Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Faith Works 10-26-13

Faith Works 10-26-13

Jeff Gill


Sustainability and size



First, a couple of personal notes; next weekend, I get to do some pastoral leadership in non-congregational settings.


On Saturday, Nov. 2, I'm meeting with anyone interested in a three and a half mile hike around some Newark streets at 9:30 am, starting (and finishing) at the Great Circle Museum, off of Rt. 79 where Newark and Heath meet at the Newark Earthworks State Memorial.


We will explore some elements of the Newark Earthworks that are outside of the Great Circle, and the Octagon (where we had a lovely open house day a couple of weeks ago). The original four and a half square mile complex is preserved in part through some Ohio Historical Society sites, but there are hints and traces left around the modern cityscape. The hike will take about two to two and a half hours, and is on uneven but mostly level ground.


Then on Sunday, Nov. 3, I get the privilege of again serving as MC for the "Gospel Celebration" at the Midland Theatre for the Licking County Coalition of Care. Tickets are $25 and the concert begins at 4:00 pm, with five rousing acts performing, including headliners and country music star Bryan Lewis. You can learn more about what this fundraising concert helps support at


If you attend the Gospel Celebration, you'll find yourself among members of many different congregations from around Licking County, and beyond. It's the kind of effort and outreach that is always effective in our area, where church co-operation is the rule, not the exception.


You might meet someone sitting near you who is from a congregation very different from your own; being a semi-urban, rural county seat of government kind of small city, we cover the gamut from large to small.


During the summer, we talked in this space about how some denominational leaders are inviting a conversation about sustainability and size. If you are worshiping on an average Sunday less than 100 or so, and your total church budget is below something like $150,000, then there's a case being made that those circumstances are not sustainable, or are only so because those churches have "cannibalized" their missions giving.


There's no doubt that some of that is true, and already happening within some mainline congregations, with personnel costs shooting above 85% and past 90%, which is where you start seeing a sort of "law of diminishing returns" catch up with you.


And there's a real problem across the country where a worshiping attendance of a few dozen (or one) sit in a sanctuary that seats a thousand built over a century ago. Congregations like that have a Damocles' sword hanging over them each Sunday, one major roof truss failure or code violation away from draining the coffers and then closing the doors.


The counterpart of the concern, to me, is that you start to develop a mind set that if you aren't over 75 a Sunday and don't maintain a budget of $100K or more above and beyond endowment income, then you really have an obligation to close your doors and hand over your assets to the wider church (and where to have your members go is not always even addressed, given geography and local patterns of travel).


When I read and hear of these "viability" issues framed as if an iron law, I think of congregations like Zion Reformed Church (United Church of Christ) down in Perry County, just past Thornville before you get to Somerset.


Perched on High Point Road, they are one of our region's oldest continuing congregations, founded in 1806 but with roots to 1803 and Rev. John King, or Johannes Koenig as he was on the boat coming over from the Old Country. 210 years old, this congregation has never really been over 100 in average attendance, but has pretty consistently worshiped from thirty to sixty in first a log then a frame structure on the south side of the road where their historic cemetery sits, and for over a hundred years in the brick church building across the road, standing high above where Rt. 13 curves below.


They love and value their pastor, Dr. Herb Hicks, and have a strong tradition of good preaching and "the sacraments rightly observed" in the Mercersburg tradition of the old E & R Church that is now part of the UCC, but they are fundamentally a congregation rooted in their neighborhood, with a healthy sense of continuity but a capacity of adaptation that is natural to farm communities.


If that's not a viable congregation, or a sustainable faith community, I'll eat my statistical yearbook. They'll never be a mega-anything, but they're likely to outlast most mega-somethings in a century yet to come.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about how your congregation is preparing for growth at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


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