Feeding the ego, starving the Church

By Richard Helmer

I commented on a thread at Episcopal Cafe on Monday on the subject of church growth. Frankly, the subject is starting to wear quite thin on me, because it so often turns to matters of institutional preservation, which is not only deadly dull, but I am increasingly convinced deadly spiritually.

Standard congregational development schema I was taught to appreciate involve the transitions between various sizes of parishes — family, pastoral, program, etc. The jargon goes on from there, and leads. . .well, where? Nowhere much in my view, and many of our leaders are left scratching their heads and wondering why. We often talk about “cultural change” in our congregations as though it is somehow divorced from and devoid of the language of the Gospel, which is not simply about system theories or whatever else is hot right now, but about the mysterious transformation of the human heart and transformation of the human family by God’s loving grace and our active embrace of that through prayer and service to others.

I write this all with a straight face. I am a child, both literally and figuratively, of the institutional church. I am beholden to it at present both by vow and income, and I indeed wish to see it thrive and flourish. But it will most certainly not by navel gazing and hand-wringing, nor by romanticizing the blip of high mainline attendance in the 1950’s, from which we are still declining. . .or perhaps a better word is recovering, as we move towards a more real place in a world where people are free to seek out spiritual community that nourishes their hearts, minds, and being.

I’m all for congregational development, building the church up and all that. Just ask anyone in the parish I serve. Our numbers right now are good and modestly improving, though, not because we’ve been good congregational developers and I’ve taught the theory well, but because we’ve identified the tangible spiritual needs in our community and have begun the hard work of addressing them. Because we’ve identified gifts in our community for leadership and ministry and empowered them. Because I’ve struggled to set aside the egotistical notion that I, as parish priest, can “save” the church and at times have managed to get the hell (literally and figuratively, again) out of the way.

At the end of the day, a lot of congregational development writing and talk is about ego — feeding the ego by possessing “how to grow a church” through specialized knowledge or methodology. Or feeding the ego by romanticizing a supposedly greater past. Or feeding the ego by projecting current trends in a straight line and claiming we have control over the future, or at least some special knowledge about it. Or feeding the ego because “my family and I depend on this job.” None serve us or the Christian Gospel at all well. We need to stop if we are to move forward. Idolatry is one way to talk about our egotistical obsessions. Idolatry is one way to talk about much of our chatter over church growth.

Growth is not the goal here. It is only the natural, God-given outcome of living faithfully into Christian mission. And growth has a great deal less to do with numbers than it does with the vibrancy of ministry and the freedom of the Spirit to move in community.

Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth:

No one wants to join a community wringing its hands and navel gazing over its own demise.

Nor does anyone want to simply become a number to prop up a flagging institution.

The real questions we need to be asking are those like these:

Are we endeavoring to be faithful to the Gospel and to our God?

Does our institution serve our mission of Christ Jesus to transform hearts and reflect God’s work in the world? Or do we distort our mission to serve the institution? This is a simple (but not easy) matter of correctly ordering the carts and horses.

Are people finding spiritual nourishment, hope, and empowerment for ministry and service in their communities both within and beyond the walls of the Church?

If these criteria are being addressed with intention in people’s real lives and grounded experience, growth of all kinds may very well follow. If they aren’t, institutional death is a natural outcome.

We all fear death of institutions we love, of course. But at the end of the day, and indeed in God’s gracious reign, we are not children of the institution.

We are God’s children. We are people of the resurrection. And that’s what truly matters, even as we face decline in many places.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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  1. Thanks Richard. The key is the same as it ever was for the church – be doing what needs doing – sharing how God makes a difference in one’s life and how the church is a part of that – inviting and welcoming. Looking at the community around the church and at the gifts the church has – where they meet – that’s the opening. In LIttle Snake River, Baggs, Dixon, Savery, WY – a beautiful isolated valley in southern WY – they noted that there was nothing after school for elementary age kids- so they started ARK (amazing river kids) – it became their primary ministry in the community. A small church making a difference with a goal of serving. Wyoming is one of the few dioceses showing growth – I think it is partly that we have turned from “congregating” to serving. Of course one new family makes a huge difference in a church of 20 people.

  2. Richard Helmer

    Ann, it’s stories like these that need to be shared! I started discernment for ordination in a small church of 20-30 people in the rural Midwest. They opened a store-front outreach center near the church building that became a hub for all kinds of service to the wider community, including tutoring for at-risk youth who were referred to us by the local school district.

    Building connection with the wider community was life-giving for St. Philip’s, and it was no accident, I suppose, that Sunday attendance started to rise. But again, they had gotten the horse and the cart in the right order!

  3. Rosa Lee Harden

    Richard (and Ann): Amen, Amen and Amen!

  4. John-Julian,OJN

    Ah, Richard — I have waited and waited to hear someone say all of that!

    I mean, I’m a professionally-trained congregational development consultant and have done work at well over a dozen parishes — but I begin to see the jargon and the process overshadowing the spiritual reality.

    Two things:

    1) I have been a Vacancy Consultant in many parishes. Never even ONCE was there any concern shown about the spiritual life of the new rector. Until I pointed it out, never did a parish search committee even think to ask, “Do you pray? If so, how? Are you affiliated with a religious order? Do you have a spiritual director?”

    2) The life and growth of the church, diocese or parish is not in our hands. If as a parish we are truly doing the will of God, and if God wants/needs us there, it will work out. There will be enough (maybe BARELY enough, but enough) money/people to do the work God wants done. I think we should forget all the self-conscious hullabaloo about “church growth” and concentrate wholeheartedly on our local mission (see Ann’s great comment above) and not sweat the numbers/size bit.

    (Of course, I’m weird enough to believe that any parish that grows over 200 families ought to be divided and there should never be more than one priest in any parish.)

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