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In my report to the July 2012 Eastern Synod Assembly I commented as follows concerning the plight of smaller congregations who were experiencing the stress of diminished numbers. I spoke as follows:
The best experts in these questions tell us that smaller congregations who face such challenges – and most of us ARE smaller congregations - have 5 choices available to us.
1. We can grow! Believe it or not, even today, churches - even Lutheran churches - can grow! Witness the examples of Faith in Port Elgin, Zion in Stratford, St. Paul in Bridgewater and the almost ten percent of synod congregations whose average Sunday attendance – the number that really counts - is actually increasing!
2. We can merge. Sometimes this is the right way to go. I am so proud of the people of Zion and St. Mary’s in Sault Ste. Marie who have effectively worked through a very fine and successful merger process in the past three years. Likewise the people of St. David’s Anglican Lutheran in Orillia. It’s been hard work, but good work; it’s been covenant work in support of our common mission and clearly the right way to go in those contexts.
3. We can cluster. It seems that there is an increasing amount of energy being focussed on this option in recent years. Witness the work of the South Grey Bruce Lutheran Parish, Redeemer and St. Ansgar churches in London Ontario, the people of Lunenburg County in Nova Scotia, St. Timothy’s and St. Matthew’s in Sudbury, the Anglican-Lutheran Parish of the Bruce, or the five Hamilton-based congregations who I met with just last week to discuss such an option. Clustering, seeing ministry as something that congregations can do together as partners serving a region or area, is a very exciting alternative that’s available to many of us.
4. We can move to alternate forms of ministry. We have lay ministers serving congregations in Massey and Denbigh Ontario and in Rose Bay and Feltzen South in Nova Scotia, each supervised by a pastor who provides occasional word and sacrament ministry. For some, this is absolutely the right option and vibrant ministry can continue and even grow without the presence of a resident pastor.
5. Finally, we can make a choice to die a good death. I think of the legacy of Christ Church in Agincourt whose graciousness in death helped bring new ministry to life. I think of St. James congregation in Normanby Township and Shantz Station, just outside of Kitchener, each of whom made a difficult but faithful choice to conclude their ministries and thereby endow resources in the support of others.
But the experts don’t say it all. There’s a sixth option which sadly seems to be the preferred option in many instances; and that is to die poorly. To slowly decline and expend every last resource available in a fruitless attempt to replicate an experience in time that is never again likely to be repeated. In this instance, I won’t cite examples, but my rough estimate would be that 20% of our present congregation are well along the way in following this latter path. That’s forty congregations.
While I don’t wish to be alarmist, I believe that smaller denominational bodies such as the ELCIC are faced with similar choices today. We, like many others, are at a critical point in our history. Diminished financial resources have severely limited the ability of our synodical and national church expressions to effectively fulfill the responsibilities that we have assigned to them. I, in particular, am very concerned about our church’s inability to continue the strong and vital international work that have made us a globally recognized leader in the inter-Lutheran and broader ecumenical world. This work is presently facing a very real long-term threat.
Circumstances have changed an awful lot since our church was constituted in 1986. In effect we are functioning with approximately 50% of the funding that was available at that time. Such a situation is no more sustainable for a small denomination than it is for a smaller congregation. Difficult choices and decisions need to be made in a timely fashion. As in congregations, a slavish commitment to maintaining the status quo leads only to the aforementioned “option six”; not through conscious choice but by inaction.
While we have not yet identified a way forward which addresses the challenges and aspirations of our national and synodical expressions, we still have an opportunity to get it right, but that opportunity won’t last indefinitely. I am still hopeful. I trust that our churches leaders will be bold and visionary in charting next steps. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the urgency of this present moment has been fully grasped by the broader constituency and whether that sense of urgency will be translated into a willingness to act, clearly and decisively.
Again, the situation’s not a whole lot different from that in many congregations. Similarly, we can chose to act or not to act, but make no mistake, a choice will have been made, regardless.
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