Smart Decline

I noticed it the past several years when I traveled to the Phoenix area to spend a few days with my father and other family members.  Every time we visited we’d play a new golf course in a brand new town that seemed to spring up overnight.  The infrastructure was there for huge planned communities: wiring for phone, cable, and internet; sidewalks; paved roads; and half-built houses.  The only thing missing was people. 

For decades this 14th largest metropolitan area in the United States experienced a building boom.  In the years before the real estate bubble burst, however, developers gambled and overbuilt.  Except for the golf courses, many of these brand new towns are ghost towns.

I noticed it over the past 6 years as I traveled around the Grand Rapids District.  A number of our churches either remodeled or built additions in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, hoping that if they built it, new people would not only come but would pay the mortgage.  Unfortunately, many congregations don’t understand that adding more space is often the result of applying technical solutions to adaptive challenges. 

“If you build it they will come” will usually not grow churches that are experiencing decline.  People today yearn for an encounter with God, not a gym where they can shoot baskets.  They yearn for authentic community, not a fancy lounge.  They want to spend their time making a difference in the world outside their building rather debating whether beverages should be allowed in the remodeled sanctuary.    

It was already a challenge for some of our churches to take care of their bills before the economy collapsed.  Now they are faced with the agonizing choice between paying their mortgage or paying their pastor.  One Finance Committee asked me, “Who will bail us out if we can’t pay our mortgage?”  I smiled weakly and replied, “I’m sorry, but you’re on your own.” 

I notice it as I travel around the connection.  The infrastructure of The United Methodist Church is too top-heavy.  We’ve experienced 40 years of declining membership and attendance in the United States, yet our structure has pretty much remained the same.  The cost of maintaining the current size of our general boards and agencies is not only diverting resources away from mission and ministry, but it is hindering our effectiveness and ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ in a denomination where 40% of our members now come from other countries.

Not only do we need to downsize our boards and agencies, but we also need to right-size our churches.  It is fascinating to observe local churches whose attendance is half or a third of what it was 15 years ago.  Often the decline is gradual, so no one really pays any attention until there is a recession or a few generous members of The Greatest Generation die and leave a huge void in the budget.  By then it may be too late.

Attendance is now less than 100, church leaders have failed to create a compelling vision, mission, and strategic goals, and it’s a struggle to pay ministry shares (apportionments).  The congregation still acts as if it is a large church, but it can no longer support a sizeable staff and a full-time pastor.  Church members retreat inward rather that turn outward and focus on making disciples and transforming the world.  The superintendent is finally called.      

One of my roles is to help congregations face their own reality.  We cannot reinvent and transform our churches into healthy, vital centers for ministry until we admit the truth about our decline and choose to address it openly and honestly.  Living in denial is the greatest impediment to positive change that any organization faces, sacred or secular. 

What if The United Methodist Church were to adapt the concept of smart decline? When the market crashed, an estimated one million dirt lots in central Arizona were in some stage of development for new homes, and more than a third of ZIP codes in major Sun Belt cities saw population losses.  Where many people saw tragedy, however, others saw possibility.  Smart decline is a relatively new theory of land use that was first coined by Frank and Deborah Popper in 2002.  Based on a German model of city management in the deteriorating cities of the former Eastern Bloc, smart decline embraces the reality of decline by intentionally reinventing city services, reimagining land use, and restoring fiscal sustainability. 

In some cases smart decline may dictate tearing down the infrastructure in the hope that growth may happen again in the future.  Land that is farther away from urban centers may be allowed to go back to nature: i.e. desert or farming.  Another option is to rezone the land for creative redevelopment, such as churches, retail, business, parks, and swimming pools.

Flint, Michigan has seen a double digit population decline in the last 40 years, but city planners have worked creatively to achieve a sustainable population through smart decline.  Because Michigan law enables cities to take over foreclosed and abandoned properties, the city of Flint has chosen to concentrate growth in a few neighborhoods while demolishing properties in declining neighborhoods and converting them into green space through a local conservation land bank.  

Some of the liveliest conversations about urban shrinkage are taking place in Detroit, where, in his first State of the City address in 2010, Mayor Dave Bing announced plans to demolish 3,000 buildings in 2010 and 10,000 total overall by 2014.  Agriculture and green space are returning to Detroit as intentional attempts are made to strengthen neighborhoods and improve land use. 

The time is now for The United Methodist Church to be smart about its decline as well.  Our leaders have made radical proposals to the 2012 General Conference about right-sizing our denomination in order to assure greater efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability in our ministries and poise ourselves for future growth.  Some of those proposed changes include:

  • Changing the guaranteed appointment system to employ “a just, reasonable and compassionate process” for low-performing clergy to leave the itinerancy.
  • Consolidating 10 of our 13 general agencies into five offices that will be part of a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. The center will have a 15-member board of directors, which will be accountable to a 45-member advisory board that will “represent the diversity and inclusiveness of our Church.”
  • Authorizing the board of the new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry to evaluate programs and spending at all levels of the church and reallocate up to $60 million during the 2013-2016 quadrennium for the purpose of increasing the number of vital congregations.
  • Forming a task force to study and recommend the most equitable and effective apportionment system in our annual conferences

None of these proposals will enable our churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ and bring in the kingdom of God on this earth if we don’t start at the local church level.  Smart decline in our congregations mandates intentional planning for:

  • Holy conversation, involving an honest and comprehensive evaluation of all church ministries, structures, and personnel
  • A careful and prayerful right-sizing of budgets and staffing costs to achieve fiscal sustainability, stability, and responsibility
  • An alignment of all programs and ministries with the stated vision and mission of the congregation
  • An emphasis on identifying, training, equipping, and rotating gifted laity into positions of spiritual leadership
  • Streamlining committee structure to create a culture of permission-giving and maximize the best use of human and financial resources for mission and ministry
  • Reimagining building space for innovative community use as a means of hospitality as well as evangelism
  • Teaching and modeling generous giving for all ages
  • Creating a culture of call where the very best of our youth, young adults, and second career persons are encouraged to consider professional ministry 
  • A commitment to partner, share resources, and cooperate with other United Methodist churches, denominations, and religions

Smart decline.  Is it an oxymoron, a fantasy, a foolish hope?  Ask General Motors and Chrysler.  Ask Flint, Detroit, and Phoenix.  Ask any congregation that has risen from the ashes of its decline or has discovered the miracle of doing more with less, with God’s help.  Ask God’s created world, where “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  (John 12:24) 

In our end is our beginning.  What does The United Methodist Church need to die to in order for the new to emerge?


8 thoughts on “Smart Decline

  1. Laurie, I wish we, as a denomination, didn’t have to plan for the decline, but it is a fact. What the Bishops haven’t touched, hoever, is their own role in this process. Do we need to continue to support Bishops with salary, benefits throughout their lifetimes? Do we need “inactive” Bishops? We are decreasing one Bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction, but do we need to decrease more? Should, in fact, Bishops be appointed “forever” or could we elect them for 8 years, and then, if we wish, re-elect them, or not? I agree that we are top heavy, but that begins with our Bishops.

    Loiss and I will miss your blogs in a few months. Have you considered continuing them?

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Another way of stating the conundrum (which can include our own spiritual growth) is “What am I holding on to that I really need to let go of?” Some of us long-time Methodists tend to cling to things in the name of tradition, not realizing we are locking out a fresh move of the Spirit. I strongly believe that through this decline we have the opportunity to see the largest growth in our denomination in over 50 years. But it can’t happen if we don’t embrace the changes required. Thank you for concisely wrapping all that together!

  3. I also strongly agree. He who tries to save his life will lose it. And by trying to save everything that we have now we may easily lose the true mission of the church.

  4. Laurie,
    Decline is an opportunity to get the message that we have strayed from the ways of God (A common malidy of all religious traditions).

    I believe the denomination is in decline because it has failed to encourage people in the development of Spiritual Maturity. We can’t tell them how to be spiritual but we can open the door by nurturing and modeling practices that increases the possibility of sensing the presence of God and encourage them to journey deeper into cobsciousness of God in their life.

    We will never re-build the church with “works”. Knowing the Kingdom present and acting according to the inner voice of God now is the only way. This takes practice in listening/silence before God. I firmly believe that this was the Incarnational work of Jesus (not to reassure us that if we believe the right doctrine we will gain entrance to heaven). We need to form “followers” of Jesus’ Way.

  5. Thanks again Laurie,

    A courageous , but necessary commentary on the times. in the changing life of the UMC. Recognition of the problem and action by members and leadership would be a great step in the direction of revitalization of the UMC. Skip’s comments give pause for thought, certainly, as there are many other places that we can examine and start some effective changes.

    Yes, I too, wonder if you will continue to inspire us with your writings “after D.S.?”. That is a God given gift and has its place for all of us.


    • Thank you all for the provocative responses. I am hoping to continue with my blog after July 1, but will not be sent out through the district office anymore. Stay tuned!

  6. I disagree with Kathleen that we are in decline because we have strayed from what God wants us to. I agree with her that spiritual development is key, but that is not the reason for our decline.

    If you want one word to describe Christians today (and non-Christians as well) it is ‘fearful’. Not surprising in a way, because the underpinnings of everything we have based our society, and our Christianity, on is being pulled out from under us. And I am not talking about gender or abortion or things like that. I am talking about our belief that our enemies can’t hurt us way over here in America, or that if we work hard at our jobs we will be rewarded (or at least kept around). And when people are fearful they look for two things; physical comfort (churches that emphasis stuff for us rather than others), and a doctrine that is very rigid about the fact that we are right and ‘they’ are wrong. So the growth has been seen for the more fundamental churches and the mega churches that emphasize what’s in it for us.

    Our decline is, in a way, a validation of the Methodist commitment to others. it makes me sad that so many people are so anxious, in this time of great need, to find a ‘theology of me’. But I am firm in my belief that ten Christians who are committed to Christ’s ministry to others will change the world far more than 1000 Christians who are Christians only because they are in a ministry that is focused on them.

    In the end, you do what you can for others and leave it to God to sort out who was doing what.

  7. I am not comfortable with the Call to Action proposal primarily because it is a “business” model rather than a Biblical model. As Bishop Carder says it is “pragmatic atheism”. This says nothing about our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Downsizing may be a good idea; but I do not believe this plan is the direction we should take. I have submitted a petition to General Conference that offers a different kind of restructuring. I am proposing that we rethink equitable salary for pastors. This petition is the fruit of 24 years of active ministry in the UMC, much prayer, and a concern for pastors who are serving effectively with little or NO compensation in Africa and Central Conferences. I am proposing that annual conferences be required to set a salary RANGE for pastors. The maximum should be no more than twice the minimum. Then, if a charge votes to pay their pastor MORE than the maximum (which they certainly may do) they must also pay the Equitable Compensation Fund the same amount over the maximum. These funds may then be used to support other pastors in the conference OR may be given to other annual conferences (such as central conferences) with greater need.

    This proposal uses 1 Timothy 5:17-18 as the foundation for fair clergy compensation. It will involve a significant hift in our value system about money. My petition has the support of several central conference bishops, and some US delegates as well.

    Please read it here and share it with YOUR delegation as an additional opportunity for reform

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