss the readings and the church visits. I allow the discussions to be wide-ranging. My main focus is the question, “What really hit you or touched you in the readings and/or visit?” I emphasize that no one is “right” or “wrong” in her or his perceptions. This is just a time to share. For the last thirty minutes I ask the group to offer “takeaways.” These are insights or thoughts that they had from the readings or the visits that they believe might work at Calvin Presbyterian Church.
  2. Turning Takeaways into Proposals: The assignment for the last two meetings of any TTF is to take all of the monthly takeaways and turn them into a proposal for the session. I push them to turn the takeaways into practical plans that can be implemented over time. The first of these two meetings is a time to look at all the takeaways and ask, “What might work at Calvin Presbyterian Church?” This is a distilling of all possibilities to those that seem to fit with our church culture, our vision, and our community. It is a distilling down. We spend the last meeting refining those takeaways and turning them into a solid proposal that includes a rationale for why. Underlying this process is my asking, “What do you sense God wants us to do at Calvin Presbyterian Church?” The pastor’s role after that becomes to be the scribe, writing up the proposal in a format that can be handed out to the session members in written or projected presentation form.
  3. Proposing to the Session and the Congregation: When it comes time to make the proposal, it is the members of the TTF who make the proposal. As pastor, my role is simply to make sure that they get a fair hearing. I neither push what they say, nor defend it. But I do clarify when necessary, helping to make clearer a proposed point or rationale. I also push the idea to the TTF members that we have to help the session overcome the curse of knowledge. If the session agrees to the proposal and decides to implement it, I then ask them to join the TTF in presenting the ideas to the congregation. Again, my role is to clarify if needed. I really allow the task force and session members be the ones to lead the congregation. I also make sure that any explanation that may go into a newsletter, bulletin, or e-mail is clear. But I am very aware that my role is not to be the defender of the presentation. If the leaders of the church cannot persuade the members, then it tells me that the idea may be right, but the timing may not.
  4. Pastor as Implementer: A final role I have, if the proposal is accepted, is to be the person responsible for making sure the plan is implemented properly. In some ways I become the institutional memory of the church. Board members may change, the task force may go away, but I am the one left making sure the proposal becomes practice.


Ultimately the point of TTFs is to lead churches through transitions and transformations in a healthier way that allows church leaders to lead the congregation, rather than to put pastors on point, where they are more likely to be attacked. As pastors, this way of doing things calls on us to have a different role—to be teachers, resourcers, facilitators, and implementers. It allows us to let leaders lead members, while we become leaders of the leaders.

  1. Graham Standish has been pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania for the past16 years. He is the author of six books, including In God’s Presence, Humble Leadership, and Becoming the Blessed Church. He is an adjunct professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, an internationally-knownspeaker, and a spiritual director and therapist. His Ph.D. is in formative spirituality from Duquesne Universityand his Master of Social Work is from the University of Pittsburgh.

1Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 20

Congregations Magazine, 2012-06-15 2012 Issue 2, Number 2

IMN E-Letter, 2016-02-15

Making Connections: Transitional and Multicultural Ministry

Making Connections: Transitional and Multicultural Ministry
By Dr. Mark Smutny

Attending the Annual Conference of the IMN Annual Conference for the first time was like being invited to a sumptuous Thanksgiving Day feast. The two keynoters were like Grandpa and Grandma at the head of the table, leading us in prayer, offering delectable tidbits of wisdom, passing on to newbies and long-timers alike, the wisdom of years dedicated to serving in interim and transitional ministry.  Workshops dished up a potpourri of topics, ranging from conflict management to nurturing emotional intelligence to leading congregations in strategic planning. Conversations were abundant at every meal as we networked, shared ideas and asked questions. Family ties were strengthened and nurtured. Long-timers hugged and told war stories about church, many of them true.  Newcomers were warmly welcomed. For this newbie to the IMN, the feast was amazing, the offerings abundant and a spirit of thanksgiving still fills my heart for new friends, new insights and new ways to be church in these challenging times.

As a newcomer to transitional ministry, I learned from some of the smartest, most committed church leaders I’ve ever met. The table was filled to overflowing. The spiritual nourishment was abundant. I left Las Vegas stuffed, stuffed with new ideas, new friends and the knowledge that my new calling to transitional ministry was right for me. If you are considering transitional ministry, attend next year’s IMN conference. It will transform the way you do ministry.

Introductions are in order. In one way, I’m a newcomer to transitional ministry, having served in three long-term pastorates and only one interim pastorate. On the other hand, insights from the interim ministry movement have informed my entire career. I first studied interim ministry decades ago when my wife and I served as co-interim pastors in a new church development in Ohio, relying on the insights of interim pioneers Loren Mead, Roy Oswald, Speed Leas and Alan Gripe. Their classic contributions to the practice of interim ministry, especially the five developmental tasks, [i] were a shot of adrenaline and wisdom as we ministered in the early 1980s.

More recently, the debate in interim pastor and transitional pastor circles concerning these tasks versus a rich variety of newer formulations, have engendered much thought.  When I first heard the phrase “all ministry is transitional ministry,” it was like a lightning bolt experience. To understand change in society is unfolding at white water speeds[ii] and the church must adapt or die is now fundamental to the way many of us think about and practice ministry. Wise, seasoned transitional pastors get this. Whether we serve small congregations or large, suburban or rural, multicultural congregations or people of one flavor, guiding them through these turbulent waters is a holy calling. This calling requires intensive, lifelong training and a network of support from others who help congregations walk the path of their transitions.

We hear of churches and denominations of every stripe decrying membership loss, lamenting the golden age and hoping some gimmick from megachurches will cure what ails. At the IMN Conference I learned down-to-earth ideas from down-to-earth people. I discovered bright, intelligent church leaders who helped me and can help all of us serve as proficient and faithful interim and transitional pastors, and thereby honor our calling.

For the past eighteen years I was the senior pastor of a multicultural and multilingual congregation in Pasadena, California that worships in English, Korean and Spanish, one congregation with three different language ministries. Multicultural churches are a growing phenomenon. Developing multicultural churches and the specialized leadership to pastor them is especially needed as families become more multicultural, neighborhoods become increasingly diverse and our nation debates how inclusive we will be. Learning the core competencies to lead these congregations is essential.

My commitment to the multicultural church is also theological and biblical. I believe in a radically inclusive God and a radically inclusive church, one that is mission focused, spiritually alive and wonderfully welcoming. I take seriously the prophet Isaiah, “You shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7, NRSV). I believe fully in the vision of Pentecost of Acts 2, where people from every nation and land experience “the mighty power of God.” The Apostle Paul has it right when he claims that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV). I believe in a church that welcomes everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, whether they are rich or poor, or liberal or conservative. In the time I have left on earth, I want to be a transitional pastor who challenges and equips congregations to embrace this inclusive vision, not only with words, but with deeds. In these times when change rushes by at whitewater speed, when our neighborhoods are far more diverse than what we see at first glance, when many congregations fear the world has passed them by, I want to be a pastor who equips congregations to navigate the shoals of change, avoid hitting most of the rocks and embrace habits that will enable them to become more inclusive.

It’s a tall order. Yet this past June in Las Vegas at the IMN conference as I listened and learned, networked and asked questions, I found an amazing community of people to help me in this endeavor. For instance, keynoter Graham Standish told us how to integrate spiritual discernment and discipleship training into every church meeting. He said we are to be a “blessed church”[iii] that sees the grace of God everywhere and prays for God’s guidance. He helped us see that churches, while sometimes an impediment to the formation of Christian disciples, can be amazing powerhouses of spiritual nurture and discipleship formation.

Church growth is not about cranking out numbers but creating disciples who are open to God’s purpose and direction in everything they do.

There were workshops that helped us embrace millennials, create healthy financial systems and design transformational strategic planning processes and so much more. There was a lot to absorb, good food to eat and great fellowship. Very little of what we did needs to stay in Las Vegas. It needs to be spread to the whole world.

Given my recent ministry setting, I was aware, however, that no one I heard addressed specifically how to be a multicultural church leader or a transitional pastor who intentionally coaches a congregation into becoming a church of Galatians 3, or Isaiah 56 or Acts 2. The bones were there, but you had to read between the lines, maybe color a little outside the box.

Throughout the IMN conference, connections between its content and my multicultural experience lit up my brain.  For twenty years I’ve been an advocate of Eric Law and the Kaleidoscope Institute ( It is an ecumenical organization dedicated to training church leaders to build sustainable, multicultural churches and communities. We teach church leaders in congregations, denominational bodies and seminaries, specific skills and practices that enable organizations and congregations to embrace fully God’s marvelous diversity.

I obtained great, useful resources at the conference that I will carry in my toolkit for the rest of my life.  I also realized that when you combine these learnings with the core practices of the Kaleidoscope Institute: RESPECT Guidelines, Mutual Invitation, the Kaleidoscope Bible Study and other methods to strengthen multicultural churches and leaders, amazing changes can happen in lives and churches ( With the right leadership, congregations can become truly welcoming of all people from our increasingly diverse neighborhoods but they need trained leadership.  The IMN Conference was life-changing for me. I’m grateful to God for my call to transitional ministry. I became particularly excited when I realized the connections between what Pastor Standish teaches and the Kaleidoscope Institute methods designed to build inclusive congregations. I know I am called powerfully to transitional ministry. Likewise, I am called to embrace the church of the future which in many North American contexts will need to embrace diversity not only to survive and thrive, but to be faithful. Much more needs to be said. Suffice it to say that I am grateful to the Interim Pastors Network and all its people: staff, volunteers, Board members and the people I met in Las Vegas in June: thank you. I look forward to many years of engagement with the wonderful people who are called to serve as interim and transitional pastors. Together, with God’s help, let’s have a continuing feast.

Faithfully yours,

Dr. Mark Smutny


Mark Smutny has served congregations in Ohio, New York and California. He is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and McCormick Theological Seminary. Most recently he served as Senior Pastor of Pasadena Presbyterian Church, a multilingual, multicultural congregation that worships in English, Spanish and Korean. He recently committed to serving as a Transitional Pastor in the PCUSA. He may be reached at 626-676-0287 or

[i] The five “developmental tasks for the interim period” were first described by Loren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute. They include Coming to Terms with History, Exploring Identity and direction, Making Leadership/Operational changes, Renewing Linkages and Committing to new Leadership and a New Direction. See Loren B Mead, Critical Moment of Ministry: A Change of Pastors, Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1986, for a more recent formulation of these tasks.  

[ii] The term “whitewater times” to describe the rapid speed of change besetting the church was coined by Thomas Hawkins, former Professor of Ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in his book, The Learning Congregation: A New Vision of Leadership, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.  

[iii] N. Graham Standish, Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence and Power, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Congregational Closure – By Rev. Dennis Alger

Congregational Closure - By Rev. Dennis Alger

Be prepared for the work ahead by going to your nearby worker-friendly retailer and purchasing sufficient quantities of facial tissue; there will be tears.

It is a factor of our time. Mainline congregations are experiencing decline; many of us find that faithfulness looks like closure, going out of business, turning out the lights—giving space for something new to develop. I offer such a story.

Long-time members of Gresham United Church of Christ remember the “old days” of energy and youthful spirit, populated by swarms of children. They also remember the appeals for assistance in paying the heating bill, the water bill, and such during more recent lean years. Full-time pastoral leadership was a given until twelve years ago.  Rather than follow through on a proposal to close at that time, the pastor suggested she serve half-time. Shortly thereafter, an interim minister began serving the congregation.  During her 30 months of leadership the participation grew, the energy returned, and funding stabilized. At that time, in 2007, I was called to the position on a half-time basis.

Young families showed up, and got involved; we were very multicultural; the energy was good. Until Pentecost 2012. That was the last Sunday of “church as we expected it to be.” From that time on, deaths, departures, disappearances, and depleted funds took their toll. The roles of prophet and pastor were intertwined; I knew what was required.

In 2013 I started the Interim Ministry Network training for two reasons: it is useful anytime and I saw myself involved in interim work, soon. Because I had been the settled pastor, responses to my attempts to use IM approaches had limited positive response.  But I persevered. Several times I spoke with the church leadership about our dilemma; there was reluctance to go very far with the prophetic perspective. However, we did have several meetings with the congregation in order to talk about the realities we faced. In 2014 we invited active and recently-active members and friends to come together for a conversation regarding our challenges.  The most frustrated were the folks who seldom participated but seemed to like the idea that the church would always be there the outcome was disappointing to me, and others in leadership, but not surprising.  No one wants to think about endings; being pastoral was crucial. People still needed understanding in the midst of the inevitable transition.

This talk about change, one touching on our identity and existence, followed on the heels of a year-long conversation leading to a change in our name “Zion” to “Gresham.” We had determined that “Zion” did not fit us, although we’d had it since 1906.  Surely, there was more to our journey by way of a new identity, many thought.  Nothing changed; attrition was normative.

At a Council meeting this past summer I said that the elephant in the living room was not getting smaller and something had to change. The prophetic voice was needed in order to be faithful, I felt. The pastoral voice urged our facing things together; my leaving didn’t seem appropriate. There was agreement, reluctantly given, to move toward closure. We came up with a plan with several components, mostly left to me to refine and initiate. Council members (especially the moderator) had to come to terms with disappointment and reconcile the reality that this was not anyone’s “fault.” Per our UCC polity, the Congregation was the final voice and we needed to model something positive for them, something about legacy and transition.

We sent a letter to our active membership (45) which explained, again, our situation and a process of decision-making, including a projected date for closure by the end of the year, final regular worship on World Communion Sunday, and a Celebration of Life for the congregation for the afternoon of October 4th. We also invited members and friends to a “sharing session” in late August so that feelings—the anger, fear, sadness, and dislocation-could be honored. I was clear that we were there not for more problem-solving but for lament and reflection.

During September we began meeting in a smaller space; the sanctuary had become too big long ago. I determined that we needed to recognize the “exile” we were experiencing; I used passages of Babylon from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as various Psalms, and readings from Mark that speak to both the frustration and the opportunities of our shared experience. We heard again the psalmist’s revenge-seeking in Psalm 137, owning the anger component of our grief work; we “sat by the river and wept when we remembered Zion.”

During this time I was in conversation with members, including the homebound, and learned that those most affected, seemingly, were the newer members; the old-timers, sad but reconciled, seem to have seen it coming for a long time. The peripheral people stayed there; somehow, what was momentous to many was not to all. On Sunday September 20th the congregation took the leap and voted to close, sharing worship only two more times. But so soon? As one of our younger members noted, it was better to yank the band aid. Remember what I said about facial tissues? We’d used quite a few by then.

Over the months the Council had met with our Conference Minister and the Conference Attorney; we determined that the best course of action was to honor the contracts with various space user groups until the end of the year and turn the property over to the Central Pacific Conference as of January 1st. While UCC polity holds that the congregation owns the property, the idea of selling was too daunting a challenge.  Helpfully, our Articles stated that upon dissolution the property would be given to the Conference. Several other congregations have expressed interest in leasing the building; we will not have to deal with that, although we’ve asked the CPC Board to have some say in the allocation of revenues from eventual lease agreements.

Once we met with the attorney, there was a sense of relief. From then on we were able to engage the tedium of clearing out closets and giving things away—things not needed by subsequent congregations.

I invited ecumenical partners and UCC colleagues to our Celebration. Eleven pastors, from UCC to Roman Catholic, ELCA to UMC, UU to PC(USA) to CC(DoC) participated along with friends from other churches and the wider community.  I rang the bell 109 times in honor of the 109 years of our existence now closing.  The music was powerful, the memories insightful, the community delightful. And it went on for two hours!  Why not? It was a fitting tribute to those who’d gone before, those remnant souls, and the birthing into the journeys ahead.

During the Council meeting the next week, members processed the “closing ceremony.”  One of the under-50 members, who’d had a hard time coming to terms with the situation and sought me out for private “conversation walks,” demonstrated how far he’d come in his own faithfulness vis-à-vis the congregation. He had helped immeasurably in all the preparation and attended both services on October 4th.  His comment was, “That was the best six hours of church ever!”

My biggest learnings? Hospice care for congregations is important; exile is a powerful metaphor in times of transition; people and organizations resist change but respond to understanding; one cannot have too much Kleenex.

The author, Dennis Alger, trained through Interim Ministry Network, has been a hospice chaplain for over 20 years as well as pastor of small-membership congregations in both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ.  He describes the process of congregational decline and eventual closure from his experiences as pastor of Gresham United Church of Christ in Gresham, OR, in 2015.

Do More with Less – by Eric Law

When I was young my family always had guests for dinner. On any given day, there might be twelve to fifteen people at the dinner table. Dinner was a time of joyful sharing of food and stories. I thought we were quite wealthy, feeding so many people every night. Only when I was older, while talking to my mother about the good old days, did I find out that we were not rich at all. My mother told me that some days she only had three dollars to feed fifteen people. How could that be? I could not remember a day when there was not enough food! What my mother did with three dollars was a miracle in itself. If you asked her how she did it, she would tell you how she determined what to buy in what season and, more importantly, her techniques in bargaining. But I think there is more to this miracle than just knowing what to buy and how to bargain. Not only was everyone around the table filled every night; there were always leftovers. I believe the way we dealt with the leftovers at the dinner table is indicative of how this miracle of doing “more with less” was accomplished.

Toward the end of dinner, there was always something left on a plate in the middle of the table. Everyone would be staring at it, especially when it was a piece of meat, which was an occasional, special treat. But no one would make a move to take it. Then someone would say, “Why don’t you take it, Grandma? You are the oldest.” But my grandma would say, “No, I’ve been eating this stuff all my life. Give it to the little one. He’s the youngest and needs the nourishment to grow up to be big and strong.” Now all eyes were on me – the youngest. But I, who also learned this ritual, would say, “No, not me. I am completely full because I have the smallest stomach. Give it to my older brother. He has an examination at school tomorrow. He needs it so he can do well.” My oldest brother would say, “No, not me. Give it to my sister. She has a piano lesson tomorrow . . .” The ritual would go on around the table; each person would find an excuse not to take the leftover piece of food. While we offered it to each other, we also affirmed each other’s worthiness in the family. As a result, the piece of meat would sit in the middle of the table, destined to be left over, to be transformed into a new delicious dish the next day. The leftovers became a symbol of our appreciation of each other’s worth. This leftover piece of food became a sign of the abundance we shared –we can do more with less. (I first told this story of my childhood dinner table in my book Inclusion)

At the dinner table of my childhood, I learned a very important life lesson, which has become part of the spirituality I strive to live out. The lesson was very different from a more popular spirituality based on scarcity, which drives us to take and keep and to have more than the other. The spirituality I learned at my dinner table was a different twist on modernism’s credo: Less Is More. (This credo is attributed to Ludwig Mies va de Rohd.) By insisting on having less than the other, we learn to appreciate more of each other’s worth. Furthermore, I learned from my childhood dinner table, the new credo: Do More with Less. (This one is attributed to R. Buckminister Fuller.) The dynamics of passing the “leftover” around generating a spirit of appreciation and affirmation did so much more than fighting over the last piece of meat, as a fear-of-scarcity-minded group would do.

For me, this radical value – it is better to have less than the other – behind the leftover ritual is the key to stewardship that can unclog the blockage of the flow of resources in our churches and in our communities. In order to practice this spirituality, people in our communities must believe in the abundance that comes from giving. If everyone in your community gives until he or she has less, it generates a dynamic that will keep everyone giving and receiving. Eventually what you give away will actually return to you. Once people realize that giving is not a one-time “losing” game, but part of a dynamic process that keeps resources flowing in our community, they will have the courage to give generously. To demonstrate how this works, here is an exercise you can do with any group in your various communities to show how “do more with less” can work.

Size of group: 8-25 participants.

Material needed: 100 notecards.


~ Divide the notecards into 4 piles of 25 cards.

~ Give four participants 25 cards each. Explain that each card represent a kind of currency. They could be money, time, talent, relationship, etc.

~ Project or post in large print on the wall the following quote:

 It is better to have less than the other

~ Explain the rule of this simulation as follows: The four participants who have the cards are rich with resources. If we live the spirituality of scarcity, most of us would want to keep what we have. In that case, nothing will happen – no movement, no flow of currencies. The four resource rich persons might decide to trade with each other but there will be no engagement with those who had nothing. What if the new rule for this community is: It is better to have less than the other? What would happen? Can you imagine that? For the four of you who have, as you encounter another who has none, what would you do with this new spirituality? The one with 25 cards would give at least 13 cards away to another participant who has none. Let’s try that. Now if everyone in this community is committed to live out this new spirituality, what will happen?

~ Give the group time experience this. Observe what happens. The cards will be distributed to everyone in the room. Those who gave away their cards initially will eventually and very quickly get some cards back. The process will evolve into an endless dynamics of giving and receiving. This is what doing more with less looks like.

~ After some time, stop the simulation and invite participants to complete the sentences:

– I noticed . . .

– I wonder . . .

~ After participants have shared what they noticed and wondered about, engage them in a conversation on stewardship. Invite participants to also imagine the cards in this exercise as other kinds of currency in addition to money, such as time, talent, relationship, leadership, etc. What does this exercise teach us about sustainability?

To learn about the concept of how currencies should flow, consider coming to the training course: Holy Currencies – Conversation on Money and Sustainable Ministries (August 13- March 17, 2012 in the Seattle Area) This course explores the cycle of blessings that involves 6 currencies – money, time/place, gracious leadership, relationship, truth and wellness. Learning how these currencies flow are essential for creating a missional and sustainable ministry. Click to get more information.

The Rev. Eric H. F. Law is the founder and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, which offers resources and training for intercultural competency, congregational development and stewardship. He is also writes a weekly blog: The Sustainist-Spirituality for Sustainable Communities in a Networked World.



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