082: Bamsey: Congregations Have Life Cycles, Too

Religious Leadership Week: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5.

    THE REV. DR. ALFRED BAMSEY is a nationally
known church consultant who is a guest writer this week at
ReadTheSpirit. In addition to his recommended-reading list on Monday
and a quiz about religious change on Tuesday, Dr. Bamsey is sharing two
articles about his work with congregations. To learn more about
his latest idea — a plan to organize an experimental clergy-consulting
group involving Jewish, Chrisian and Muslim clergy — go back to the
introduction to Monday’s story.

Here is today’s piece:
Congregations Have Life Cycles, Too
by the Rev. Dr. Alfred Bamsey

       When I’m consulting with congregations that want to strategically plan for their future, I often introduce them to a relatively simple way to understand themselves. Just like humans, congregations have life cycles that begin with birth and, sometime later, end with death. Just like humans, congregations that pay attention to their particular life cycle, try to extend the length of their health and vitality as long as they can — are able to put off their final demise.   

    An individual’s expected lifespan has been extended extraordinarily in the past century due to the upsurge in medications, therapies and other resources. For the first time in history, human beings are contemplating living 30 years beyond normal retirement and are figuring out various ways to cope with this new reality.
    Unfortunately, we have not come up with magic medications or other medicinal tools to elongate a congregation’s life span. Rather, we are just entering an era wherein congregations are beginning to understand that their strengths can be reinforced or reshaped to extend their lives for much longer than the normal lifespan a congregation usually enjoys.
    This is an exciting possibility. We’re now in a period when congregations already moving toward the end of their life cycle can reclaim and rejuvenate themselves with a new or refreshed purposes and/or a new concentrations on ministry for the future.   

    To introduce a congregation to the idea of having a life cycle, I usually draw a parabola with “birth” at the start and “death” at the end.
    At “birth” a congregation begins by answering some basic questions, such as “Who are we?” And, “What is God calling us to do?” And, “Who is our neighbor?” As the answers to those foundational questions take shape, the community from infancy to childhood and then adolescence as the relationships among the pioneers multiply and the necessity for formal relational groups and formats for ministry begin to unfold.
    Along the way to the zenith period of life (sometimes called “stability” and sometimes called “maturity”), the need for some form of management system begins to take shape in order to give structure and impact to the growing complexity of the congregation.   

    When a congregation is at the top of its game, the originating mission, the relationships, the ministry groups and the management system are simultaneously working effectively and the people are enthusiastic in their participation. The intent for most congregations at this level of development is to elongate this period of life as long as possible.   
    Inevitably, however, cracks in what appeared to be an invincible and eternal “success” story begin to show. The biggest one, sometimes not even noticed initially, happens when the life of the congregation continues to operate at optimal pitch but the passion for ministry has cooled, leaving a forward-thrusting institution that has momentum, but no passion.   

    The result is that the community begins its descent from the pinnacle of its success. Some long-running ministries begin to sag because volunteers are burning out and want a rest. A clergy or staff leader who provided energy and direction for a major ministry decides to leave and his or her replacement brings good gifts but not the same gifts the previous leader expressed.
    Sometimes the demographics of the area around the house of worship change and long-time members move away and drive back for services, rather than walk from the nearby neighborhood — and their energy for ministry wanes.

    Whatever the causes, descent from the heights has started when a congregation experiences loss of its previous sense of well-being and power.
    People, instead of recognizing what is happening and regrouping to meet the new challenges, turn instead to pointing fingers, blaming leaders and groups for the troubles that have begun to drag at the spiritual vitality of the congregation.
    If such “blaming” continues without constructive alternatives, people start finding reasons not to participate as strongly as they once did; long-standing groups lose their leaders and sense of cohesion.  The people no longer remember their original vision and those responsible for managing the congregation’s life worry more and more about the pullback from missions, the cost of the staff, and the ever-increasing cost of maintaining their aging facilities.   

    When a congregation’s decline reaches what might be called the “retirement” period all that is left are die-hard members who struggle mightily to balance an ever-decreasing budget, maintain sagging buildings and wondering how they will be able to cover the health-care responsibilities for their pastoral family.
    Ministry and fellowship groups are gone, a small group of volunteers take care of the building and hang on to a couple of mission projects that they have supported for years. This is no longer truly a community, at all.
    Eventually, death catches this remaining circle, even surprises them. And the congregation passes from the land of the living. 

    Now, having helped a congregation understand how a life-cycle works, I ask those present to tell me where they are in the life cycle that has been presented.
    This conversation involves everybody and is lively, because everyone present has a stake in the outcome of the exercise. It is a joyful moment in some congregations because they assess that they are in the adolescent stage, or approaching maturity, and they gain new energy and dedication when they recognize where they are in their life cycle.   

    You can imagine the sadness, and sometimes anger that stirs in other congregations that recognize that they are descending fairly rapidly into a period that will presage their demise unless something radical happens, something they seldom can imagine. If no one helps them bear their grief and perhaps discover a way through to a new conception of congregational vigor, they will flee from this new knowledge and either savagely or stoically live out their last years.
    I do not have the time in this article to speak of ways to revitalize congregations that are past their zenith. I just want to convey to readers that the power within this concept of a life cycle is that it can energize congregations to live at their best on their way toward their maturity and to become cognizant and creative in reconstructing themselves on the downside of the cycle. It’s a framework for people to envision how they can live productively and lovingly in a revival of strength and hope for the future.   

    I know that this cycle works for Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish congregations. I am eager to be involved with some Muslim congregations to see how the life-cycle protocol helps men and women understand their historical situation in American life.

    Remember — Click Here to send an email to Dr. Bamsey, if you are curious about his work — or are interested in inquiring about the innovative, interfaith clergy-counseling group he is hoping to organize near his home base in southeast Michigan.

    OR, click on the Comment link at the end of our online story and leave your thoughts for other readers.

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