For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘church growth

Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can Too by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 228 pp.

Real Good ChurchLet me start by saying that I knew going in to this book that Molly Phinney Baskette and First Church Somerville are the real deal. I got to know Molly when I served in Boston, and I was privileged to watch some of this transformation with my own eyes. I was there in the early years, when it was still fragile and uncertain, which makes it all the more exciting and encouraging to read about a church that is now thriving as a model for others. This book tells the story of how they did it.

I read a lot of books of advice for leading and transforming churches. Some of them sound like impossible plans only a consultant could concoct. Others promise that “if you just do this one thing, your church will turn around.” Still others offer a lot of theory, but not a lot of practical advice. Real Good Church manages to avoid all of those pitfalls. It’s packed with practical wisdom acquired from hard-earned experience, but it also offers a deeper reflection on the Spirit of God at work. The tone throughout is light-hearted and conversational, so you feel like you are carrying on a conversation with a friend in ministry. It’s a great resource.

One of my favorite insights comes early on–the need for clergy to be “Doomsday Pollyannas.” We must be honest about the realistic potential of demise, but also offer hope.

Communicating the urgency of doing things well and/or differently to our people, while also communicating how confident we are that we can do it. … What’s at stake is the death of the church for everybody, and what’s possible is the life of the church, for everybody already there who buys into the vision, as well as many more people who aren’t aware that this place and people are going to become an important part of their lives. (11)

I love this term and description, and I have found it true in the life of my own church. We are able to move forward best when we share both a sense of impending doom and impossible (or only possible with God) hope. She returns to this idea later, as well.

Dying churches are often churches with low self-esteem. Your task as a leader is not to build up the church’s self-esteem but to build up its God-esteem: its sense that God is guiding them and is a big stakeholder and participant in its life and future–their sense that God loves them and is hard at work, and visibly at work, among them. (72)

Another important insight running throughout the book is the connection between the church and its community.

Look for the action in your community, and be in the midst of it. Plant yourself there, be visible, build relationships. (75)

First Church Somerville did that with a Drag Gospel Sunday, participation in local parades and festivals, joining in the Red Sox excitement with outdoor viewing, office hours in the local coffee shop, and more. Baskette is clear that this is not a program for you to follow in your church, because they are rooted in the local community in Somerville and the identity of their congregation. However, every congregation can find the life and energy in their community and become involved. We can all shift our ministries to focus on “them” (those people who are not already active in the congregation) rather than “us” (church members’ tastes and needs).

The book has sections on everything from job descriptions to e-mail to worship to conflict to facilities management. The appendix is rich with examples of materials used at First Church Somerville. It radiates with the author’s creativity and energy for ministry.  I recommend it first for pastors, especially those serving churches in need of revitalization. It would work as well for lay leadership in those churches, but the sheer wealth of material might be overwhelming to a church council without a careful plan to absorb (and implement!) ideas slowly. You’ll learn a lot, enjoy reading it, and leave encouraged for the possibilities for the future of your church.

It happened again. Someone joined the church who was too excited. They came to worship for the first time and swooned all over—singing the praises of the church, the people, the preaching, the food, the fellowship, the programs, the children. Immediately, they asked to join. They came to everything in that first month. They attended every worship service, answered every call for volunteers, showed up enthusiastically to every event. Always, they were filled with love and you could feel the joy they felt at being in church, our church.

When I first started out in ministry, I used to get really excited about these kind of newcomers. I imagined them to be fired-up leaders who would come in and boost the energy of the church. After a few more years of experience, my first reaction to these over-enthusiastic newbies is deep concern and worry. In my experience, these types of visitors-turned-members flame out within a matter of weeks. After jumping in and becoming a fixture at everything in church, I look up one day and discover they are absent. At first, I figure they just had a scheduling conflict, or finally realized that most people do not attend every single church activity. But then they miss another program, another Sunday, another event, and I realize they are gone.

I always call, and they are almost always happy to talk to me. They do not express doubts or anger or frustration about the church, no cataclysmic event that turned them away. They are still as excited and proud as ever to belong, but their commitment has fizzled out as fast as it caught fire.

I am troubled by these travelers, because I don’t know why they come, why they disappear, or what we could do differently to shepherd them into a deeper, more committed relationship to Christ and the church. Perhaps they think they have found perfection in the church, only to discover we are human, imperfect institution like everyone else. I attempt to warn them, but it doesn’t seem to work. Perhaps they get burned out from getting involved in so many things so fast. I try to warn them about this too, but it’s like talking to a teenager you can’t convince you know anything valuable. Perhaps they just had a temporary gap in their lives, and the church filled it for a month or two. When the need ends, so does their connection to the church. I take consolation that we were there when they needed us, and perhaps they will return when they need us again.  Perhaps they are desperate for connection and community, and we did not welcome them deeply enough, quickly enough to satisfy. I work to help them make friends and social connections with other members, but these things can’t be forced or rushed. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps—the experience remains a mystery to me.

Does anyone else have experience with these kind of short-term enthusiasts? Do you have additional theories or strategies? Have you found successful ways to pastor/shepherd them through the transition from smitten lovers to committed partners?

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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