Surviving Ministry in a Shrinking Church

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It’s been a few months since our last Think Tank discussion. These are occasional forum-type posts where I ask several Children’s Ministry leaders to respond to a difficult question. The responses are always helpful and bring insight from several different directions.
For this session of the Think Tank, I posed a question that affects my own ministry. My congregation has experienced steady church decline over the last five years. It’s not been easy and I’ve often been discouraged. But I know that I’m not the only one with this problem.

How would you survive in ministry if you served in a shrinking church? What specific encouragements would you offer to someone in that situation?

Below are the responses from our participants. You can [print_link] this page and carefully read through their insights. This conversation is not complete without your insight. Please share your experiences in our comment section below.

Response from Amy Dolan

1. Experiment! Innovate! Use this season to experiment in your children’s ministry. When programs are going well and are growing quickly, we don’t usually get the opportunity to switch up the program and try new things. Consider changing the classroom environment, experimenting with new curriculum, or bringing in a guest speaker for your volunteers. New innovative ways of doing ministry may emerge, causing a burst of new excitement!
2. Build up the Loyal Base. Even in a shrinking church, there are always parents and volunteers who are committed and loyal to the ministry. Instead of focusing on the people leaving the church, or who are constantly complaining about the program – spend your energy building into the most loyal members. By offering additional opportunities for training, encouragement and community you’ll grow the committed core who will help to support the ministry through any season.
3. Brag about Yourself. It can be difficult to stay encouraged when you continue to see your program shrinking. But, in order for you to be filled up and motivated to keep moving forward, you must intentionally take time to brag about yourself! Take a few minutes each week to record the fantastic things you’ve accomplished, no matter how big or small. It might feel funny at first to brag about yourself, but it will be well worth it when you feel capable of taking on the world!
4. Keep Planning for the Future. If you’ve had to put your big children’s ministry dreams on the back burner because you are in survival mode, consider starting a journal where you can store all of your dreams for use at a later date. I keep a document on my desktop called “Amy’s Dreams” where I keep a running list of ideas I would someday love to implement, if I were in the right situation. It’s a great way for me to be always thinking and challenging myself for the future.

Read more from Amy on her blog or follow @adolan on Twitter.

Response from Brenna Philips

This is a very interesting question and one that hits close to home for me and the church in which I am currently involved.
Let’s start from the beginning: the call to ministry, specifically children’s ministry. I know I am called to minister to children and their families. There are many ways in which to fulfill that role. I can minister to children by teaching classes at church, leading in children’s worship, helping parents in their role as Christian
educators to their own children. It doesn’t matter whether I have a group of 100 children or a group of 4 children. It is my responsibility to answer the call to children’s ministry and help parents lead their children to follow Christ.
If the church is decreasing in size, we must look at the reasons for that decrease. Are people “church-hopping” and going to other churches in the area because of the programs offered? Are they moving out of the area or out of state? Are they dropping out of church all together?
If people are attending other churches in the area because of the programs or classes offered, we must evaluate our classes and determine if we are providing for the needs of people in attendance.
There isn’t a lot we can do about people moving out of state. This is a transient generation and culture in which people move frequently because of work and family situations. We can, however, provide them with the basics to continue the ministry in their new locations. We must teach them how to share and minister to
others and to carry on the ministry of the Kingdom.
If people are dropping out of church completely, we must determine why they are no longer attending. We must build a relationship with them and share one-on-one with them to encourage their attendance and personal growth. Maybe they prefer and even need a small group for their own personal growth.
To financially survive as a minister in a shrinking church, we must define ministry. Do we have to be on a church staff to be a minister? Absolutely not! We can be a minister in the “regular” working world and perhaps work in a field involving children and families. During the workweek, I teach early childhood students and have been able to non-verbally share Jesus in a corporate learning center with families I know do not attend church on the weekend. Once I build a relationship with the families in my class and receive their trust, I can share more verbally and they begin to open up to me.
As encouragement to someone involved in ministry in a shrinking church, we must first determine what is shrinking and what is important in the mission and Kingdom. What is the definition of success? Is it numbers in attendance? Is it money?
We must stay true to our calling. We can make a difference whether it is to one person or to 100 people.

Read more from Brenna on her blog or check out her project, “A Year in Children’s Ministry Calendar.”

Response from Glen Woods

For most churches, the question is not a matter of if they will experience numeric decline, but when. Every church experiences a life-cycle beginning with vision and growth, extending to institutional development of structures and systems (this is true even in fluid grassroots movements which last for any length of time), and at some point, reaching a point of plateau. It could take five years, ten years, or as in the case of the average church, about twenty to thirty years. If the plateau is not followed by a new season of growth which breaks the stagnation of plateau, then eventually it may lead to the decline which has inspired this question.
What then are we to do when that decline begins to occur?
Remember, it is God’s church and he loves it. That is, he loves the people he has called to worship him together in community remembering Christ’s sacrifice by breaking bread and sharing the cup, fellowshipping, worshipping, reading Scripture, proclaiming and living the gospel, serving their neighbors, taking care of the widows and orphans in their distress, and so on. So, even while experiencing decline, be faithful to what God has called you and your church to be and do. Love God and one another, especially your enemies.
I have survived in a church which until recently has gone through about five years of decline (we are now experiencing incremental growth since January, much of it conversion growth) because of this commitment I made to be faithful in the situation which God has placed me. I love my pastor, the people, the children, and the community. Although there are times when I have been discouraged and felt like throwing in the towel, God continues to remind me of the promise I made to be faithful until he chooses to move me on.
So, do not lose hope. Remember that what you are experiencing is common. Do not fall in to the trap of remembering the good old days at the expense of remembering that God is not finished with you or your faith community. Do not cast blame, but work together with your people to discover God’s heart and purposes for your local church. Be irrepressibly positive, knowing that God loves your congregation. Lead your people to become missionaries to your culture. Seek him and ask him to give you and your people the heart and DNA of a world-changer, beginning in your current place of service.

Read more from Glen on his blog or find him in the Kidology Forums.

Response from Wayne Stocks

Wayne StocksThis is not an experience that I have been through personally. Therefore, I can’t call on personal experience in answering the question, but I can turn to scripture, and three of my favorite scripture verses seem tailor made for this situation. I would turn first and foremost to Colossians 2:23-24:

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the
Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Whether you serve four hundred kids or four kids on any given Sunday does not matter. You must pray, prepare and present as though you were doing it for God himself. Don’t “write off” your ministry just because it is small. Read and learn and plan for a larger ministry. Make sure you’re prepared if God decides to drop a couple hundred extra kids into your ministry in the next year. The second verse is Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is
pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Focus on the positive aspects of a smaller ministry. Take advantage of smaller numbers in your ministry. Build deeper relationships than you could if your ministry were bigger. Spend more one-on-one time which each child. Plan events that you couldn’t do with larger groups of kids. Rather than view your shrinking ministry as a negative, focus your thoughts, your heart and your efforts on the positives.
Finally, I turn to Romans 12:12 which is probably the single verse which I turn to most in my own life:

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

No matter the circumstance – good or bad – our hope is in Jesus Christ, and in that we can rejoice. Be patient. God has a plan for your ministry whether it is large or small, and even if you can’t see it right now. Most importantly, be in prayer. Talk to God it about it. Ask him what he wants you to do about it. Pray for the kids who are in your ministry and pray for his wisdom to guide you in leading that ministry.

Read more from Wayne Stocks on his blog “Dad in the Middle” or Kidmin1124 and in our Kids Ministry Forums or follow @StocksOhio on Twitter.

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