How to decline gracefully

Third in a series | First post in the series

In two earlier posts, I talked about compelling reasons for a congregation to grow, and I talked about strategies to not grow and remain about the same size. But what if you’re convinced that your congregation has no real possibility for growth? What do you do then? (And even if you’re all for growth, please read this post anyway — because by the end of the post, you’ll have even more reasons to grow.)

I can think of three types of congregations that are truly in decline: (1) The congregation is in a place that has seen declining population for some years, and all forecasts point to continued decline. (2) The congregation shares its service area with another Unitarian Universalist congregation that is growing, but the surrounding population is stable so the congregation faces ongoing loss of market share. (3) The majority of people in the congregation don’t want to change the way they do things in order to respond to changes in society around them. (You will notice that the second type of congregation could be considered a subset of the third type of congregation.) Of these three types of congregation, the third type is the most common, followed by the first type.

How do you determine if your congregation is truly in decline? It can be difficult to determine if your congregation is truly in decline, so it pays to study the matter carefully. Here are some ways to determine whether decline is actually taking place:

  • The first thing to do is to study census data for your congregation’s service area, and see if population is declining in the area around you.
  • The second thing to do is to look at ten year trends for the following: (a) year-round Sunday morning attendance; (b) pledge income adjusted for inflation; (c) number of non-zero pledge units; (d) dollar amount of deferred maintenance adjusted for inflation. The last item is very difficult to determine, but I include it because declining congregations usually hide financial decline by funding current operating expenses through underfunding maintenance. (Because criteria for membership often varies widely within one congregation from year to year, I do not believe that looking at membership provides any real insight into the numerical strength of a congregation — better to look at total number of non-zero pledge units.)
  • The third thing to do is determine if your congregation might be in the middle of a stalled size transition. If your average annual year-round worship attendance, including adults and children, has been between 150 and 200, you are probably in a pastoral–to-program-size transition; if your attendance has been between 40 and 60, you are probably in a family-to-pastoral-size transition. If you have been there for more than five years, you are probably in a stalled transition. If you are in a stalled transition, you may find numbers that indicate slow but steady decline for as long as twenty years. However, a stalled transition cannot be said to be true decline until your average attendance drops below about 150, or below about 40 (depending on the transition). One of the characteristics of stalled transitions is a pattern of increase and decline that stays within either 150 to 200, or 40 to 60 average attendance. A stalled transition requires a very different strategy than true decline, so make sure which one you’ve got.

Planning for decline

If you have gone through the three steps above, and are quite sure that your congregation is in decline, you can now begin planning for graceful decline. You now have enough data to determine the rate of decline, and you can probably make a fairly good prediction of where you will be in five years. Then you can estimate pledge income for the next five years, and plan where you will cut your budget. (Note that if your congregation is in a stalled transition, but you plan for decline, your plans for decline could drive the congregation out of a stalled transition into a decline — so do your homework carefully to see if you’re truly in decline or not.)

Since staff salaries usually take up about 60% of a congregation’s operating budget, if you are going to cut expenses to meet declining revenues you will obviously have to figure out which staff positions to cut. Most church growth experts believe that a minister is the most important staff member; second most important is probably custodial staff and bookkeeper. There is debate about the third most important staff member, with some experts advocating for a music director and others advocating for a religious educator; if your demographic researched showed more families with children in your area then you’d probably lay off the music director before the religious educator. Based on these priorities, you can begin planning which staff positions to cut.

Since the next greatest expense for most congregations is building maintenance or rent, you will also have to figure out how to cut this expense. If you own your own building, deferring maintenance is a terrible way to try to cut expenses in a declining congregation:– when you defer maintenance, the cost of eventually fixing a maintenance problem generally increases in cost much faster than inflation, so deferring maintenance means passing higher costs on to a future when you anticipate lower revenues. Therefore, a plan for graceful decline must anticipate at what point the congregation will either have to sell the building, or lease significant portions of it to someone else. If the congregation decides to lease, you absolutely must be honest about the costs of leasing — too many congregations get less rent from the lessor than it costs in administrative time, maintenance costs, and custodial time. (Note that if you’re in a stalled transition and you start leasing your building, because leasing can lower the capacity of your building for your own purposes this can actually drive you out of the stalled transition and into decline.) All declining congregations should make long-term plans for selling the building — it can be incredibly difficult to sell a church building, so best to start planning now.

Having considered all the above, the key ingredient in a graceful decline is careful and consistent management over a period of many years. However, decline can be depressing, and it can be extremely difficult to stick with long-term consistent management that allows for graceful decline. You simply have to get in the habit of steady and consistent management, and never give that habit up.

Why you should know all this if you want your congregation to grow

If you have read this far, you should realize by now that it is more difficult for a congregation to decline gracefully than it is for a congregation to grow. If the only reason your congregation is in decline is because the majority of people in the congregation don’t want to change the way they do things in order to respond to changes in society around them, it will be easier to change to majority of the people than it will be to manage a graceful decline. On the other hand, probably the most difficult task is gracefully maintaining a steady size — that requires an amazing amount of will power.

Congregational growth is difficult and tiring, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than congregational decline — and far, far easier than gracefully maintaining a steady size.

Next, and last post in the series: The habits of graceful growth (and decline)

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