What makes churches grow?

National Consultation on Congregational Vitality participants share ideas about what makes churches succeed. Photo: Marites N. Sison
National Consultation on Congregational Vitality participants share ideas about what makes churches succeed. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published May 15, 2014

Niagara Falls, Ont.
When parishes are “elastic” and embrace different ways of being church, when their dioceses, clergy and parishioners are collaborative and have a “strong spiritual core” and when they reach out to communities beyond their walls, they become healthy and vital.

But they often wither and fail when there is no openness to new ideas, when things are imposed and when there’s a top-down approach to problems and solutions.

These were just some observations shared by participants at the National Consultation on Congregational Vitality being held here May 14-16.

Change happens when congregations are allowed to dream, to experiment and to take chances, said the Ven. Christopher Pappas, archdeacon for congregational development, diocese of Edmonton. Pappas was among participants chosen to share thoughts on congregational vitality, via a “conversations from the couch” format led by Elizabeth Robinson, diocese of Montreal.

Vitality is about encouraging parishes to take risks, said Pappas. “It’s okay to experiment and fail. To give them the tools and support and say, ‘We’ve got your back.’ ”

He cited the example of one parish that decided to give one per cent of its annual income to fund the ministry of parishes in other places. Today, that parish’s tithe is 11 per cent, and it helps fund programs in communities that could not otherwise afford them. “It reminded me of the phrase that ‘the church is the only organization that exists for its non-members-it is for the greater glory of God,’ ” he said.

Jay Koyle, congregational development officer for the diocese of Algoma, noted that places with vitality are those that have “a real focus on God,” a remark that drew applause from participants. “It’s not just in talking about God, but allowing images from scriptures to fuel people’s imagination and chart a course for them.”

Koyle drew from what he had heard from other participants, who were divided into “circles” earlier in the day to reflect on how their dioceses have been defining, equipping and encouraging the creation of healthy and vital parishes. He cited the example of a congregation in Calgary that had been “intentional about [its] inter-generational approach” to being church. Each week when the congregation met, the pastor began by asking the question, “Where did you see God at work in your life and at work this week?” Praying and sharing in a community setting became so ingrained that when the pastor eventually left and everyone gathered in a circle, a nine-year-old spontaneously offered prayers for him, said Koyle.

For one parish, all it took was a simple step of changing the agenda of its parish council so that discussions about finances came in last instead of first, said Tasha Carrothers, ministry resource associate, diocese of New Westminster. “The parish council stopped kneecapping itself by moving the emphasis away from what they can’t afford.”

For the Rev. Lynn Uzans, diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, listening and “letting go of the outcome” are key. “If you listen, people might lead you to a place where you need to be, after all.”

Parishes that succeed are those that have a sense of vision, said Carrothers. “They know who they are and what they want to do.”

Uzans said when her diocese looked at the profiles of healthy and vital parishes, they discovered one common denominator: “They ate together in non-fundraising ways. They built relationships.”

For Pappas, successful parishes are those that are not afraid to share their ministries with other parishes and denominations, and that engage people where they are.

Pappas said the work of creating healthy and vital parishes is a collaboration between dioceses, clergy and parishioners. “It’s a team effort. There’s no programmatic solution, no one-size-fits-all formula.”

Many agreed that change happens when there’s a shift in the organizational culture, particularly in the idea of what constitutes church. Does it simply mean having people in the pews every Sunday or can it include an openness to individuals and groups that may not otherwise be there Sunday after Sunday?

Uzans said it can be as simple as not judging those who worship only at Easter and Christmas, and instead thinking, “Here are the Christmas and Easter people, and isn’t it wonderful they’re with us?” It can also mean, she said, “looking at what God is already doing in the world” and being a part of it.

The Rev. Rhonda Waters, associate priest at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, underscored the importance of churches looking outside their four walls, saying there is a hunger for God and spirituality in society. She noted how the cathedral has been attracting young families and students even without extra effort on the part of the church other than being a welcoming community. “We did not hunt for them. There is a spiritual revival moment and the church is poised to respond to that. We have the language to speak to that.”

Koyle agreed that the church has the language to guide people, but that sometimes “it’s awkward for us and it makes us afraid.”

Waters, said however, that “fear can be a blessing and a basis for conversation.”

Asked what surprised them about hearing people’s experiences concerning congregational vitality, Carrothers said, “the breadth and extent of resources at our disposal.”




  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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