Church AGMs are looming throughout the land, and priests are thinking of the past, and inevitably the future also.
Churches are very keen on having five year plans. Most dioceses demand that a five year plan is devised every time there is a vacancy/Interim process.
I’ve grown suspicious of five year plans. It’s my own experience that they don’t work. A five year plan implies some significant change – and if there is one thing that churches get wrong in terms of mission and evangelism, it is in mistaking change for growth. Growth always means some form of change, but change does not always mean growth. Shrinking is a change!
Bob Jackson, in one of his books on church statistics and growth, did a survey of all types of churches which grew, both big and small, evangelical and anglo-catholic, etc. There were few things that they had in common, but the three he identified were:
(a) A family atmosphere. People felt they could be themselves there.
(b) The church community (and often services) was characterised by laughter
(c) There was a preference for one to three year plans, not five.
Five year plans often turn into building projects. People end up investing emotionally and financially in a tangible project, rather than an intangible ambition to share the love of God. Some of course, do not invest, and so the “project” becomes more important than the idea of mission and evangelism, and what results is some very small churches with good infrastructure, and an exhausted and divided congregation.
I do not tend to plan my own life that way, and I’m not sure it would be very helpful if I did.
If we think six months, or a year, in advance, we need mission and evangelism plans to be realistic – but ambitious enough that we can see the difference. We need to start with the congregation we have, and build on what is currently good, whilst having a plan which gives room for new things and new people. We need the plans to be small enough to change if we need them to change, not so huge that we are devastated if they don’t work out.
Obviously there are some things which we should be able to see from five years away – building issues, retiral and planning issues etc, but it is easy to obsess about five year plans. It’s good to have an overview, but not an inflexible one, and not one which means the Holy Spirit doesn’t get a word in for the next five years.
Experience and research has taught me that churches grow when people feel they are growing in faith, when they feel God is present in their lives and in their churches, and when their contact time with people in the church is time spent in the company of a group of people who are spiritually well and authentically themselves. Crucially, churches grow when people are confident enough in their church and their faith to draw other people to it as an act of generosity and kindness, rather than an anxious desire to have one’s dogmatic beliefs proved right by having more people agree with you.
I’m sure there are more issues than that, but in planning my AGM this year, I will be thinking about where we want to be by Easter, by Summer, by next AGM, not for the Autumn of 2018.