Preparing for the zombie (church) apocalypse

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.