A recent edition of Christian Century featured an article on church planting. The Alban Weekly that comes to my computer is frequently devoted to useful advice on growing congregations in the face of mainline decline. Regional gatherings in almost every denomination include workshops on congregational growth and development.
In every instance, help is offered in the form of methods, disciplines, templates, and time honored wisdom that, if properly applied, are sure to result in congregational growth. Recommendations are well and thoroughly researched. They represent the best in organizational theory wedded to faith and prayer, and are generally endorsed by examples of success in one place or another.
It’s all true, but none of it will work if one ingredient is missing. Love. The clergy who serve a congregation must love them. They must love them collectively and individually. They cannot fake it. Their love must be authentic.
Looking around my own diocese, and among the congregations we visit in our travels, it is clear that healthy congregations are served by clergy who truly and abundantly love their congregations. Some of them are avid practitioners of the latest and best in congregational development thought, and they prove the usefulness of those tools. On the other hand, some of them just muddle through as best they can, yet inspire healthy congregational life. The common factor is the love they have for the people they serve.
Without that love, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the best of modern church management tools are used. The people know if they are loved and will respond accordingly.
Of course congregational health does not equal congregational growth, but I don’t think it’s possible to grow an unhealthy congregation over the long run. Gatherings of unloved, unhappy people, like an out of control cancer, can grow, but only to self destruct.
Don’t you suppose that is part of what Jesus was trying to get Peter to understand when he kept asking him “Do you love me?,” and then directing him to tend his sheep? It’s not about loving Jesus with your back turned to everyone else. It’s about loving the portion of God’s people one is called to serve with the love of Christ that is there to be shined upon them through you.
So what if you don’t love them? What should you do? Quit. If you don’t love them, get out of the way. That is not to say that clergy are not allowed to have problems of their own, but working them out in the midst and presence of the people you are called to serve is not the place to do it. Nor does it mean that loving the people will suddenly solve all problems. It may just uncover hurts and abscesses long hidden that need to be aired in the light of Christ’s love through the clergy who serve them, and that can be a royal pain in the butt.
I know a pastor who served his congregation long, faithfully and well, but he wasn’t too far into his time with them when long hidden issues boiled to the surface threatening to take him down in the process. Whatever else was going on around him, he never faltered in proclaiming Christ’s love for them through his ministry. That was a long time ago. The congregation grew from illness to health. It didn’t grow much in numbers, but it didn’t decline either. He’s retired now, but a wing of the church building is named in his honor. I doubt if he ever read a single church management book in his entire life.
To grow a congregation it must first be a healthy congregation, and to be a healthy congregation it must be truly and abundantly loved by the clergy who serve it. I think the first question a bishop should ask a pastor of a struggling congregation is, Do you love them?