Saturday, February 13, 2010

Church Planting Proposal

For the past 25 years the PC(USA) has had a strategy for planting churches that involves careful demographic studies, long-term investment and gradual development. New Church Developments (NCD's) in our denomination take a long time to get going and cost a lot of money. Without doing a lot of analysis I'll just say that I don't think this strategy is working very well.

Parallel with this NCD situation we have a denomination that has been in pretty steep decline. A large percentage of our churches are small and shrinking. As such they cannot afford full-time ministers who come with a lot of debt out of seminary. Other churches are closing, or leaving the denomination. Furthermore, ministers are working longer into old-age before retiring. However, our 11 seminaries continue to pump out graduates every year. These combined factors have led to a situation where we have thousands of individuals wanting to do ministry with no place to do it. These unemployed potential ministers are often younger, unordained (because they can't get a call), and a lot more of them are women and minorities than their employed counterparts. They represent, in other words, the very demographics that our denomination is failing to reach.

Thus we have two related problems - a failing strategy for planting new churches, and a lack of pulpits for incoming ministers. Could we mitigate (if not outright solve) both with one stroke? I think we could. Here is my proposal:

Instead of NCD's being created by Presbyteries and Synods in a long, slow, expensive process, provide a plethora of small grants to individuals wanting to plant a church. Offer 2-years half-time salary to 300 ministers a year. Prioritize young ministers, women, minorities and others who have a harder time getting into the competitive first call slots. Make them come up with the proposal and go out on a limb with unconventional organizing plans. If in 2-years the NCD isn't viable, move on.

Many of these NCD's will fail, but so do NCD's developed the expensive and slow way. At least this way we will have tested the waters a bit, and employed a large group of our young talent to see if any gems emerge. As it stands we are wasting a huge pool of motivated, educated, potential ministers. The harvest is indeed enormous, but the workers don't have to be as few as they currently are.

I am convinced that we need a more spontaneous, bottom-up, strategy for developing ministries. Once upon a time, to get volunteers and participants you needed to have institutional structures in place. The way to open a church was to build it, hire a minister, and put a sign out front. Now though, all the institutional readiness and stability in the world won't get you members. In fact, who wants to be a "member" of anything? People want to show up where the action is. They want to join a movement; participate in a project; attend an event - not get their name on a roll. It's time for a Church 2.0 where everyone generates the content, and determines the form it takes. Successful church plants are going to be more like memes than clubs.

What if 90% of these NCD's fail? That's 30 new churches this year. And next year. And next year. Meanwhile those other 270 pastors are busy learning important lessons about what works and what doesn't. They will provide important feedback to the denomination as a whole about our church planting strategy. Feedback that is more valuable than what we currently get purely on the basis of quantity. And the whole time they will be employed in our denomination using their gifts for ministry instead of waiting tables, or doing data-entry.


Anonymous said...

I spent 2.5 years as a "temporary Presbyterian" and I was a bit unsettled by the overemphasis on "membership." I'm not sure membership is the root of all evil for the PCUSA, but as an outside observer, having membership as a key tenet of the denomination is challenging. The ELCA has changed its strategy for church plants quite a bit, we'll see if their strategy is more faithful and possibly effective.

Anonymous said...

love it! love it! love it!

Doug Hagler said...

I am sold on this idea. When we are colleagues, how do we make it happen?

Probably start with particular churches using this program and go from there? And then move from that point onward to a full Presbytery policy? Or just go big from the start?

Rev. David Lawrence said...

I think your idea has merit. However, the proposal faces the enormous hurdle of the bureaucracy. Decency and orderliness will be the death of the denomination!

Currently, one cannot even hope to find NCD money without participating in the process. I don't know if it is a desire for control by middle governing bodies or what, but in my opinion the administration stifles the work of the Spirit.

Aric Clark said...

I recognize that the bureaucracy is a big hurdle. Another reason to favor the NFOG.

I don't know 100% what the best strategy for pursuing this is, but this is how I would start:

#1 Research the current NCD process. Find out where the money comes from. How many are currently in progress. What the average success rate is. How long it takes etc...

#2 Write a paper for the Re-Forming Ministry team that publishes all those papers on the future of the denomination. Get it circulating and draw some responses.

#3 Go to the seminaries and get some future-grads started on proposals for church plants to submit.

#4 Send an overture to GA while simultaneously...

#5 Trying to get individual presbyteries to adopt a smaller version of the idea.

Jodie said...

I would combine the problem of dying churches with the problem of planting churches.

Many churches that are dying have plenty of money, but they can't seem to attract the next generation. There are strong cultural differences between the traditional Presbyterian way of doing church and what the younger generations want.

The problem a church runs into is that if they please the older generation, they get money but no new members. If they please the younger generation, they get members but no money. And infighting between the different cultures.

So, combine the two. Old dying churches should fund the planting of the churches that will ultimately inherit their property.

Plant a full fledged church someplace else, not far. Provide the seed money for a pastor and a rental facility. Establish a mutual support arrangement. 10% or 20% of of the budget goes to the other congregation. At first the mother church provides most of the fund to the daughter church. But as the mother fades out and the daughter grows in strength, the net flow of money starts going the other way, and the daughter starts supporting the mother. Eventually the two congregations arrange a merge, or a formal passing of the torch ceremony, and the old facilities pass on to the next generation.

Or, the new church is so big it won't fit, in which case it will return the favor and plant a new church using the old facilities at what used to be the mother.

And so the cycle repeats.

One thing I would not do, I would not count on Presbyteries to come to the rescue. Either of dying churches or of the question of how to plant new churches. In spite of our connectional rhetoric, the truth is it's sink or swim out there.

Individual congregations, old or new, are on their own.

If a new seminary graduate wants to be creative, find an old dying church with an endowment, and make such a proposition. If he or she can sell it, they probably have the right gifts to start a new church. If they can't, then they probably aren't cut out for new church development in the first place.

It's a really hard thing to do. Few have the gifts it takes. But for those that do, the sky is the limit.

Nick.Larson said...

Jodie. In a way MBCC has done this very thing with Ocean Ave Presbyterian church in San Francisco. But I can tell you that certainly being "roommates" causes it own set of headaches. Plus funding someone and changing so that someone can change your space are two very different proposals. I think your idea is great and does have a lot of merit, but I would also caution. I can speak for my own experience with MBCC and that is if that congregation didn't have a strong sense of self identity before moving into a shared environment I'm not sure they would be able to continue to develop.

But I like the idea. I'll have to do more thinking on this topic.

PS: I love the idea Aric. I would totally be on board. There are actually a lot of evangelical church planting movements who seems to be taking this exact strategy too. They have websites set up that you can submit proposals through to get funding. Where is that wealthy donor when you need one? This would make for great foundation. I think I would love the job of reading and deciding on those proposals too.

Aric Clark said...

Jodie - your proposal is very specific, but it's exactly the kind of idea thing I'd imagine on a case by case basis, could be approved by the process I've suggested.

Nick - yeah, this is nothing all that original. It just happens to suit our denomination's circumstances well.

Anonymous said...

It's a good idea. But how to get ageing presbyteries to allow it? That is the whole problem in our system, things have to be really bad to get people thinking of innovation. And I mean really bad.

Jodie said...

I don't think it needs Presbytery approval. A congregation can start another church anytime it likes. Until the incubating church gains roots, and from the point of view of Presbytery, the pastor of the incubating church would remain a member of the mother church's staff. Then the pastor can be called under the terms of a co-pastor.

The co-pastor becomes pastor when the first pastor leaves or retires. No need to re-open the calling process.

Or if the daughter and mother churches are self sustaining and want to go separate ways nothing prevents that either. Still no need to call a new pastor for either congregation.

Craig said...


I've been meaning to comment on this for a while. I like the fact that you have come up with this proposal. Something needs to change with NCD and this seems like a good starting point. Nice work.


Our church just did something similar except the plant was not PCUSA. You are correct that this is another good way to do this kind of thing.