Changing demographics of our communities, aging populations, declining membership, financial struggles, increased building maintenance costs, lack of available ministry personnel, lack of interest to serve in more rural areas, all these things have led to a crisis in many churches. Not just in the United Church of Canada, but in churches all across North America, and likely abroad.
I want to float out a few ideas I have which may help alleviate some of this pain. It is my hope we’ll generate some discussion here, or through social media with your thoughts.
The first, and obvious option is to simply close some churches. This is happening already. In some areas we clearly have too many churches. This may sound controversial, but it is simply an observation: there are 7 United Churches within 30 minutes of my front door. That’s all I’m going to say about this observation.
I’m not saying we need to close all of our rural churches. We should not do this. Some of these churches are still the cornerstone of their communities and are wonderful gathering places to worship and bring communities together. Some may need to close, but that’s to be decided on a church by church basis.
But what of those we do not close, but are struggling too much with finances and ministry is a ball of stress just seeking to survive? For many of these, I propose using what I will call a “regional ministry” approach.
Let’s say we had an area that was maybe a couple of hundred kilometers across that had 10 United Churches. This is not an uncommon scenario in many areas. There may be an option to amalgamate a few of the churches to bring the number down to 5 or 6. There may also be a central location that is a bit larger than the rest of the area, a town perhaps, which could serve as the “base” of the regional ministry where all the clergy work from.
This is still a large area to serve but not particularly busy at times. So what if we had 3 or maybe 4 full-time ministry personnel out of the larger church instead of one minister for each? Salary is the most common financial struggle for many churches because the minister’s compensation package takes up most of their budget. But now, if they only have to contribute roughly half of the salary (maybe even less) to the regional ministry wouldn’t that free up a lot of the financial headaches?
“But what about pastoral care and worship?” you might ask. Simple, this is where technology comes in. If we have a scenario with 3 ministry personnel serve a wide region of 6 churches then it might look something like this. The “base” church has a live service every week with one ministry personnel in attendance. The other 2 personnel then visit 2 of the other churches while the others get a live feed from the base church. Technology makes this extremely easy and it is already in use in many large and smaller rural churches all across the United States. It works and has been used for years.
The 5 other churches will have their own service each and every week. They may choose to stream the entire service from the base church, or maybe they want their own music and prayers so will only have to stream the sermon. It’s a flexible option. And at the very least, they will have one of the ministry personnel in their church twice a month.
The other main issue to cover is pastoral care. Local pastoral care teams will need to be trained to handle day-to-day visiting requirements. For more urgent needs or emergencies, calls will be made to the base church to reach the clergy.
In my view, this is a simple answer to a complex problem. It will not cover all the problems we have with our struggling churches (not all of which are rural), but I believe it is a possible solution for a good percentage of the problems we are having. Clergy may not live right in the community, but there are trained lay people to handle most issues, and clergy are not that far away, and will be visiting the community on a regular basis not just for worship, but also for pastoral care concerns and meetings.
So what are your thoughts? Is this a viable option to help alleviate some of the stresses found in our church communities or am I missing the mark? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Comment below, send me a tweet, find me on Facebook, whatever works for you! I’m just touching the basic idea here, and with your comments I hope to develop it into something more.