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Is Your Congregation on Autopilot?

By Rev. Dr. Bill Peterson, United Church of Christ of La Mesa

     An article in The New York Times was titled “As Attention Wanders, Second Thoughts About the Autopilot.”  The author raises questions and cites inquiries about whether the autopilot creates inattentive or distracted airline pilots, simply because they don’t have to pay constant attention: “A captain returned to the cockpit after taking a bathroom break and found the first officer facing away from the instruments and talking to a flight attendant.  Unnoticed was the fact that the autopilot had disconnected and the plane was in danger of stalling” [or a plane flies itself 100 miles beyond Minneapolis.]  Does this “autopilot mentality” happen with congregations that are in the ‘peak’ or ‘golden’ years at the top of the congregational life cycle?

     The Congregational Life Cycle is a model of congregational life based on observations of congregations by social scientists.  The model parallels the human life cycle, with growth and learning followed by the peak years, and then moving into maturity and less activity, inevitably (for humans) ending in death.  The model also presents options for congregations to preempt the decline, often referred to as church redevelopment.  (Go to http://schooloftheologynet.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/congregational-life-cycle.pdf for further information.)

     I’ve been working with a group of peers addressing questions of congregational vitality; what can congregations do to revitalize?  Or, is it, at any point in the life cycle, too late to revitalize?  The question that keeps coming back to me is “When do congregations decide to decline?”  If we can live that question, we may find some paths toward revitalization before it becomes too late to revitalize.   One of my mentors, Dr. Granger Westberg, a Lutheran pastor and innovator in the 1950’s to 80’s, continually challenged congregations to tithe to innovation and risk-taking in their budget.  Maybe if more had heeded his advice they would still be around today. 

     It is also possible that a congregation makes a purposeful decision to go on ‘hospice’ care.  After review and reflection, the congregation may decide that it is time to celebrate their years of service, disperse the congregation, and continue that congregation’s legacy of ministry through the support of new and renewing congregations. 

     One hunch about ‘When do congregations decide to decline?’ comes from the newspaper article cited above.  Congregations in their prime years may go on autopilot, and not even be aware that they are at risk.  The congregation loses attentiveness toward what’s ahead.  What’s more, the pilots (leaders) who knew how to fly without autopilot may have all retired!  And the current generation of pilots only knows how to fly on autopilot.  So the congregation moves forward, at least for a while, until something changes out there that nobody notices.  Then the congregation stalls (goes into rapid decline).  I’ll bet these critical decisions (or non-decisions) to fly on autopilot happen as many as 20 years before the dissolution of a congregation.  We need some research to test this hypothesis.

     While we await the research, we can consider one viable option from the field of Professional Transitional Ministry.   In our work as professional transitional ministers we assemble Transition Teams, selected by the congregation from among their most trusted members.  These teams lead the congregation through the interim period with the education and coaching of the interim minister or rabbi and through self-study and research in the congregation.  The transition team keeps its head up, looking out the window for what’s out there; opportunities as well as dangers.  And the Transition Team holds the congregation in prayer, seeking to discern the invitations of God’s creation in their own time and place.  In my own limited research, I have found that these teams have been most helpful in guiding the congregation through crises, changes, and in keeping the congregation looking forward during staff changes. 

     In the exit interviews of my transitional ministry I have heard transition team members tell me “this church needs a permanent transition team!”  The permanent transition team, with a rotating membership, would keep the congregation from going on autopilot.  They would keep discerning, keep looking out the window, and keep their heads up so the congregation can be at its best where it is now, and also prepare for God’s oncoming future.  Their role would be to keep the processes of progress alive within the congregation. 

     Permanent transition teams will be more than ad-hoc committees.  They will sit at the table; officially recognized in the documents and processes of the congregation, including the budget. A leader of a congregation that I challenged with such a continuing transitional journey responded to the Church Council, “Well, we just spent $10,000.00 on the plumbing, so I guess we can spend as much on the future of the congregation!”  The Church Council approved the expense.  At that point, the congregation turned off their autopilot.  They learned how to fly!  May it be so with you.

 Bill Peterson, EdD, MDiv, MSW is President of the Association of UCC Intentional Interim Ministers and a church consultant He is an Ordained Minister of the United Church of Christ, and a member of Claremont, CA UCC.
© William M. Peterson 06/16/2010

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