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Monday, September 8, 2014

Strategic Alternatives for St. David's Church

Strategic Alternatives for St. David's Church

June 21, 2010

Assuming no change in the present offerings and activities at St. David's', it will be defunct no later than 2014. From a business standpoint, therefore, the strategic alternatives open to the parish are threefold:

1. Liquidate

2. Merge

3. Downsize

No doubt liquidation would be painful for the remaining parishioners, but it is not a unique situation. Faced with an inability to pay clergy, staff, and services; going out of business is mandatory. According to the Dennis Canon, the property reverts to the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, who would undoubtedly put it up for sale to any reputable buyer -- except a rival
Anglican Church. That is forbidden by The Episcopal Church.

Merger makes sense for two or more declining congregations, and is sanctioned by church authorities at both the national and diocesan levels.  Recent mergers in New Bedford provide a precedent. Where the surviving parish would be housed is open to question. No doubt, struggles for supremacy would ensue, leaving bad feelings, and departure by persons devoted to the losing parish.

A remnant church could deliberately "downsize" by moving out of the quarters it can no longer afford, and seeking to rent an economical space in which to worship. Functioning without overhead expenses is the modus operandi for small Anglican churches. Part-time clergy suffice for conducting services; laymen perform all other ministries. It really works; I have participated in the early phases of a church plant in Brewster.

Instead of letting decline take its toll; there are ways in which a church can renew itself, grow, and achieve solvency. The objective is establish a unique identity, and thus to secure a competitive advantage. It does work.

I have seen the astounding growth of Brewster Baptist Church take place. I have also seen First Parish of Brewster (Universalist-Unitarian) find a commanding position -- and then lose it. In general terms, the alternatives are:

4. Advertise the internal strengths of the church.

5. Remove distracting and non-missional activities.

6. Organize an ancillary activity that attracts new church members.

7. Pursue a media-worthy community service.

8. Adopt a significant and newsworthy theological position.

and some combination of the above. But you cannot do all of them.

Churches do not advertise their internal strengths because they don't know what they are. I ran a 40 question census at Brewster Baptist, answered by over 400 parishioners, and found that its growth was due to one, and only one significant factor, to wit, the superb preaching by the senior pastor.

That was not news to anyone, but it disturbed the senior pastor no end.

If an activity sponsored by the church or conducted on its premises does not lead directly to attracting new members, then it should be discontinued.  Goodwill in the community does not pay the bills. At St. David's, that means ending the community suppers, AA meetings, and the nursery school. However, organizing and conducting an ancillary activity that benefits people to the point that it draws them to join the church is what we want.

Pursuing a media-worthy community service may do that, with reservation. For example, dinners for the homeless are certainly Christian outreach, but they do not add parishioners, with rare exceptions. Try something with a more direct connection. Both Willow Creek and Saddleback do not depend on their Sunday worship services to attract and keep members. They provide a variety of helpful activities. A small church, like St. David's, has to focus and be known for doing something special that leads to Christian living. Brewster Baptist tries to do too many things, and not all of them well.

Differentiating one's church by adopting a significant theological position, and being known for it, is the province of many Episcopal churches in Manhattan. I recall St. Mary the Virgin, the original "diverse" congregation, St. Stephen's, the theater church, and of course, The Church of the Transfiguration, which everyone knows as "The Little Church Around the Corner." We liked St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue for its high, holy, sung services.

My personal preference is for continuing education. Willow Creek conducted a survey of its members, and found they wanted more explanation of their faith. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan does just that. A combination of evening programs at the church with follow-on home groups draws people and keeps them coming back. St. David now has only two little groups of old ladies talking to one another at the church.

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