Should More Congregations Collaborate?

“They don’t talk to each other.” These are the words from another executive presbyter about two congregations within a short distance of each other. Neither church has over 30 members. There are so many ways they could collaborate in ministry. They could share ministry events, share one pastor, or even merge to become one congregation. But this will not happen because they don’t talk to each other.

I am glad to say that the Presbytery of Chicago has 79 congregations and four new worshiping communities. I am strengthened by the 23,000 members in our presbytery. There are 166 presbyteries in the country, and we are the sixth largest in membership. This looks good until we look back at where we were as a presbytery.

The membership of the Presbytery of Chicago peaked in 1969 with 89,000 members. Now, no presbytery in the country has over 30,000 members. The largest number of congregations in Chicago was in 1999 with 215. In tracking congregational losses, we have dissolved 36 congregations and new worshiping communities in the past 20 years. And we’re not done yet. Looking at the current list of congregations, we will probably dissolve one to two congregations yearly for the next five years. The losses will especially be experienced in the city of Chicago, particularly the Southside and south suburbs. But no area of the presbytery will be exempt from congregations closing.

One solution to help slow the tide of closures is for congregations to talk with one another about a collaborative future together. The presbytery cannot force a church to close or force congregations to merge or be part of a multi-point parish. Conversations about congregations working together for a common future are best started by members or pastors reaching out to one another. These critical conversations are often started with a breakfast rather than with a congregational meeting.

Another idea is for sessions to do an assessment and review the strengths and weaknesses of their congregations. The Congregational Vitality Task Force led by Josh Erickson has explored ways to help sessions with self-assessments. The assessments include questions like: Is it an aging congregation with few resources and is just holding on, or does it have a strong membership with various ages, youth, and children? Sometimes the finances of a congregation are strong, but membership is not. What can your congregation bring to the table with other congregations in the area? Pastoral leadership? Strong mission? A core of working families?

Finally, we shouldn’t limit our conversation to Presbyterians. It’s okay to talk with other churches in your community about a way forward. All mainline churches are struggling. The latest statistics show evangelical churches are being affected by congregational decline as well.

Let’s start talking! The only way forward is together. The way to progress is through connection. Let’s be the church together. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard