Don’t fight decline, embrace ‘smart decline’

Laurie Haller

Laurie Haller

I noticed it over the past several years as I traveled to the Phoenix area to spend a few days with my father and other family members. Every time we visited we’d play a new golf course in a brand new town that seemed to spring up overnight. The infrastructure was there for huge planned communities: wiring for phone, cable, and Internet; sidewalks; paved roads; and half-built houses. The only thing missing was people.

For decades this 14th largest metropolitan area in the United States experienced a building boom. In the years before the real estate bubble burst, however, developers gambled and overbuilt. Except for the golf courses, many of these brand new towns are ghost towns.

I noticed it over the past six years as I traveled around the Grand Rapids District. A number of our churches either remodeled or built additions in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, hoping that if they built it, new people would not only come but would pay the mortgage. Unfortunately, many congregations don’t understand that adding more space is often the result of applying technical solutions to adaptive challenges.

“If you build it they will come” will usually not grow churches that are experiencing decline. People today yearn for an encounter with God, not a gym where they can shoot baskets. They yearn for authentic community, not a fancy lounge. They want to spend their time making a difference in the world outside their building rather debating whether beverages should be allowed in the remodeled sanctuary.

It was already a challenge for some of our churches to take care of their bills before the economy collapsed. Now they are faced with the agonizing choice between paying their mortgages or paying their pastors. One Finance Committee asked me, “Who will bail us out if we can’t pay our mortgage?” I smiled weakly and replied, “I’m sorry, but you’re on your own.”

I notice it as I travel around the connection. The infrastructure of the United Methodist Church is too top-heavy. We’ve experienced 40 years of declining membership and attendance in the United States, yet our structure has pretty much remained the same. The cost of maintaining the current size of our general boards and agencies is not only diverting resources away from mission and ministry, but it is hindering our effectiveness and ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Not only do we need to downsize our boards and agencies, but we also need to right-size our churches. It is fascinating to observe local churches where attendance is half or a third of what it was 15 years ago. Often the decline is gradual, so no one really pays any attention until there is a recession or a few generous members of the Greatest Generation die and leave a huge void in the budget.

By then it may be too late. Attendance is now less than 100, church leaders have failed to create a compelling vision, mission and strategic goals, and it’s a struggle to pay ministry shares (apportionments).

The superintendent is finally called.

One of my roles is to help congregations face their own reality. We cannot reinvent and transform our churches into healthy, vital centers for ministry until we admit the truth about our decline and choose to address it openly and honestly. Living in denial is the greatest impediment to positive change.

Being smart

What if the United Methodist Church were to adapt the concept of smart decline?

When the market crashed, an estimated 1 million dirt lots in central Arizona were in some stage of development for new homes, and more than a third of ZIP codes in major Sun Belt cities saw population losses. Where many people saw tragedy, however, others saw possibility.

Smart decline is a relatively new theory of land use that was first coined by Frank and Deborah Popper in 2002. Based on a German model of city management in the deteriorating cities of the former Eastern Bloc, smart decline embraces the reality of decline by intentionally reinventing city services, re-imagining land use and restoring fiscal sustainability.

Flint, Mich., has seen a double-digit population decline in the last 40 years, but city planners have worked creatively to achieve a sustainable population through smart decline. Because Michigan law enables cities to take over foreclosed and abandoned properties, the City of Flint has chosen to concentrate growth in a few neighborhoods while demolishing properties in declining neighborhoods and converting them into green space through a local conservation land bank.

The time is now for the United Methodist Church to be smart about its decline as well. Our leaders have made radical proposals to the 2012 General Conference about right-sizing our denomination in order to assure greater efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability in our ministries and poise ourselves for future growth. Some of those include:

• Changing the guaranteed appointment system to employ “a just, reasonable and compassionate process” for low-performing clergy to leave the itinerancy.

• Consolidating 10 of our 13 general agencies into five offices that will be part of a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. The center will have a 15-member board of directors, which will be accountable to a 45-member advisory board that will “represent the diversity and inclusiveness of our Church.”

• Authorizing the board of the new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry to evaluate programs and spending at all levels of the church and reallocate up to $60 million during the 2013-2016 quadrennium for the purpose of increasing the number of vital congregations.

• Forming a task force to study and recommend the most equitable and effective apportionment system in our annual conferences.

None of these proposals will enable our churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ and bring in the kingdom of God on this earth if we don’t start at the local church level. Smart decline in our congregations mandates intentional planning for:

  • Holy conversation, involving an honest and comprehensive evaluation of all church ministries, structures and personnel.
  • A careful and prayerful right-sizing of budgets and staffing costs to achieve fiscal sustainability, stability and responsibility.
  • An alignment of all programs and ministries with the stated vision and mission of the congregation.
  • An emphasis on identifying, training, equipping and rotating gifted laity into positions of spiritual leadership.
  • Streamlining committee structure to create a culture of permission-giving and maximize the best use of human and financial resources for mission and ministry.
  • Re-imagining building space for innovative community use as a means of hospitality as well as evangelism.
  • Teaching and modeling generous giving for all ages.
  • Creating a culture of call where the very best of our youth, young adults and second-career persons are encouraged to consider professional ministry.

Smart decline. Is it an oxymoron, a fantasy, a foolish hope?

Ask any congregation that has risen from the ashes of its decline or has discovered the miracle of doing more with less, with God’s help. Ask God’s created world, where “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

In our end is our beginning. What does the United Methodist Church need to die to in order for the new to emerge?


The Rev. Haller is the Grand Rapids district superintendent of the West Michigan Conference. Reprinted from her blog, Leading From the Heart.

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It just makes sense if we have congregations of 20-30 that we combine them with three or four other congregations to have a vibrant church community. I’m sure as the church consolidates congregations like this, we’ll drop to the fourth largest U.S. denomination, but that’s ok.

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