“Where do we start?”

A Presbyterian church leader looked at possible avenues for seeking health in his large Southern congregation and asked, “Where do we start?”

“Wherever you feel the greatest urgency,” I replied. “Just make sure you don’t stop there. Your initiatives must be in balance.”

After 44 years of steadily declining membership, most mainline Protestant congregations feel a great urgency about membership. Therefore, adopting best practices in Membership Development is a good place to start.

Bringing more people in the front door (recruitment) and keeping people from going out the back door (retention) would do a lot to instill confidence in the entire congregation.

Many congregations see their average age rising into the 60s and worry about absent young adults. If that is the case, adopting best practices in Young Adult Ministry would be a good companion to growing the membership.

Similarly, steps to reach young adults will require an up-to-date Web site, something more than displaying pictures of the pastor and building and posting a few schedules and sermons. It will require an aggressive e-mail marketing program, as well. Hence the value of undertaking best practices in Communications Strategy.

None of this will last for long, of course, unless you measure results, learn from failures, strengthen successes, and adopt best practices in outcome-based decision-making. Thus, Metrics.

You get the point. Wherever you start, the rest of the work to be done will come into focus. Church Wellness isn’t a single-shot or magic-pill approach to leading your congregation forward.

The benefit of starting with what feels urgent is that staff and laity will feel committed to the venture. Any hesitation they feel about pursuing best practices and whatever new directions those practices indicate will be more likely to fade away. Climbing the hill that you actually want to climb will instill more confidence and energy than accomplishing some third-party agenda.

Personally, I think financial distress is a perfectly fine motivator. The answer to that distress won’t be better money management, of course, but membership growth, transformation of life, and better practices of giving. But if feeling a budget pinch is what gets people to the table of rethinking the enterprise, so be it.

The point is to get started.

At the Church Wellness Project (, we’re ready to help. Ask for our free weekly Church Wellness Report.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.