LOUISVILLE (PNS) — Where does your congregation see itself in 20 years?
Chances are, an answer to that question doesn’t come quickly. After all, discernment takes time and thought. And sometimes, difficult circumstances must be acknowledged and tough decisions have to be made.
Rev. Meg Flannagan, the pastor at the Presbyterian Church at Sweet Hollow in Melville, N.Y., has been working with her congregation on discerning who it is and where it’s going. Flannagan has served at the church for four years and she and the congregation have done “a lot of work” in that time, she said.
She describes the church as being “between times” with diminishing resources, time and people. But the work it was doing simply wasn’t enough.
In January 2019, Small Church Forum started working with Sweet Hollow and a dozen churches in the Presbytery of Long Island. Members from about one-third of the Presbytery’s churches are attending, Flannagan said.
Small Church Forums are a free resource provided by the Presbyterian Foundation to “assist congregations that might be struggling to think through their current reality and what some possibilities might be,” explained Paul Grier, Vice President of Project Regeneration with the Presbyterian Foundation. Some of those possibilities include reinvention, merger or dissolution.
At the four forums, Foundation staff help congregations look at the context within which they operate and the reality of it, some of which is hard to face. (If you want to find out about small church forums near you, contact your Ministry Relations Officer, which you can find here.)
The forums take place across several months, giving participants time to germinate ideas, and “often there’s homework to do,” Grier said.
“We’re a resource,” he said. “We have no authority, we’re not threatening, we’re a safe place.”
A foundation for discussion
The forums start with an overview of American Protestantism, Grier said. Recent data is shared so forum attendees can better understand what churches look like these days.
Some of that data is from the National Congregations Study conducted recently by Duke University. According to the study, seven percent of congregations nationwide have more than 400 members. Those churches attract half of all churchgoers.
That means 93 percent of congregations nationwide are fighting for half of the available marketplace of churchgoers. A small number of players are dominating the marketplace, Grier explained, and non-denominational mega churches continue to grow while smaller churches tend to shrink.
The forums then ask church members and leadership to put together data about their church, requiring them to look at financial metrics to foster candid conversation about congregational viability and future potential.