Archive for the Category ◊ church health and vitality ◊

• Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Author: Gretchen

I want to tell you about a brilliant book I have just finished reading:  The Underground Church by Robin Meyers.  Every Christian in the United States needs to read this book regardless of denomination, level of conservatism or liberalism, whether you are part of an urban church or a country chapel.

Meyers makes innumerable helpful and realistic observations of the modern day American church in all its myriad forms.  But I have chosen to focus on just one  point which has the potential to transform what he calls our “Beloved communities” into  places of deeper meaning and farther-reaching impact:

At any given meeting of the “church council” or“consistory,” on any given evening in any given year, the focus is almost always on how best (and most cheaply) to perpetuate the “institution” of the church:  repairs for the aging building, salaries for pastor and/or staff, purchasing Sunday school curriculum and beautifying the grounds.   What Meyers proposes is that perpetuating a building and an organization may not be the best use of our time, particularly when right outside our building there may eb people sleeping udenr bridegs in snow and ice, or women being beaten in tehri homes or children trying to sleep with empty stomachs.

Focus on the inner working and beliefs of the church , Meyers suggests, only leads to arguments about money, leadership and theology.  What would happen if we, as Christian communities turned our focus outwards?  What if we made it our mission to do mission?  What if every Sunday morning found us worshipping in a place where others would see us and hear us, and what if we spent  Sunday afternoon together feeding hungry families?  How about canceling the Christian Ed meeting this month and spending that time volunteering together for a literacy program?

If we would take the focus off ourselves and begin actually taking action to make the world that “better place” we all take about, our ministry would take on truer meaning.  And guess what? If we were working side by side building a house for someone who’s never had one, or baking bread for a community dinner, we would not have time to fight over who is Conservative or who is Liberal or who doesn’t like the new pastor, or  which hymnal we should be using.

We should be about love.  We should be about nurturing deep affection for the world and the people God has given into our care.  We should think more about others than we do about ourselves, and more about God’s people in need than about keeping the fellowship room floor shiny.

      Doesn’t that sound more like the life to which Jesus calls us? 



• Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Years ago, I was in a store and the woman in front of me inadvertently dropped a twenty dollar bill on the floor as she was taking her wallet out of her purse.  Without giving it much thought, I picked up the $20 and handed it back to her.

At first, she was embarrassed to have made the mistake of dropping money.  Then she was astounded that I hadn’t kept the money for myself. Then this look of amazement went across her face, she smiled at me, and said “You’re a religious person, aren’t you?  I can always tell. It seems to me that people of faith live differently than other people – you are honest and kind and ethical and compassionate. I think I may have to learn more about different faiths to see what you know that I don’t!”

I’ve never forgotten that woman or what she said.  She was really on to something.  Shouldn’t this be true for all people of faith? If you and I believe in God and try to live like our particular faith teaches us to, our lives will look different to the rest of the world.  We have this habit of worshipping and revering God, listening to the teachings and figure we’ve done our “religious duty.”  But for me, our duty as people of faith goes far beyond knowing what’s right and true.  Our duty is to do what is right and true, to live out the teachings of faith in such a way that the world around us sees something different in us. Something admirable.  Something they would like to become.

When we talk about church growth, we talk about making church look wonderful and exciting.

We talk about inviting new people in.  I can think of no better way to “advertise” our joy in Christian life, and making it look appealing and valuable, than by living it out in our lives, by allowing others to see the values and compassion of our faith working within us.  By making it our goal to have others witness our lives and say, “You’re a person of faith, aren’t you? I can always tell.”

• Monday, January 28th, 2013

The Church at Its Best

When is a church at its best?

Is it when we are gathered in worship on Sunday morning and we sing and pray together as the candles flicker and the organ booms? Is it when we collect mittens and hats and warm socks for a few Sundays in the fall and gift them to the poor for the winter? Some would say the church is at its best when it is social and amiable and fun. Others would claim that a terrific preacher makes us the best congregation in town.

 All of these answers are correct, I think, depending on what feeds your particular soul. However, I have recently been reminded in an unforgettable way that, for me, the church is at its best when it is acting in compassion, when we are praying for and pulling for each other as if our own lives depend upon it. Because they do.

 Just before Christmas, my son was taken ill unexpectedly. My husband and I had no idea how things were going to turn out. Neither one of us had never been so scared or prayed so earnestly in our lives. The speed and fervency with which our pastor and congregation responded to our situation was phenomenal. The feeling of prayer and support was palpable. I could literally “feel” the wonderful energy and heartfelt hopes for strength and healing that were being sent our way, and I am here to tell you that in all the churches of which I have been a part over the last 30 years, I have never had one that was so faithful and so consistent in their prayer life. The support we felt has kept us afloat when the worry threatened to undo us. We had emails everyday – not from people asking questions or giving advice, but just notes letting us know we were being held in prayer. My favorite went something like this. “Don’t know the specifics of what your son and your family are going through, but I want you to know I have just prayed for him as I have been every morning since I heard you needed prayer. May God grant you peace…” Such a simple message, a kind word. No concern to know the personal details of a very personal situation, but just sincere compassion and a wish for us to know we were held in her heart.

We received dozens of emails like that when the church first learned of our son’s illness, but even now that he is out of the hospital and back at school, and and weeks have passed,  I still receive calls or emails nearly everyday assuring us that we are held in prayer and we are not alone.

I can assure you that for an individual or a family in crisis, what we have been offered by our beloved congregation is utterly and completely THE CHURCH AT ITS VERY BEST! 

• Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Recently,  I read a wonderful book called The Positive Dog  by Jon Gordon.  It is a fun and wise re-take on The Power of Positive Thinking published by Norman Vincent Peale in 1952.  I was not surprised to find the same helpful message about the power of approaching our lives with optimism and positivity.  Nor was I surprised by the fact that contemporary  research bears out the truth of all that Peale wrote sixty years ago.

What did surprise me was to find out  that current research has explored the power of positivity  not only as it applies to our individual lives, but to our lives in groups and communities. Barbara Frederickson, PhD, has been researching the power of positive psychology for twenty years.  In her 2009 book, Positivity,  Frederickson reveals  the results of her research.  Her studies discovered that the key to being a fully functional and productive human being is to have three positive experiences for every one negative experience. Individuals with lower ratios of positive to negative events in their daily lives did not “flourish” as those with the 3:1 ratio did.  Those who make a point of creating more positive experiences, live happier, more fulfilling lives.

Further, Frederickson’s research demonstrates that the same is true for teams.  Groups of people working together need to be experiencing at least three positive interactions for every one negative interaction in order to be high functioning and effective. 

Think about your church life.  Consider a team (committee, board) in your congregation of which you may be a part.  Do you experience three positive events for every negative event in that context?   For many of us, the answer would be no.  We find much of church life aggravating and often, disappointing.   Is it any wonder that so many who visit our churches do not come back, or stay to develop a deeper relationship?   Should it surprise us that folks get burned out and disengage?  Or leave in frustration?

What can we do to change the ratio of positivity to negativity in our churches?

1)    Take it upon ourselves by making our  interactions with others more positive and uplifting.  Look for the good in what is happening, rather than complaining and harping on every negative we can find.

2)    Gently, but firmly call people on their negativity.  Communicate how their negative behavior affects the group.   If the whole team refuses to pay attention to the one guy who whines at every gathering/meeting, he will eventually stop.  When he does, find ways to reward good behavior, even if it’s something as simple as telling him how nice it is to hear his positive comments when he makes them.

3)    Reward good behavior.  Lift up those who make a consistent effort to find the good in others and in situations.  Make them a model for appropriate behavior by affirming them and celebrating their positivity.

4)    Tell folks about the Frederickson study.  Challenge everybody to create three positive interactions with others for every negative one.

5)    Develop a better theological understanding of God and Jesus Christ.  Our God is a God of hope, of  a bright future, of resurrection.  Are we fully reflecting those qualities in our  life together?

One of the things that has always excited me about the power of positive thinking is that it is really so simple.  The key is realizing how our own negative feelings and actions affect us and those around us. Negativity disables us and makes us unable to function effectively. We must choose to be optimistic, positive and look for the good in everyone and everything.  Only then will our individual and congregational lives strengthen and improve.

To Purchase “Finishing With Grace” click here

Click here to email  Gretchen


• Monday, June 04th, 2012

I was talking with a colleague the other day and he observed that churches sometimes forget that the constitution and by-laws of a particular congregation are not sacred.

 He’s right. All too often, congregations cling to these documents as if they were a lifeline to order and efficiency. We are unwilling to revisit the rules the church’s founders created and modify them in light of current custom and need. For instance, I know of a church whose by-laws stated that a “quorum” (the number of voting church members required to be present and participating in a meeting in order for decisions to be “legal”)was 200 people. This by-law was written in the early 1900’s when this congregation had 1000 members, of which 200 was a customary 20% for a quorum., but it was stated in the document with an exact number rather than a percentage. No problem there, as long as the church had hundreds of members, but by the year 2000, this congregation had only 100 members and 50 worshipers on a “good” Sunday. Still, the by-laws required 200 people at a meeting in order for major decisions to be made. The obvious solution, to some, was to change the by-laws, but the church’s council/board/consistory, maintained that no changes should be made to the by-laws because this is how their ancestors in faith intended things to be and that no changes could be made to the by-laws because they didn’t have a “quorum.” Never mind that this decision literally crippled the congregation. Never mind that they couldn’t foresee a time when the church membership would increase by enough to make this rule work. There was no flexibility, no room for the movement of time or the guiding of the Holy Spirit. It was what it was. This congregation used the lack of usable rules and helpful organizing principles as an excuse not to move forward, and it was their demise. They became victims of their own short-sightedness and lack of creative thinking, and when the church ceased to exist, they couldn’t even vote on the distribution of their assets, like a hefty endowment and a huge old building. In the end, everything was left to chance because they were so tied to “the rules”

 Even as I tell it, this strikes me a s a crazy story, but we all know human beings can do crazy things. A constitution and by-laws is a set of guidelines to organize the life of “the assembly,” to make it more efficient and just. It is not a sacred document that is meant to stand no matter how circumstances change. To my way of thinking these documents should be understood as living, breathing covenants that grow and change as the body of Christ changes.

 This, too, is how we can best understand the Bible. – not as a book of rules and judgments, but as living breathing message whose basic intent never changes but how we live it out and understand it is constantly in flux.

 Have you ever noticed how you can read one scripture passage today and it will mean one thing to you, but a week later or a year later, the message of that same passage to you may be quite different. The word of God is alive and breathing, and our understanding of it grows and alters as we are nurtured in the faith. So, too, should be our understanding of our organizing documents – not as a set of unbreakable, un-bendable rules, but as living ideas whch can be adjusted and enjoyed in new ways as the present and the future unfold.

To Purchase “Finishing With Grace” click here

Click here to email  Gretchen


• Monday, March 12th, 2012

Reprinted by Permission from the author:

By Tom Ehrich, Morning Walk

When I led a “Turnaround Strategies” workshop in the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky last weekend, I was mightily impressed by their “can do” spirit.
Yes, their numbers have been shrinking, as have those in mainline congregations around the country, as well as many evangelical and traditional churches. Yes, some congregations are slipping below the threshold of viability.But when shown eight strategies for moving forward and asked if they could imagine deploying those strategies, they almost shouted, “Yes, we can!”This wasn’t just bravado. The 100+ people attending this workshop seemed to embrace the changes and bold actions that will be required. The moment seems right for moving forward.

If you are ready to move forward, here are five first steps for “seizing the day.”

See Reality:
Denial is always our enemy. Gather honest metrics about your current situation, look at trends of the past five and ten years, and develop a detailed profile of your congregation and of its larger community. Don’t get discouraged if the trends are down. Just be boldly honest about your baseline.

See Opportunities:
For a faith community, opportunities arise from human needs. What needs are emerging in your larger community? Unemployment, for example, or growing unrest along the fault lines of tolerance. Issues of aging and health, or deteriorating health services for women.
Put aside long-standing desires and left-over agendas. Study what your neighbors are experiencing right now. See the opportunities for ministry and mission that those needs suggest.

See Obstacles:
Every good idea will face resistance. Lack of money, lack of energy, lack of consensus, certain individuals who tend to block change, hostile neighbors, unhelpful judicatories. You aren’t labeling them as bad. You are just being realistic about what obstacles you will need to surmount as you move forward.
Next, assess what it would take to deal with these obstacles. No magical thinking.

See Emerging Leaders:
At any given moment, older leaders are stepping aside and new, usually younger leaders are stepping up. This is healthy. Think through how you will identify those emerging leaders, how you will engage them in taking the reins, how you will support them, and what skills they might require.
Don’t worry about inculcating them in church traditions. Their role is to move forward from those traditions. Their role is to embrace change. If you bury them in yesterday, you will stifle their spirits.

Imagine Eight Initiatives:
In our worries about control, failure and offending longtimers, we tend to talk ideas to death. Better, especially now, to “test and measure.” Test a slew of new initiatives, and see which work. Don’t take the linear approach of doing one at a time. Do eight at once. Expect six to fail. Stop doing them, and plan to learn from failure. Expect two to succeed. Make them stronger.
This approach means you will need to develop two critical capabilities: an incubator for new ideas, and metrics for measuring outcomes. Some people are gifted at innovation. Put them to work imagining the new. Some people know how to track outcomes. Put them to work, too.

“Finishing With Grace” click here To Purchase

• Sunday, January 08th, 2012
As I wrote my blog entry last week about fear-driven churches, my mind kept running these phrases from 1 John 4 through my head. “There is no fear in love.” “Perfect love casts out fear.”
From the time we are small children, society and the media teach us that everything that is wrong with our world and with us will be solved by finding “the one.” The perfect love will wash away all our unhappiness and imperfection. It is a lovely idea, and most of us, I suspect, buy into it to one extent or another. The young woman waits for Prince Charming to come bounding into her life on his white charger, ready to slay every demon that threatens her. The young man dreams of a perfectly beautiful, kind woman who will play Cinderella to his Prince and make his world as perfect as he always knew it could be.
I have come to the conclusion that many churches also fall victim to the same sort of magical thinking. “Someday, our perfect pastor will come and rescue us and all will be right with the world.” “One day, some fine, rich person will come along and see our good work and give us a huge bunch of the money we so sorely need, and all will be right with the world.” “That pastor who hurt us so badly, who abused his/her power among us, will be held accountable and pay for their sins and then, we can let go of the past, and all will be right with the world.” “If we could just find the right program for raising funds or church growth…” “If everything would just fall into place by human action, we would no longer feel the need to be afraid…and all will be right with the world.”
There is a clear pattern here that I have seen play itself out repeatedly in congregations with whom I have been connected, and the pattern is this: The church becomes fearful and operates out of fear (see previous blog post), and we look for that fear/those fears to be relieved by the power of human action. As the song says, “we are looking for love in all the wrong places!” We fall into the trap of looking for that “perfect love” in the world around us when the only place that perfect love exists is in God. Amazing as it may seem, congregations again and again turn to human circumstances and human promises and human power, rather than seeking the power and promise and hope God has been offering all along. The only Prince who can save us from tending the cinders of our struggling church is Jesus, not Charming. The only one who can help us let go of the past and have hope for the future is God. The only thing that can cast out our fear is perfect, divine love, The relief for our fears is living and moving and breathing in God’s perfect love. Once we take up residence in the divine, unbreakable love of God, fear has no power over us. Only then, will all be right with the world.

Click here to email  Gretchen

• Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Post by
Gretchen Switzer

Co-Author of “Finishing With Grace”

Since I first read Tom Ehrich’s blog on the “Ten Signs of  Fear-Driven Church,” his words have been rattling around in my mind and my heart.  Questions abound.  Here, I’ll be exploring some of my own questions and hope you will send yours along for Linda and me to address.

My first observation about Tom’s ideas of fear-driven churches is that when you are part of a congregation who is guided by fear, it is very hard to see, because you are in the middle of it yourself, and likely a victim of the fear all round you.   It’s kind of like looking around at your family when you’re a kid and trying to define the unique dysfunction that inhabits it. You may be able to spot some of the signs, but accurate self-diagnosis leading to effective change is virtually impossible.   Seeing your congregation as it truly is requires you to set aside your own agenda, and to take the rose-colored glasses off your face and put them down, in order to see clearly.  Discerning fear in your life together also requires you to be truly honest with yourself   and with others as well.  This is not always easy, especially in the church, because we think we cannot hurt anyone’s feelings.  However, God calls us to be truth-tellers and truth-accepters.  We have to be willing to see what is really going on and name it aloud, even at the risk of others anger, hurt or reprisal.    The use of a consultant or a transitional pastor who comes into the congregation with no set agenda and no vested interest in the outcome will often have clearer vision,  but if people are unwilling to hear the truth from each other, how much more unwilling will we be to accept the observations of somebody “new.”    Still, a perceived “outsider” may have more luck pointing out the troubles in your congregation in such a way that folks will be willing to, as Tom writes, “name it, seek help for it, engage other sin confronting fear, do something bold and audacious, and see that fear is a distortion of what is real.”

“Fear  is a distortion of what is real.”   When we really get into trouble with fear, when it becomes paralyzing, is when we believe that what we fear is a reality.  For instance, a congregation endures the trauma of a sexually abusive, inappropriate pastor who makes unwelcome advances or even has illicit relationships with members of the congregation.  Even if that individual is found out, punished, fired, and goes away, the fear that that kind of thing will happen again is so palpable that we can begin to think that any pastor who we might call to our church will do the same thing.  We are so fearful that we do not just worry that something might happen. We expect it to happen, or believe it is happening even if it is not.  So fear can distort what is real, and take on more power than what actually is true.

My overarching response to Tom’s discussion of the “Fear-Driven Church” is to ask myself, what is the opposite of fear?  If our church is not fearful, what will it look like and feel like?  Tom makes a quick reference to it when he says that “fear undermines…confidence.”  If fear makes us worry, then what is it that makes us not worry?  The answer is confidence.  Confidence is the opposite of fear.  And I would add
that we are not just talking about confidence in other human beings or confidence in the future or confidence that we are strong enough to withstand any problem.  I am talking about the ultimate confidence that erases fear.  The confidence of which I speak is confidence in God.  Confidence in God’s love for us and in the power of God’s love to overcome all evil, including fear.  If we are confident that God will handle things in God’s way and God’s time, then fear loses its power over us and we can claim the wonderful, audacious, extravagant future God has waiting ahead.

New Year’s Blessings to you.  Gretchen.

To Purchase “Finishing With Grace” click here

Click here to email  Gretchen

• Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Post by
Gretchen Switzer

Co-Author of “Finishing With Grace”

Tom Ehrich  posted this on his blog in November — it is a good guide and reminder for all of us in  the church.  I am re-posting it here today,  and tomorrow I will write a post based on these thoughts.  Tom Ehrich’s blog is

November 4, 2011
Ten Signs of a “Fear-Driven Church”

By Tom Ehrich

Fear, as you know, can kill anything, from a marriage to a nation. Any community built on trust and mutual respect cannot long survive the corrosive and stifling impact of fear.
This is especially true in faith communities, where fragile and yet durable bonds enable people to work out their profound life issues in the company of people whom they didn’t choose as companions.
When fear stalks a faith community, people turn on each other, withdraw from the common life, become prickly about every little thing, and refuse to sacrifice anything.
Fear in a church can start in a single trauma – misconduct, embezzlement, violence, accident, failure, financial distress – and then feed on itself, until the point of origin is forgotten and all that remains is pervasive dread.

Ultimately, the cure for fear is faith. You can’t assemble facts or logic to “prove” fear out of existence. You can only choose to live boldly, without fear, and discover that God is faithful and even the worst cannot separate us from God. Easy to say, amazingly hard to do.

Church leaders are the key. Fearful leaders will produce a fearful congregation. When leaders say No to persistent efforts to make them afraid, fear’s hold loosens and confidence has room to breathe.

First step is to know that fear is winning. Leaders need to recognize these ten signs that theirs is a “fear-driven church.”

  • Refusal to change is widespread and taken as normal (when change is actually a life force).
  • Aversion to risk is considered prudent (when it’s actually a death-wish).
  • Failure is used to blame, not to learn (guaranteeing ignorance).
  • Avoiding conflict is deemed safe (when it actually ratchets up the danger).
  • Calm and polite are valued more than dynamic and passionate (the “Botox effect”).
  • Negative behavior gets rewarded in the hope it will stop (thereby assuring that it will continue).
  • Fearful people try to keep their clergy afraid, off-balance, worried about their jobs, flinching when        the phone rings, craving approval (even though that fear renders them ineffective).
  • The new and different are frozen out (as if homogeneity were a positive value and not self-defeating).
  • Leaders make bad decisions about everything, from hiring to budgeting, from recruiting to communicating (as fear undermines their confidence, their willingness to discuss, their openness to reality).
  • The community’s affect becomes glum and passive (because fear produces anger, and anger turned inward is depression).

If you see any of these signs in your church, you probably will see them all, if not now then soon. Name it, seek help for it, engage others in confronting fear, do something bold and audacious and see that fear is a distortion of what is real.

To Purchase “Finishing With Grace” click here

Click here to email  Gretchen

• Monday, March 28th, 2011

Gretchen Switzer

Co -author of Finishing With Grace: A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your Church

Last week, Linda and I had the privilege of sitting down with the Reverend Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister and President for the United Church of Christ. We had sought him out to discuss our concerns about churches in the Mass Conference who are struggling to “stay afloat,” and how we, as a conference are supporting them. As we sat together, Jim began talking about supporting congregations, at any point in their lives, to make “bold decisions.” In one church, that might mean the congregation daring to dream of becoming more than it has ever been. In another case, a church’s choice to stand up in its community for a challenging cause can be a bold decision. When a struggling community of faith makes the decision to end their ministry, that too is bold.

I have had the distinct honor of working with and belonging to two congregations whose ministry is marked by bold decision-making. Grace Church United Church of Christ in Framingham, Massachusetts is over 130 years old. Grace is an extravagant conglomeration of unusual people — poor, outcast, middle class, aging, lonely, disabled, troubled…No one is ever turned away. Grace made the choice a very long time ago to be this kind of community. Grace has re-made that decision multiple times while traveling all the twists and turns of their life together. They are bold enough to be different; Bold enough to be the church Jesus calls us to be; Bold enough to live out their faith by making unconditional love a reality – by placing the highest value on tolerance and finding the good in each and every person God brings their way.

When my husband and kids and I moved to Worcester, we tried out a number of churches. In one church, it was evident that our bi-racial family (Our children were born in South Korea) was a little out of the ordinary for them.

Their discomfort with us sent us off to try other churches. Eventually, we heard about United Congregational, United Church of Christ in Worcester, Massachusetts. “You’ll find them a little offbeat,” somebody told us. “It’s kind of the church where you go around here if you don’t fit in anywhere else.”

“Cool!” we thought. “What a nice reputation for a church to have!”

The following Sunday, My husband, and kids and I ventured out to explore United Church – not because they had a great website (it was okay at the time), not because they had ads for themselves everywhere you looked in Worcester (which they did not), not because they had a fantastic choir, a brilliant organist and a wonderful pastor (yes, they did), but because we heard they welcomed everybody.

When we walked through the doors, the welcome was warm. It almost felt like they’d been expecting us. Everyone we talked to seemed genuinely interested in who we were. The first people we chatted with we’re adoptive parents who never batted an eyelash at our multi-colored family, but showed genuine interest in how our family had come to be. As we looked around that Sunday, we saw people of all different sorts. We would later learn that the congregation was made up of upper middle class folks to the homeless, gay people and straight people, disabled individuals and healthy, happy local college students. Folks who live in the street , in public housing and in their own homes. And yes, United has its share of off-beat characters, all of whom seem to coalesce into one caring, compassionate crew pulling for each other in every circumstance. It is an extraordinary community formed by the bold decision to extend God’s love to anyone who needs it. It is, in fact, the type of place, where I sometimes expect to find Jesus walking around. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, after all. Jesus came for the love of “the least of these.” At this church, we don’t argue over what color the drapes should be. We don’t bicker among ourselves about pointless issues like an ill-mannered family. We don’t focus on what makes us different from one another, but on what makes us the same. We raise a light for those who don’t fit in other places and say, “We invite you in, ” and this is the boldest decision of all.

To Purchase “Finishing With Grace” click here

Click here to email Gretchen

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