By: Theresa Cho
We can all agree that change is hard. We can also agree that change is inevitable. Everyday the world around us is changing. Our reaction to change may vary from holding fast to tradition and what is familiar to embracing what may come with open arms and flowing wherever the wind may blow.
The church I serve, St. John’s, has gone through many changes in the years I’ve been there, but these changes did not begin or happen because of me. They are merely incremental steps over the 143 years the church has existed. This is important to remember in order to gain a broader perspective of how change evolves over time.
St. John’s is one of the few successful revitalized churches that I have encountered. More churches are looking for options for their future: revitalization, closure, merger, or survival. People wonder how a church moved from a struggling existence to a revitalized ministry, and what the journey of transformation looked like. How long did it take? What changes were implemented? What type of leader did it take? How was the congregation involved?
Making space for change is not impossible. A perfect recipe to cultivate an environment of change includes equal amounts of
- the right time—the leadership, the congregation, and the pastor are open to do what is necessary to change.
- the right leadership—the skills, passion, and vision of pastoral leadership are in sync with the elders and leaders of the church.
- the right place—a particular need of the community requires unique resources that the church can offer.
Unfortunately, there is no easy recipe. This is not a thirty-minute meal. Without the needed time and commitment, it doesn’t matter what skills you have, how open you are to change, or how experienced you are. Any changes made will be like “new wine into old wineskins.” The skins will burst, the wine will run out, and the wineskins are ruined.
To paint a visual picture of what it looks like for a church to change throughout time, let me describe a brief chronicle of an old urban church, St. John’s.
In the beginning
In 1870, St. John’s Presbyterian Church was a church plant of a neighboring church. Beginning with 61 parishioners in downtown San Francisco, St. John’s eventually grew to almost 400. The church did well until the end of the century when membership declined and the mortgage was too great to bear. St. John’s considered merging with its founding church until a wealthy church member offered to pay the mortgage.
In Easter 1906, the first service was held after the completion of the new church building, only to have it crumble down three days later when the 1906 earthquake hit. Amazingly, the congregation rebuilt and moved on, providing food and shelter for families displaced and homeless from the earthquake.
The glory years
From 1927–1960, membership grew from 400 to 800. Programs, building campaigns, children, and mission projects were prevalent. St. John’s was active during the Depression, providing food and job referrals to the unemployed and special programs for soldiers and their families stationed in the Presidio.
Before my time
After a couple more long tenures of pastoral leadership and one short one that ended in a sexual misconduct charge, our current co-pastor Rev. John Anderson came to St. Johns in 1991. By this time, church membership had declined to only thirty members. So the first thing the church had to tackle was its financial reality.
By 1995, the congregation was still in the hole and heavily dependent upon income from renting space to a day camp. Session meetings were three to four hours long, solely dedicated to the financial crisis. Out of this crisis, St. John’s launched a financial campaign that was meagerly successful, but it got the ball rolling. Slowly, the budget was restored, and an endowment was created. This was the turning point. Financial freedom, stability, and relief gave room for hope to grow. Session meetings could now make room for planning, visioning, and dreaming.
In 1999, worship attendance began to increase. San Francisco was experiencing a growth from the dot com industry. John Anderson set up new programs with varying degrees of success. He hired a series of part-time youth leaders, but it was difficult to find qualified and dedicated people. He tracked the ups and downs of worship attendance, hoping to capture a glimpse of meaning behind the fluctuations.
Moving on to today and beyond
In 2000, I was called as an associate pastor, which was quite a step of faith for this 130 member church. I was to help move St. John’s into the next phase of needed changes. Given that St. John’s is surrounded by families with young children, the goal was to become a multi-generational church. Over my ten years at St. John’s, nothing has gone untouched: worship, staffing, session meetings, mission focus, sanctuary seating, and Sunday school.
It wasn’t until my fifth year at St. John’s that we really started to see the hard work pay off and when our hopes were actually being realized. The result wasn’t an increase in membership, but an increase in health in all areas: finance, mission, and purpose. Some of the key elements in cultivating change at St. John’s were
- Demographics—know your neighborhood and the needs of the people.
- Visibility—evaluate how visible the church is in the neighborhood. Can it be physically seen? Is it known to be a faith community that is engaged in the happenings of the community?
- Longevity—how long is the pastor willing to stay? John Anderson has been at St. John’s over twenty years. I am still at my first call, but I have been here ten years. Incremental change takes time. Revitalization takes trial and error. We spent most of the years undoing stuff.
The life of a church has its ups and downs, much like our own lives do. When in the immediate crisis of ministry, it is hard to step back to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And although it is true that some churches are going to have to face the reality that their life cycle may be ending, making space for change is possible. However, it takes time, patience, and endurance. As the saying goes, “It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”
Theresa Cho is copastor at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, a cheerleader at her son’s soccer games, a personal assistant to her five-year-old, and saboteur of her husband’s healthy diet by baking sweets. She blogs at www.theresaecho.com.