The Life Cycle Stages
There has been a lot of attention paid over the years in congregational development research on understanding the various cycles in the life of the congregation and their willingness to change. Many know the work of Arlin J. Rothauge on The Life Cycle in Congregations. Rothauge pointed out that a congregation is in one of the four stages of the life cycle:
- Birth and Formation
- Stability and Redefinition
- Decline and Redevelopment
- Death and Rebirth
Birth and Formation
A new congregation is born and then it forms the core of the congregation. A person, or core of people, gathers others around the vision and begins to make transitions from one size to another. They develop their values, history, traditions, and a distinct identity.
Stability and Redefinition
If the congregation stays around long enough it enters a period of stability. At this stage the congregation either redefines itself and maintains vitality or begins to decline. Rothague points out: “The type of reshaping required in stable congregations could be called “redefinition.” It represents neither a major intervention nor a recovery operation but a regular review and revision throughout the life of the congregation. Redefinition assumes and maintains vitality.” (Rothague, Life Cycle of Congregations, p. 4)
Decline and Redevelopment
If a congregation is unable to redefine itself it enters into decline. The congregation either redevelops itself or dies. “A plateau in attendance, budget,
or faith pilgrimage lasting for a decade signals danger for the health of a congregation. […] A plateau may furnish a desirable resting place unless the
congregation grows too fond of rest. […] A plateau remains helpful only for so long as it provides horizontal growth and stabilization, such as development in liturgy, stewardship, leadership, ministry, education, pastoral care, and spiritual life.” (Rothague, Life Cycle of Congregations, p. 4)
If the congregation chooses to redevelop “[a] redevelopment effort returns the congregation to the earlier stage of “formation.’ This starting over again necessitates letting go of pride, guilt, shame, deception, illusion, and fears about the congregation and about change.” (Rothague, Life Cycle of Congregations, p. 5)
Death and Rebirth
A congregation which does not redevelop continues decline and is dying. As Rothague writes: “When decline reaches the point that is called “the survival syndrome,” a congregation loses its sense of mission and channels all remaining resources toward its own preservation. On occasion only a dignified “burial” remains for the dying congregation. It determines this critical termination point by the unwillingness, or the incapacity, of the members and the leadership to face the necessary changes. In the natural life cycle of institutions, the death phase means the end.” (Rothague, Life Cycle of Congregations, p. 7) However, as Rothague points out, “We may close the doors, however, without closing our mission. A wise closure should open up new opportunities with better strategies.” (Rothague, Life Cycle of Congregations, p. 8)
Zones (Phases) of Change
Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk have contributed to the research on congregational cycles in their book The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. In it they describe how congregations move through three zones (or phases) of change. They posit that congregations are making decisions more out of choice or crisis depending on which zone (phase) they are in as they journey along the cycle of congregational life.
The Green Zone represents emergent leadership of a new congregation where decisions are defined by choice and new actions. The congregation is defining who they are and building leadership. The Blue Zone is a more stable congregation where they are performing established mission and ministry tasks. The Red Zone is where congregations are stagnant and leadership is reactive.
The congregation then enters a period of decline where they are in crisis. Confusion sets in as to what to do next and they are bridging leadership toward an unknown future. With appropriate responses the congregation enters a period of transition where they find renewal. This leads the congregation to experience being an emergent congregation with new vitality.
Knowing where a congregation is along a cycle of its life is important in determining the approach to either cultivating, supporting, restoring, or finding new life to ensure congregational vitality for the particular context.
“Dimensions of Congregational Vitality”
Linda Bobbitt with the Congregational Vitality Project of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a wonderful visual on how we think about the factors important to vital congregations. Bobbitt calls her visual “Dimensions of Congregational Vitality” and organizes them into grouped blocks (based on the concept of the game Jenga). The concept is that different factors (dimensions) are grouped together with respect to the type of change needed in addressing those factors for congregational vitality. By way of clarification based on how I have presented aspects of church life for congregational vitality, Linda Bobbitt includes ministry areas such as worship, faith formation, pastoral care, and evangelism into the “Programs” block, and “Resources” includes stewardship of finances. The remaining blocks of dimensions match up closely and should be evident.
What I find most helpful in her presentation is we can easily see whether we are looking at technical or adaptive change in a congregation based on the block (factor/dimension) we are needing to address for congregational vitality. Technical and Adaptive change are based on the work of Ronald A. Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers.
Technical Changes are tweaks to the system when a problem can be clearly defined and a solution clearly applied. Changes in governance are an example of technical change. An Adaptive Change is when both the problem and the solution are unclear and require new learning by all involved. Changes involving relationships, leadership, and purpose are examples of adaptive change.
Concluding Thoughts on Change
There is much to consider when looking at change (even change to bring vitality). Anyone who has gone through change in a congregation knows the work is not easy. There will likely be starts and stops, failure, and even unfinished change in some congregations. We are often not entirely clear with what is happening. In his book Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders Gilbert Rendle talks about seeing change through the “Chaos Lens” (as change is rarely linear). But it is in the wilderness where God’s people can discover who they are and where God is calling them to next.
One final note (at least for now) on change is that you likely will not have 100% of the people in a congregation fully on board. The Diffusion of Innovations by Everett M. Rodgers has been widely noted in studies on the ability of people to accept innovative change. It is an important understanding to keep in mind whenever we seek to make innovative change in a congregation.
Innovators (2%)-True visionaries, see the future, predict it, recommend change to support vision.
Early Adapters (16%)-These are persons who adapt quickly with recommended vision and will help
develop corresponding plans and promote their necessity. Often these persons are leaders in a
movement for change.
Early Majority (32%)-A mostly quiet group who can discover the value of recommended changes
once they understand thoroughly the vision for it and the plans to support it.
Late Majority (32%)-Tend to be a bit more negative and doubtful and require significant
communication and opportunities to ask questions and are allowed to challenge in order to accept the
proposed vision and corresponding plans that bring about change.
Laggards (16%)-Vocally opposed to recommended changes and it takes significant communication of
the vision and plans to have this group accept them. They may be very late in accepting change and
work to oppose it.
Resisters (2%)-Will actively oppose proposed change. Sometimes can be referred to as “saboteurs”
because of the length they will go to oppose change. They may never accept the need for a proposed
vision, corresponding plans and eventual changes.
(Summary provided by Congregational Vitality Development 101 from the Episcopal Diocese of Texas)
The good news is that the majority of a congregation will, eventually, adopt innovative change. But it is important to recognize it is a process — a journey — as God calls God’s faithful forward into something new and vibrant to realize vitality.