Project helps churches find new paths

3/14/2011

Editor’s Note: Churches, like all organizations, have a life cycle. Some churches live for decades, with ups and downs that often reflect changes in the neighborhood. This is the first of four stories about churches that are experiencing periods of change – mergers, closings or a shift in mission.

7:00 A.M. EST March 11, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Aunt Catherine’s Garden, willed to Grace United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, provides a pleasant green space beside the church. UMNS photos courtesy of Grace United Methodist Church.
Aunt Catherine’s Garden, willed to Grace United Methodist Church in Austin,
Texas, provides a pleasant green space beside the church. UMNS photos
courtesy of Grace United Methodist Church. View in Photo Gallery

If you arrived for church one Sunday to find the building and pastor gone, what would you do?

That proved an important question for 11 churches in Austin, Texas, examining their future as part of the Ecclesiastes Project, and the answers were as unique as the churches themselves.

“We said we would conduct our service; we would sing together and worship. It wouldn’t matter if we were under the sky,” said Chester Eitze, a member of Grace United Methodist Church.

But in answering that question and others posed during the church’s participation in the project, members realized something had to change.

“We knew we had problems. The Ecclesiastes Project really managed to give us a breath of fresh air, helped us look at what was good and what was weaker,” said Eitze.

Now Grace Church, which owns buildings and a garden that fill a city block in a trendy downtown Austin neighborhood, is opening its doors to provide space for arts and humanities groups and creating a nonprofit to manage the use of the space.

The 2-year-old Ecclesiastes Project was the brainchild of the Rev. Bobbie Kaye Jones, superintendent for the Austin District of the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference. The goal was to engage churches within urban Austin with fewer than 125 in average worship attendance or who had compelling financial or facility concerns. Each church conducted a sustainability assessment with an eye toward new life through merger, relocation, partnership or any other creative path. Eleven churches were eventually selected for the project. The Texas Methodist Foundation provided funds for staff and resources.

Jones had served most of her ministry in the Austin area, so she knew which churches were chronically stressed and distressed. She also knew 21 United Methodist churches were located within five miles of the state capitol building.

“I had always wondered why someone didn’t do something about that, and when I was appointed superintendent, I realized that someone was me,” she said.

The Rev. Kathryn McNeely, co-director of the project, said one of the congregations voted to discontinue and give its facilities to a church with stronger potential for growth. One voted to allow a new church start in its facilities; another welcomed an equally small Korean church to share its facilities; and another reengaged its outreach with the Hispanic community.

Churches on ‘life support’

From 2005 to 2009, 1,201 United Methodist churches in the United States closed, and another 489 merged. Pastors, agency staff and annual conference staff say all churches – from healthy, growing congregations to tiny churches that are almost family chapels – should regularly examine themselves to ask if they are making disciples and serving the community and the world.

“When a church becomes involved only in itself, that’s when they go on life support.”
–The Rev. Randy Cross, United Methodist Board of Higher Education
and Ministry

“When a church becomes involved only in itself, that’s when they go on life support,” said the Rev. Randy Cross, a staff executive at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

While The United Methodist Church is the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination with 7.9 million U.S. members, many congregations are struggling with declining and aging membership.

The Call to Action report, which assessed the state of the church, said the status quo of the shrinking, aging denomination in the United States is “toxic” and unsustainable. Among the recommendations adopted by the Council of Bishops was the goal of making church vitality the denomination’s priority. “It will be as local churches and annual conferences are held accountable for outcomes of faithful and fruitful ministry that our mission will be accomplished,” reads one recommendation from the report.

That vitality cannot be achieved with new church starts alone, and church vitality is more than numbers, Cross said. In addition, in some rural areas of the West, he said, an annual conference may see the need to support a small church if that church is the only United Methodist presence in the area.

Deeper sense of connection

Across the United States, some districts are already moving toward regular church assessments.

The Rev. Sharon Moe, a district superintendent in Tacoma, Wash., said every church in the district must do an annual self-assessment.

“We want to help churches understand what it means to be called to make disciples, what their mission field is,” Moe said. “Churches have lost the sense of making disciples.”

The Rev. Linda Marie Kessie conducts a blessing of animals in Aunt Catherine’s Garden next to the church.
The Rev. Linda Marie Kessie conducts a blessing of animals
in Aunt Catherine’s Garden next to the church.
View in Photo Gallery

In addition, Moe’s district has developed six clusters of six to 10 churches each, with the goal of giving congregations a deeper sense of the connectional system and finding what ministry churches could do better together, she said.

Four churches linked as part of a cooperative parish, and two decided to merge.

“The primary goals include wanting churches to have a deeper sense of the connectional system. How can we change the way we do ministry so that we can do it together?” Moe said.

Churches in transition – struggling financially, or faced with a changing neighborhood, lost sense of mission, membership decline or realignment (going from a single, full-time pastor to being part of a two- or three-point charge) – can find plenty of examples of how other churches have risen to the challenge.

Besides closing or merger, a church might choose to share space with another congregation, or the membership may commit to community outreach. They might come up with a new mission entirely.

Jones said when she began the Ecclesiastes Project, she believed “my responsibility to the mission field goes beyond whether 30 people are going to stay in the property they love and give all their money to keep it going.”

*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.