Getting the story right
Today many clergy are still called or appointed to—and many lay leaders inherit—congregations with weak stories that are products of a remembered past that had position and resources. Some leaders still wrestle with the memory of the sanctuary filled every Sunday, while they now measure the increasing distance between fewer worshipers who scatter themselves across the pews in the same sanctuary. Many congregations tell their stories using measurements of how many people used to attend, how many programs they once had, how they once did mission using the resources from an over-subscribed budget. They also “remember” how their clergy once knew everyone in the church, were well known in the community, and never preached a bad sermon.
Amen, brother. I’m sure most clergy have been there, hearing about how things used to be just fine and why can’t we go back to that way of doing things. Oh, and why don’t you priests visit everyone like they used to?
As the article suggests, there are lots of problems with this. In almost every case, the story is not just weak, but factually untrue. More to the point, celebrating a false past does not give one strength in the present or hope for the future. Let the dead bury their dead. We don’t use that particular soundbite often enough in our churches, I’m afraid.
In my own parish, we’ve had plenty of this. When I arrived, the story was “we’re a poor church” and “you’ll have to get new members to join us, because we’re giving all we can” and “we’ve always been this way; we’re a mill church”. This is the leading excuse for congregational failure in Rhode Island: the mill church syndrome. The (weak and false) story suggests that an industrial mill company once supported the church, thereby failing to empower people to take ownership of their congregation and to support it financially.
The problem is that the mill church story is just a version of the weak story. It’s not true, and it’s not helpful. So we clergy and lay leaders need to share a new narrative that empowers people in the present and gives hope for a better future.