Conversations parishes need to have: Three Things
Friday, March 22, 2013 at 3:28PM
Robert Gallagher

The parish life cycle

As a parish moves into decline it’s common to see a cycle between hyperactivity and passivity. This can begin when the parish is still relatively stable but things have become static. This stagnant condition is self-reinforcing. We get use to it. We spend energy fussing over small things and are somehow unable to have sustained, fruitful conversations about making needed changes.

 There may be a burst of activity. The problem is that when we are in the manic phase it feels good and right. There is a sense of energy and life, maybe even passion. Some good work does get accomplished. When in this part of the cycle the parish core may find itself moving suddenly at a quicker pace, having an abundance of ideas for projects, and along the way expressing irritation at those who don’t get caught up in the new spirit. Of course it’s all a bit grandiose and lacking in sound judgment. But we can’t see that when we are within it. We get absorbed by it and lose perspective. To those outside it may come off as a defensive arrogance.

People are doing what they know how to do. It’s not a moral wrong. It’s simply ineffective. Repeating the same patterns with a new spurt of energy won’t change the fundamental reality. Then there’s what comes along with it—denial, stress, blaming, and a nostalgic spirit.

The burst of energy may last several months, maybe even a year or more. After we exhaust ourselves another mood is likely to settle in—we see the parish’s death coming, there’s difficulty having the conversations and making the decisions needed, there’s less energy, more irritability and pessimism, and possibly feelings of hopelessness, guilt and blame. Some will reduce their attendance on Sunday and in other activities.

Regardless of where a parish is in its life cycle[i] there’s a need to periodically return to the issues of formation—a vision and direction rooted in the best of us and appropriate to the future, effective ways of attracting new people, an increased competence and commitment around both spiritual life and the kind of emotional intelligence that the setting requires, and the establishing of relationships with constituencies outside the parish that have a stake in the parish’s life and future.

The further into decline a parish moves the harder it will be to pull out of the descent. Each new false attempt increases the difficulty. Each repeating of the cycle drives us deeper in and makes it harder to see and hear.


I love my parish. I’ve loved all the parishes I’ve served or been a member of. My current faith community has good people, liturgy with some sweet and beautiful elements, a great choir, and caring among the members about our future. When I first started attending the welcome was warm and attentive. I like being in the pew on Sunday and celebrating the Wednesday mass.

But….. as a professional with decades of experience, having worked with hundreds of parishes and trained a couple of generations of church leaders—the parish worries me. 

The anxiety is close to the surface. It’s there in things said and not said, in the visible and invisible. If something doesn’t change in the next 10 – 15 years we are going under. We all know it.[ii]


We seem unable (or unwilling?) to have the kind of discussion in which a common mind emerges or on the other hand to be responsive to clergy leadership, or as is the case in most productive and vibrant parishes, some mix of the two. And then of course, out of such a “common mind,” to navigate into the future. It’s not active resistance. It just doesn’t happen and I’m too new to the parish to understand why.

I was at a meeting last week when one of the members said something about the need to be clear about “who we are.” That brought my mind back to this material. I’ve been working with it for a few months. So, I shared that with the group and decided it’s time to finish.  So, thanks Roy!

What I said to the group that night is that there are three things a parish needs to come to terms with if it is to leave a stagnant place and move into a fuller and richer life.

We need to know and acknowledge:

  1. Who we are
  2. Our gifts
  3. The ways we shoot ourselves in the foot


Who we are

I’ve served as a priest in parishes with a number of different identities—urban, working class, Black, Anglo-Catholic, historic (as in reaching back to 1703), “small town,” resort chapel, liberal, progressive, Prayer Book Catholic, traditional, innovative (probably would be called emerging these days) and contemplative.

The parishes had these identities because that’s how they lived and had lived over some period of time. There was a parish culture of practices and behaviors, values and deeper assumptions about the nature of God, the Church, the sacraments and humanity.

New members would be attracted to some part of who we were. Incorporation took place as they were exposed to more of who we were. In the Community of Julian of Norwich there were three primary threads to our identity.

1)   Contemplative and engaged spirituality and liturgy

2)   A relationship with the arts community, especially the jazz community

3)   A commitment to the city of Trenton

There were only a few people that had a strong investment in all three threats. For most it was one or two and a tolerance for the other.

Occasionally there would be a press from someone about dropping a thread. Maybe the person didn’t like the jazz masses we did on eight Sundays each year. Or maybe they didn’t like all the silence in the Eucharist. And even within a thread there could be tension. The liturgy had elements that called for stillness and silence as well as a shared homily and the community dancing from the place we did the Liturgy of the Word to gather around the altar. Not all liked all elements.

There was finally a community conversation about the threads and our investment. We wrote on newsprint pads all the information about the weight members gave to the threads. As was our custom we maintained norms of having people share their opinions and feelings freely along with respectful listening and discussion.[iii] Once all the information was “out” we stepped back and talked about what we heard and what that meant to us.  

I think there were two currents within the conversation that day. One was the love and respect members had for one another. No one really wanted to take away something that was so essential to others. The other was the realization that the community was held together by the workings of the Holy Spirit and that part of how the Spirit worked with us was that we could only survive if each of the threads had their place in our common life.[iv] It was theology at its best—practical, human, incarnational.

This issue of “who we are” isn’t the same as “who we would like to be” or “what I personally would like the parish to be.” It’s more objective than that.

For example, I know that the Parish of Saint Clement of Rome is an Anglo-Catholic parish (some would say progressive Anglo-Catholic or liberal catholic) because: 1) that’s its history, 2) there are a significant number of members that engage in Anglo Catholic practices—reverencing at the censing of the people, extent of using the sign of the cross, and so on, 3) the rector told me so when I showed interest in attending, 4) the Eucharist is celebrated with smells and bells (every Sunday unless a server fails to show), 5) the liturgical space is of that church culture with several crucifixes, a Mary shrine, statues of saints, lots of candles, stations of the cross on the walls, and there is a canopy over the altar.

This issue of identity isn’t determined by a vote or the consent of every individual. So, in my parish there are people who are not Anglo Catholics. But the parish itself is.[v]

Here are some of the possible broad categories of what to look for regarding identity (or ethos or character):

-      It’s the parish’s identity over many years. Certainly more than just the period of the current rector.

-      There is a critical mass of members that engage in the spiritual practices of that tradition

-      The liturgical space reflects the identity. It looks more or less Anglo Catholic or “low church” or historical.

-      The liturgy reflects the identity in its ceremony.

-      There are a number of key members who self identify with that identity.


There are many possible identities. Some years ago the then church newspaper, Episcopal Life[vi], had an article in which it described various worship categories—Prayer Book Catholic, Anglo Catholic, Broad Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Innovative. Today we might redo that list maybe adding emerging and ancient/future and dropping Broad Church and charismatic. Each style represents more than just the externals of ceremony. They are cultures with patterns of behavior, values and underlying assumptions.[vii]

To the degree that a parish’s identity is grounded in a broader Episcopal/Anglican identity there’s likely to be more stability, less conflict, and more commonality with parishes with other identities.

That’s how we keep the more particular identity from going off the rails. Parishes with a strong specific identity as Anglo-Catholic or evangelical, that were also firmly grounded in their Episcopal/Anglican identity,[viii] haven’t been those that have gone apostate.

One way of seeing the Episcopal ethos is in terms of comprehensiveness, holiness of life, and worldly holiness. We tend to value “holding together opposites,” ambiguity and paradox.  We find holiness through liturgical participation, lives of service and compassion and a reflective habit, all engaged over many years. We are life affirming tending to place the emphasis on the goodness of creation and the potential of lives hidden in Christ.[ix]

What do you do with and about a parish identity as part of a parish revitalization process? In most cases you build upon it, you expand, deepen and enrich it.

How do you decide if the current situation fits “most cases?” Look at two issues: 1) Is the identity a living reality in the current congregation? And the interrelated question of, what’s the alternative? What other identity could take its place? And 2) Does that identity have the potential to attract new people to it or is it like asking people to become Shakers?


Our gifts

Trinity Church sees itself as committed to serving the community and shows some of the related gifts and attitudes—a generous spirit, attention to the needs of people, routinely revisiting how to make its facilities available to homeless people even at considerable cost. How might the parish build upon that; strengthen it?

The most common and unproductive approach is simply to do more of the same. Add to the programs, make more available, and push themselves to be more generous. This approach often has an odd way of turning into judgment, blame and guilt.  Resentments build as the system gets over extended. Those most committed to service begin to pressure others to do more.

However if we approach the gifts with insight grounded in pastoral and ascetical theology and add a bit of what we know on the dynamics of systems, we come out with something more like this—ground the service in spiritual practice and theological reflection that involves a broad group; explore what Underhill meant when she wrote of the relationship of awe and adoration to service[x]; broaden the understanding of service beyond what the parish does corporately to an increased awareness of how most of the service done by members is organically in the daily life of the baptized; and consider ways of focusing what we do together. That kind of approach to building upon our gifts is more likely to make our service richer, more sacramental and more sustainable over time.

Parishes vary in the gifts they have. Some are dependable and show great stability over time and under pressure. Others have a joyful spontaneity and engage people in the delight of being together. And then there are parishes that inspire people to live fuller, healthier lives or to be more compassionate and just.

Parishes may be hardworking and reliable or resourceful and risk taking or authentic and inclusive. Occasionally there’s a parish that wants to believe they are all these things—that’s usually when our gifts turn to garbage.

I’ve been part of parishes with a gift for welcoming people during the first weeks, for wonderful common meals, for liturgy and music within liturgy. The gifts in the Community of Julian Norwich included an openness to try new ways and to share responsibility for our common life. In other parishes I have seen gifts of compassion, kindness, and in others persistence and perseverance.

Recognizing the gifts we have instead of bemoaning those we don’t have is the first step. There was a New England diocese that had me consulting with it about several of the city parishes. I went to one parish with a senior staff person. We were meeting with the vestry. My role was mostly to listen and observe. I needed to understand how they lived together and how they understood themselves.

As people gathered I noticed these things: they were older mostly in their 70’s; white, working and middle class; they asked after one another, wanted to know about the events of the week, how Joan was doing after surgery, why John was missing on Sunday; once the meeting started a warden did almost all of the talking; the priest was a retired man serving very part time, he said little; they were very aware of how the neighborhood had changed and how it was changing again; in the past couple of years they had knocked on doors and invited people to church. 

Finally the diocesan staff person stood up. He launched into talking “at them.” It was an angry homily (I don’t think he realized he was angry) that he clearly thought might inspire them. He spoke of all the people who needed the Gospel. He told stories about churches that had thousands of members. I wanted to hit him!![xi]

Here were these people with gifts of kindness, empathy and compassion. People who had sacrificed their time and money for this local expression of Christ’s Body. People with problems of mobility and energy who had gone door to door among people they didn’t know. And here was the “bishop’s man” talking down to them, judging them, and suggesting that if only they tried harder it would all be different. 

They also had a gift of openness. I sensed they were willing to cooperate with any initiative the Bishop might desire that would allow the parish to attract new people and continue to serve this community. That was a gift the Bishop might connect with and might bear fruit. Later in conversation with the Bishop I explored a parallel strategy of maintaining the existing congregation and building a new one alongside it that would appeal to the younger and artistic community beginning to move into the area. 

What do you do with and about a parish’s gifts as part of a parish revitalization process? In most cases you build upon it, you expand, deepen and enrich them.

How do you decide if the current situation fits “most cases?” I think that in part it’s a matter of seeking a link between the parish’s real gifts and the longings of some percentage of the people in the communities that might be drawn to those gifts. And if you look out there and just don’t see that happening; maybe developing another congregation within the parish that will develop its own set of gifts is what’s called for.


The ways we shoot ourselves in the foot 

All parishes, all groups of people and individuals have ways of shooting themselves in the foot. It’s part of being human. Sometimes it’s sin, often it’s human limitation.

Shooting ourselves in the foot is sometimes connected with our strengths. With the fact that no person or community has all the gifts comes another fact—no community is without its blindness. We see some things easily and we miss other things. 

-      Epiphany was a small, older, interracial community, low-church that lived a very stable and minimal life. The treasure was the son of the rector who had retired 20 years before after serving for 50 years. The warden maintained the stability of the parish by making needed decisions. He was clear that the purpose of things was for the parish to survive long enough so he and the others might be buried from that place. Yes, he really said and meant that.

The vestry met once a year on Christmas Eve. Epiphany had a core of leaders who were very dedicated and practical. They had “right sized” things and there was an alignment between what they had the energy and resources to do and what they did. They had kept things going for many years with a minimum of effort.

They also were stubborn and closed-minded. When younger single mothers from the neighborhood began to attend and showed interest in learning and serving—the existing leadership cut them off at the knees. When the clergy team tried to intervene to make space for the younger women, the leaders announced that the clergy contract would not be renewed for the following year. The Bishop’s urban strategy was to close parishes and focus on social justice issues (he never did see that once the church had little incarnational grounding in the city the justice agenda would get more and more abstract and superfluous). So, the Bishop was glad to see it moving deeper into decline.

-      Saint Elisabeth’s was a flexible, go-with-the-flow, loving, and generally happy community. It was Anglo-Catholic, urban, interracial, and working class. It was responsive to priestly leadership.

Their easy-going, here-and-now enjoyment of life also left them susceptible to being overwhelmed by the shifts in their context. Their responsiveness to the Vicar’s leadership worked well when the priest lead them to become interracial and when another priest helped them begin to grow in membership and spiritual practices. But when one vicar was careless and unengaged and another showed contempt for their working class ways, they let things drift along and went further into decline.

-      Saint James was idealistic, kind, loving, sophisticated, a mix of gay and straight, families and singles, older and younger. It was adaptable about most things but not about its catholic liturgy or openness to the LGBT community. 

During the AIDS years, as partners died, there was deep support in compassion, liturgy, and prayer. Over many years there was a wonderful resilience and optimism in the parish community. It was also a congregation in which when people experienced a violation of values the reaction was frequently excessive in emotionality and duration. It’s focus on values and community life also had the effect of not attending to the concrete reality they faced and acting in a decisive and persistent manner. So whenever it turned its attention to membership growth, it grew. But once the numbers were back up to what felt comfortable, the effort stopped.


Another expression of how parishes shoot themselves in the foot is by continuing practices that are “out of whack.” These are often things that cause visitors and potential members to feel like something is “off” but not be able to articulate what is causing the feeling. Sometimes it takes an experienced and skilled observer of parish dynamics to see and name it.

Here are a few examples:

-      Sitting all over the place

There are congregations where people are still sitting in the same pew they have been sitting in for 20 years. That would be fine if the congregation hadn’t shrunk in size. People being scattered in this way impacts the liturgy and overall energy of the congregation.

-      Intinction

This is a practice rooted in excessive anxiety about health, misinformation about health issues, and a history of bigotry toward Black and gay people. And it undercuts a practice of the common cup grounded in the scriptures and tradition. Some Bishops have banned the practice in their dioceses. But on it goes in other places.

-      Mixed messages

The Sunday bulletin asking people to maintain silence before the Eucharist. But the practice is a lot of talking in the pews among a few and in the back as ushers get into extended discussions with some just arriving.

-      Long series of announcements in the middle of the Eucharist

 This often begins to feel like a family meeting. New people and visitors aren’t really included. And when there is an attempt to include them they are put on the spot in ways that many find embarrassing. Members seeking a liturgy with a strong sense of grace and flow and often disappointed. Introverts, who make up about 50% of the population usually feel uncomfortable.


There are also ways in which a parish can undercut its strengths. A few examples:

-      A parish with a pretty good liturgy undercuts that with too many directions to the congregation; develops a reputation for enabling passivity and a kind of learned incompetence.

-      A rector that is warm, compassionate, open to new things gets undercut by constant complaining about what he isn’t, about what gifts he doesn’t have.

-      A parish with some willingness to explore change, with a capacity for adaptability and flexibility undercuts itself by allowing too many turf-based places of control and an unspoken value on short-term comfort at the cost of long-term comfort and development.


What do you do about the ways in which the parish shoots itself in the foot? How is that dealt with as part of a parish revitalization effort?

You acknowledge the blind sides and weaknesses and sort them into categories. This “sorting” may be an intentional and public process but it‘s more likely a sub-conscious process carried out in the minds of a few parish leaders. It rises out of a number of formal and informal conversations over time. The categories are something like this: 1) leave it alone – this isn’t worth spending energy on; it doesn’t do all that much damage or it’s so interdependent with our strengths that it would be difficult to address without damaging some aspect of our identity or gifts, 2) easily changed once we decide to act – that doesn’t mean that some people wouldn’t be argumentative over it (the “augmentative” people are like the poor, always with us), and 3) needs preparatory work before addressing it – these are situations where the parish’s long-term failure to adequately form members means that the values or deeper assumptions of the emotional center of the congregation (which maintains the current ways of doing and being) is so superficial or shallow or confused or simply wrong headed, that a gradual and patient process of formation is needed before the practice can be addressed. 



Part Two will appear soon

 A List of All Postings

[i] For a PDF -- the Parish Life Cycle

[ii] See an earlier blog posting

[iii] These community norms had developed over time as we learned from our group experience and were maintained by a mix of common consent and the clergy taking on a coaching role (as in “Let me help you understand how we do that in this community. Are you open to that?”)

[iv] Please note these were three core threads. There was no attempt to address every personal preference that might emerge in the parish.

[v] Along with being Anglo-Catholic the other primary element is roots in African American spirituality

[vi] April 1999

[vii] A blog on communicating your parish ethos

[viii] Here are a few web sites with descriptions of the Episcopal/Anglican ethos.

Ethos seen in a puppet show

A process for exploring

[ix] Colossians 3:3

[x] Evelyn Underhill pointed to the need for service to be built upon prayer and a stance toward life in which, “one’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. And that for those three things and nothing else, addressed to God and no one else, you and I and all other countless human creatures evolved upon the surface of this planet were created. We observe then that two of the three things for which our souls were made are matters of attitude, of relation: adoration and awe. Unless these two are right, the last of the triad, service, won’t be right. Unless the whole of your... life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which the life produces won’t be much good.”  From Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life. Quoted on page 58 In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish through Spiritual Practice

[xi] Didn’t do it.

Article originally appeared on Congregational Development (
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