When working with parishes we often ask "How long do you want your parish to live?" The reply is always the same. "Forever". Sometimes robust -- sometimes tentative. (Though one honest woman admitted her horizon of concern was only until "after I die!")
Often someone brings up the topic of closing or consolidating parishes. While our agenda is focused on helping parishes survive and thrive, some churches may eventually close themselves -- having run out of people, money or both. (Given that many experts have predicted that, for example, the Anglican Church in Canada is one generation from extinction, this is not a commentary about any particular Orthodox jurisdiction, Diocese or parish.)
Which will live and which will not? Based on visits to now 83 Orthodox parishes in seven years, below are a few characteristics of parishes that will likely close themselves and corresponding behaviors of parishes facing a long productive future.
Characteristics of Parishes That Are Closing Themselves
More memories than vision.
Fading parishes are experts at freeze framing -- more focused on preservation than expansion.
|Fading Parishes are in severe ruts. Paved in yesteryear.|
Timid singing and worship.
Other descriptors would be tired, lethargic, tepid, listless. Not joyful and vibrant. Even mediocre singing can be joyful with a bit of energy and gusto. Listless worship does not attract people.
Lack of eye contact and informal smiles.
It often starts at the candle desk. This is a greeting ministry not a customs station. Smile and say "welcome". It continues into the nave before, during and after Liturgy. Averted gazes. Making guests feel invisible as we walk past to chat with friends.
The general lack of joy seems to manifest itself in what some church consultants describe as "weak capability belief". "We're too small"; "too poor"; "too busy"; "too old"; "too spread out". Nobody expresses it directly but the sense is: "We're only Orthodox. Don't expect much from us." Generations earlier parish founders overcame more significant obstacles.
Money is a fearful topic.
Shiny vehicles and attractive homes are hallmarks of the parishioners, yet when considering the church's needs a pauper's mentality prevails. Establishing a parish that will live into the future requires commitment and sacrifice not living off the efforts of ancestors.
The mentality of scarcity manifests itself in neglected buildings and grounds, chipped paint, shaggy grass/landscaping, worn carpet, faded signs, dust and disarray. Instead of strengthening the parish for future generations,the budget (if there is one) is balanced on the backs of future generations through deferred maintenance.
Characteristics of Parishes That Are Renewing Themselves
Christ is in their midst. People smile and hug. Cross generational relationships help to bond younger persons, no matter how few, to the parish. Laughter. Eye contact and a smile for guests.
Been to a great restaurant recently? If so your first response was likely to share the Good News with your friends. In parishes that 'have it goin on' people invite friends. They pick them to come to church with them.
Focus on Possibilities and Taking Risks
In parishes that face forward everything is not rosy --but leaders work to stay ahead of problems. They ask, "What would it take? What are we NOT doing well? Why can't we? If we had an additional $25K/year what could we do to build up this parish? To spread the Word? To some this sounds like a boring planning effort. In actuality its a dialogue --a good conversation. When such dialogue occurs people say, "Gosh we haven't talked about these topics in years!"
The parish has somehow overcome the gravitational pull to be self focused. By being willing to engage in future oriented topics they see limitations in their mission and learn to look beyond themselves to connect with community. Not as a growth/promotion program. Growing parishes get to work --despite the fact that parishioners usually live elsewhere.
Men NOT Missing
The stereotype is that mostly women attend church. Yet in blossoming Orthodox parishes there seem to be a higher percentage of male worshipers than in fading parishes. In a few cases we've noticed more men than women. There are many possible explanations for this and we don't know which is the cause or the effect. We've lost the reference, but we recently read that a high percentage of adult men correlates with an ability to attract and retain young adults in a church. If true what are the reasons?