I’ve been invited to speak next weekend at a big church growth conference, which is the Center for Progressive Renewal’s New Church Leadership Institute-East (NCLI). There are two NCLI conferences every year, one on the east coast, and another on the west coast; this year’s east coast offering is being held at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Lancaster Theological Seminary is offering a graduate credit opportunity in conjunction with the conference. (The other NCLI is being offered in Pasadena, CA, in November.)
I’m going to be offering a workshop titled “When You’re Not Reverend MBA,” on financial growth in small churches. My congregation, Zion “Goshert’s” UCC, in Lebanon, PA, was recently featured in the UCC Calendar of Prayer for the congregation’s growth. In 2010, we experienced a 4% increase in church membership, 8% increase in Sunday worship attendance, and a 17% increase in plate giving. As of the last figures I have available, in 2011 so far we have a slight increase in membership, but we’ve counting another 9% increase in Sunday attendance and another 14% increase in plate giving. So, a little to my surprise, I suppose I’m in a position to talk about how this has happened.
There is more to it than this, but here’s the big secret: We had, and continue to have, some real honest and difficult, and sometimes very long and tiring, discussions about money and the financial situation of the church among the congregation’s leadership, and allowed it to spill into the congregation. It helps that more people are coming to the church (and I will admit that I have taken one really good, and really helpful, graduate business class on nonprofit managment). But occasionally the conversations have backfired on me, questioning the congregation’s ability to support a pastor. The good thing about this is that all cards were on the table, and I think it has been a good leadership practice on my part–if I may say so myself–to be confident even though I may be eliminated in the process (though this has been somewhat difficult in the middle of my wife’s pregnancy and welcoming a second child into our family in the last 7 months). It’s just like a marriage, where both partners might agree that there are financial problems but they agree to avoid the issue. We can choose a separation or work for a solution. We had some great help from denominational resources along the way, too, especially through the local UCC Conference’s vitality church initiatives.
I have always assumed that financial leadership was not something I would ever have a knack for, primarily because I was Confirmed in a church where the senior pastor would have constant 20-week preaching serieses on money. I learned to resent and avoid the issue. But there is a need to talk about money from a serious theological perspective–and not necessarily from a give-the-church-more-of-it perspective–from the pulpit. An attraction for me, I think, in coming to my current congregation was that they were really good at avoiding talk of money, and I was more than happy to be complacent on this issue. As it happens, two of the congrgeations at which I candidated for pastoral positions as a finalist were in similar situations of avoidance; one church closed its doors and the other laid off their pastor when the money ran out, both within two years of calling their pastor.
Had we not made these changes the money would have run out completely for my employment at the end of this year. When our serious discussions started, the “death date” for my job was Christmas, 2011. I still have a “death date” for the position, but we have been able to push it off significantly. We haven’t completely solved the financial problems, but we have learned to work toward a solution within the very specific context of this community.
The conference’s keynote will be Rev. Mike Piazza, who is the Co-Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Renewal. I have heard Piazza before and he is quite inspiring; he brought a church from the brink of collapse into what is today known as The Cathedral of Hope UCC (here’s their website and the Wikipedia page for the church), and in his retirement as senior pastor of that church, he directs the Cathedral of Hope in planting new churches that are very similar. I think that their current effort to plant a new Cathedral of Hope in Salt Lake City is pretty balsy and very exciting.