Preparing for the zombie (church) apocalypse

Zombies are trendy these days, and the Christian publishing industry is always churning out books on church leadership. So it should not surprise anyone that there’s a book called “Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back into the Body of Christ.” I haven’t read it. In fact, I only ran across it when I was thinking about this blog post about undead congregations — churches that sort of look alive but really died long ago.

zombie churchWe have lots of zombie churches in the Episcopal Church, which helps to explain our steady decline as a denomination. In fact, this is the thing that would have been good to discuss at some point in, oh I don’t know, the last six General Conventions. Instead we whistle past the graveyard by fighting over this and that. Or we insist that it’s OK our churches are turning into zombies because — look! there’s a Presbyterian zombie and a few Methodist ones too!

Here’s how to spot a zombie church (my list, not the one in the book of the same name):

  • Almost the entire budget is paying for staff and buildings
  • Money is perceived as scarce
  • Moving a piece of furniture in the chancel is an agenda item for a vestry meeting
  • Speaking of the vestry, it’s full of people who were “willing to serve”
  • No adults unrelated to current members have been baptized in the last few years
  • The rector or vicar spends almost all of the time caring for current members
  • For that matter, the members spend most of their time caring for members
  • There’s no sign of measurable (as opposed to anecdotal) growth. Gotta do better than “it feels like we are growing.”

There are other signs, but you get the idea. Here’s what a living church looks like:

  • The operating budget shows a surplus, and significant money is spent on mission and formation
  • Change is welcomed, and some associated conflict is also fine
  • Lay leadership roles are filled only by those who are “called to serve”
  • Much of the energy in ministry is directed outward
  • New Christians are made regularly, adults and children (not just people related to current members)
  • Measurable growth is apparent

Do you doubt that we have loads of zombie churches? 72% of Episcopal congregations reported they were under “financial stress” in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available. The number has been rising steadily. As of 2011, the number of shrinking churches is three times the number of growing churches, based on a five-year Average Sunday Attendance change of at least ten percent. The same report with that alarming fact also tells us that in the last five years, giving has kept up with inflation only one year (2008). Read those two reports for more alarming signs of decline. And almost all of it is due to zombie churches!

So why do we tolerate them? Closing churches is hard. Members, the people who created their zombie church by resisting change, don’t like the ultimate change of closing. Too many bishops are unwilling to do the hard work of closing churches and teaching why closing churches is a good thing. Some will say that a closed church is a failure of the kingdom. I disagree. A zombie church is a failure of the kingdom, because an ossified museum/membership culture that’s all about preservation, survival, and self-support is the antithesis of the Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel is about risk, fearless proclamation, and love of our neighbors.

Too many zombie churches discredit the witness of the church, not just the Episcopal church, but the whole body of Christ. At a time when the world is desperate for Good News, zombie churches say that we can’t be bothered. All we care about is ourselves or, worse yet, our buildings. Every zombie church is a billboard for a church that has given up on the Gospel.

There are also pragmatic considerations. New congregations are much more likely to grow than older congregations. I don’t mean the age of the parishioners (though that matters too, in a way that works against us Episcopalians). Churches planted more recently are more likely to grow than churches which have been around for a while. Why do we imagine that we need to keep church buildings in places that were convenient for folks in the 19th century? Why do we insist that congregations have to possess their own building? Why can’t we say that some congregations can die while new ones are born?

Speaking of the spiritually deceased, Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” He would no doubt say the same thing today, about us as individuals and, I think, about many of our congregations. While I weep with those who will weep when their congregation closes, I do not think that sadness is a good enough reason to avoid doing hard things. If Jesus took note of the zombie fad today, he might offer something along these lines. “Let the undead bury their own undead, and by the way, the undead should die. See other saying about the dead.”

Amidst all this, there is plenty of good news. Across the country, there are congregations of all sizes thriving. After much travel across the church, I now believe that congregations who want to thrive can do so. It’s not even complicated, but it is hard. It is hard to grow as an individual follower of Jesus, and it is hard to grow a congregation. It is hard in that it is costly, like discipleship. We have to be willing to change, to grow, the give things up. And we have to be ready, if needed, to die.

So let’s stop ignoring the biggest challenge in church life. It isn’t battles over human sexuality or the number of Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards. The biggest challenge isn’t where our church headquarters is located or what kind of music we should sing. Our biggest challenge is that too many Episcopal congregations are zombies. We sort of look alive, but we don’t have the characteristics of living churches.

If congregations can be revived, fantastic. Resurrection, yay! Sadly, many are beyond the point of resuscitation. Others will willfully circle the proverbial drain for years or decades, doing nothing to proclaim the Kingdom. Let’s get ready. It’s time to kill some zombies or let them die. Let’s spend our energy as a church on congregations who are thriving, not letting our energy be depleted by zombies.

Like it or not, deferred maintenance, aging congregants, and dwindling numbers are pushing us toward the zombie apocalypse. Let’s get ready. There are four things we can do:

  1. Urge some congregations to close sooner rather than later. We need to weep with them, for it will be a sad time.
  2. Plant new congregations.
  3. Focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our living congregations to inoculate them against becoming zombies.
  4. If there are a few zombie congregations that want to change, let’s give them the chance. But we need to be firm. You can lead a zombie to water, but you can’t make them drink. Or, to misquote a made-up Bible quote, “The Lord helps zombies who help themselves.”

Image from Outreach Magazine.

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14 Responses

  1. Tom Ferguson says:

    You realize, of course, that Matthew 8:22 is at the top of Crusty’s blog. First used it as my parting words to a friend before I walked out of a particular diocesan convention. In 2004.

  2. Gary Goldacker says:

    Scott, you’ve nailed it in your own unique way! Having served 20 congregations as rector and interim, of all sizes and temperaments, it doesn’t take long to figure out who will flourish (because, as you say, it’s about more than survival!) It really is about discerning the Gospel and being disciples of Christ. As the old stewardship axiom says, “We have plenty of money; the problem is, it’s still in your pockets!” Every congregation has been able to do things that are in their own self-interest. Doing things for others is just a bit harder, but not impossible.

  3. Jon says:

    Amen, Amen, although there are distinct benefits to owning property as long as it’s the right property.

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Jon, I agree with that, as long as the tail isn’t wagging the dog. And the flip side is that a congregation can do perfectly well without their own building. I wish people would see real estate as a missional choice/opportunity, rather than a requirement.

  5. Scott Gunn says:

    Tom, I’m more of a Luke 9:60 guy, but your point is well taken.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    This is a very important commentary on the church today. As long as we remember to weep with those who weep – to honor their grief – the zombie congregations can resurrect themselves into something new and wonderful or relax and die. If we ignore their grief, or dishonor it, we do them a huge disservice, and ourselves as well.

  7. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman says:

    Excellent thoughts circulating here, and very much reinforcing the critical work of intentional interim ministry (not to be confused with benign “place-holding” until the new priest arrives, walking on water).

    When I was teaching full-time, I’d suggest to seminary students (with help from co-subversives like Wendell Berry and Gene Peterson) that the most effective clergy leaders are “interim” – so, in effect, all clergy should be trained as interims, planning to stay long enough (7 years is now average, I’m told) but not too long. One can make a case for the Apostle Paul as church-planter and interim, since his “tenure” never much exceeded 3 years.

    But more to the point, “holding the mirror up” to a congregation and speaking the truth in love (“what would happen if St Swithin’s wasn’t here in 3-5 years? and similar apocalyptic questions) are best done by leadership that isn’t already co-dependent with parishioners on the survival of the congregation. As rector, this is much harder to pull off – since rector’s usually want to keep their jobs. Benedictine “stability” mustn’t be confused with the once normative 15-20 year rectorates; more often than not, comfortable inertia sets in, exceptions notwithstanding.

    Our congregations need “re-membering” not futher dis-membering, so Scott’s 3rd point above is the REAL challenge, especially since there are a lot of “Things we wish Jesus hadn’t said” in the Gospels (the title of my forthcoming book). And speaking of “dog”, remember that’s “god” spelled backwards. May the hound of heaven visit us soon!

  8. Jon says:

    On the flip-side, Fr. Tessman, frequent management turnover tends to seriously undermine businesses, especially when each new boss comes in with radically different ideas about how things should be run, and churches are not so different from businesses that they won’t suffer in the same way.

    I heard an interesting tidbit recently in connection with all this. Apparently American parishes tend to stagnate and decline when they don’t have a priest in charge, while English churches tend to become more active and grow. So perhaps we really should work very hard to kill off the priest-as-boss model in favor of possibly non-clergy long-term managers with priests having shorter tenures in which they serve more as gadflies and teachers than managers charged with keeping the show on the road.

  9. I am the luckiest priest in this diocese because, at an annual meeting someone asked the question about whether the parish should close now or close later. At the end of the discussion, they decided to try living instead. We may not have yet fully made the transition from undead to resurrected, but we are steadily moving in that direction.

    Elsewhere in the diocese, our diocesan council disestablished a congregation at one meeting and, in the very next resolution, established a mission in the same place under the guidance of a missionally minded priest. It’s early days yet, but there are signs of real life.

  10. Thank you, Scott. Very good post, thought provoking comments. I’m rector of a small congregation where I frequently must remind vestry and congregation that our property is beginning to own us. There’s much here to shape future conversations.

  11. Thanks for this discussion, all very pertinent. One of my issues when serving a church that needed to face closure was that we had no one to help us with the various tasks, from denial and grief to property sale and legacy distribution. My book on this topic will be coming out in 2014: “Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection” (Wipf & Stock/Resource Publications).

  12. Sam Hosler says:

    Good stuff. The Episcopal Church also suffers from the belief that the only congregations are big ones. Yes, zombie churches should be closed… but not until plans are made for a “re-do” in that town. Small churches which may appear zombie-like may in fact be vital, but hampered by inattention, poor clerical leadership, and the attitude that any priest willing to endure a small church is “good enough for those people.” Personally, vital small churches are often much more vital than large ones.

  13. Marek Zabriskie says:

    Good thoughts, Scott. Bishops and clergy should pay serious attention to the points you make so well in your own unique way.

  14. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman says:

    Good point about the “flip-side” but it was Robert Greenleaf, Quaker, coiner of the much (ab)used term “servant leader” while he was a VP at ATT back in the day, who said that you can change all the top execs. at any organization and the “system” will reset to status. Ed Friedman’s application of Bowen Theory to congregational systems proved Greenleaf’s point incontrovertibly. SO yes, an “administrator” who can stay the course (as King/Overseer), and an “incumbent” colleague (I like in locum tenens event better!) who can best serve the Prophetic and Priestly facets of the tri-fold ministry of Christ, might be a better solution. Rector (Vicar, Canon, etc. etc.) and other antiquated nomenclature aside, the church needs pastors, teachers, and others in the Pauline list of gifts and ministries, who are self-effacing. “Celebrity” culture tends to demand celebrity clergy, and clergy-centrism is the churches downfall.

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