I’ve been a part of more than one conversation in the recent past that involves sadness about decline in the church. Many, perhaps most, of us are experiencing decreased numbers of singers, worshipers, and volunteers, and it’s easy to allow feelings of frustration and disappointment to spiral out of control. I’ve also noticed that some of us may feel as though we are somehow responsible for addressing or resolving this challenge.
Gilbert R. Rendle, in his book Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual & Organizational Tools for Leaders, describes how to determine the type of situation we are in. A technical situation is one in which a problem can be clearly defined and a solution can be clearly applied. For example, the organ needs to be tuned, so we schedule a tuning. Conversely, an adaptive situation is when the situation and the solution are unclear, and new learning is required by all involved. For example, let’s say the congregation has not been singing hymns very well. The problem is a little hard to define. Why are they not singing? Could it be that the hymns have been a little too unfamiliar? Is the solution to choose more familiar hymns, or is it that we need to be more intentional in our leadership of those hymns? In an adaptive situation, more learning and exploration is required.
Rendle helps us understand that decreased numbers in our programs is a challenge that is complex. While we are a part of the system with the challenge, we are by no means the cause of the challenge. In fact, chances are we’ve been doing everything in our power to stay positive and be creative, even while the signs around us reveal that a part of our music ministry may need life support.
But when we resist the imminent death of something in the church, are we standing in the way of an opportunity for new life? Are we hanging on to something that worked well in the past, even though we recognize it is not working today? Is it possible that God is at work, doing a new thing, and, ironically, we are the ones acting as a barrier?
The first step may simply be developing awareness and clarity. To help understand what is happening, seek out colleagues and leaders, both within your context and elsewhere, who can reflect along with you. Ask them if they are seeing similar signs that it may be time to let go. Once there is awareness, there are steps we can take to aid, or maybe even speed, the dying process and proactively seek out signs of new life:
- Take a deep breath and recognize that the church as an institution is changing. The fact that fewer people are involved is indeed an adaptive situation and deeper learning and exploration need to occur. Know that you do not bear sole responsibility if a part of your music ministry is coming to an end.
- Invite key colleagues and/or lay leaders into a visioning conversation. Pray for open ears and eyes so that you may be open to the Spirit’s guidance. Ask the questions: What part of your church’s music ministry needs to die so that new life can emerge? Where are the signs of new life and how might you go about feeding and nurturing them?
- If something needs to die completely, determine the best time for that to happen and communicate through multiple channels. Be sure to allow space and time to mourn. Name the loss and recognize that there will be emotional responses, but then invite hope into the process and encourage openness to new possibilities.
- If you decide there are adequate signs of growth in new directions, identify key stakeholders who will help to guide and support the work, to help ensure the new project ultimately bears fruit.
Christ is the vine, and we are the branches. The branches are adapting and in need of pruning so that new growth can occur. In Susan Palo Cherwien’s Crossings: Meditations for Worship, she writes, “Life is changed, not taken away.” In other words, death does not mean an end to life, but rather, that life changes and takes on new form. What a beautiful way to reframe the work that we are about these days.