No longer a stick-in-the-mud

St. Bart's shows how to transform dwindling, change-averse church to growing congregation
October 31, 2004

Imagine that your already shrinking congregation encounters a conflict that halves its membership. Your aging and much-admired church building is showing expensive signs of maintenance and needed repairs at a time when church coffers have reached an all-time low. And your church is trying to attract more members and money, but your efforts have generated an uninspiring trickle.

What emerges is an image of where St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York found itself just over 12 years ago. Founded in 1835, the church had reached a crossroad -- one way led to growth, the other to gradual death.

 “St. Bart’s” called the Rev. William Tully to serve as rector in 1994. “The task was daunting,” says Tully, “and I was clear with the search committee that the church had to grow or go. There was no middle path. A lot of people advised me not to come here -- the future of St. Bart’s was deeply uncertain, and I could quickly find myself out of a job. 
“But there was one critical element that gave cause for hope and led me to believe we might actually pull it off: St. Bart’s was clearly aware of its own predicament and was committed to staking everything on church growth. Nothing would have been possible without that commitment, and, with it, everything became possible.”

In that quest for growth, Tully saw tremendous opportunity. “I saw us being recharged by the gospel vision itself, and I saw us drawing energy and people from New York, becoming a parish that looked like and was sized like the city it serves.”

But Ray McGarrigle, St. Bart’s general manager since 1995, remembers the parish when things were different. “I came to St. Bart’s excited by Bill Tully’s vision for renewal. But when I walked in the door for Pentecost services and saw 70 people in a sanctuary that seats 1,300, I knew we had a long road ahead of us.”

Dusty old windows filled in hope

Today, St. Bart’s serves 4,000 active members and is one of the fastest growing Episcopal churches in the country. According to its leaders, growth happened because the parish affirmed and maintained its own deep Anglican tradition. This included a commitment to radical welcome; a conscious outreach to the unchurched to “meet people where they are;” strengthened and diversified worship; excellence in church music and education; and re-establishment of its connection with the city.

“There is a certain everydayness that has taken hold of St. Bart’s,” says Warden Richard Bayles, a member since 1981. “Every day the doors of the church are open to all. Every day there is Eucharist. With every Eucharist, St. Bart’s issues an open altar call, reminding us that the Eucharist is not our possession, but a gift freely given by God that we in turn give away. Everyone, regardless of background or affiliation, is invited to receive this gift.”

Members who freely receive this gift also look forward to a future filled with hope.
“I can see God moving in this place,” says Emilie McQuillin, a member of St. Bart’s for more than 30 years. “The creaky and dusty old windows and doors were flung open and set free, and God came in. Even though the place is now filled in light and hope, there’s still a lot left to do. But as long as God is present, I don’t worry. Feeling his presence is sufficient to know that the future we are moving towards will be beautiful.”

According to Bayles, the church used to be extremely resistant to change. “St. Bart’s funded itself through pew rentals until 1978."  McQuillin remembers having to produce a ticket to be seated for Sunday services. “The greatest contribution Bill Tully has made is giving God the freedom to move in this place in a way that was not possible before. Bill knows how to let God move as he chooses, not as Bill chooses.”

Reinventing church

For several years, St. Bart’s has shared with many church leaders what it has learned. Interest in the parish’s transformation became so great that, in 2002, St. Bart’s established the Reinventing Church Conference.

“St. Bartholomew’s has always learned a great deal by having to reflect enough on this business of growth and change to talk about it. The conference was an experiment that, at the very least, was a way for the church to accommodate all of the requests for visits in a way that was coherent and helpful to each person,” says McGarrigle. 

In the first year, more than 250 clergy and lay leaders from churches across the country attended the conference.  Focusing on leadership, worship and open community -- the foundation of St. Bart’s transformation -- the conference aims to address the larger issues and questions that drive church change while providing some practical advice.

“This conference last year saved my life!”  says the Rev. Canon George Brandt, rector of St. Michael's Church, New York. Brandt attended the 2003 conference when St. Michael’s was confronted with balancing a  $250,000 budget deficit and was preparing to cut its active Sunday school and a successful music ministry in order to conserve funds.
“St. Michael’s still basically thought we were OK,” says Brandt. “After the conference, we came back and looked at the spreadsheets and realized it was grow or die slowly. The church quickly got real about its options. The realization was that we want to be a place that’s here for another 100 years.”

Michael Bradley, rector of St. George’s Church in Durham, N.H., and Episcopal chaplain to the University of New Hampshire, calls Reinventing Church “one of the most rewarding conferences I’ve ever been to. It was inspiring as well as practical nuts and bolts. It allowed me to more clearly articulate my vision to my church.” Translating vision and inspiration into congregational reality is hard, says Tully. “Growth may trend upwards, but it never goes in a straight line. You work hard and don’t see results for a while, and then it bumps up. Then you have to keep working hard and not seeing more results for a while, until it finally bumps up again. It takes a lot of work until you see the reward for your efforts -- and that reward leads you to more work. As the old cartoon says, the shortest distance between two points is always under construction.”
The next Reinventing Church Conference will be held June 5-7.

Here are a few of Bill Tully's suggestions for creating and sustaining change:

  • Get real about your options. Endowments often enable a church to limp along at partial capacity, and cutting core church programs for financial reasons may buy a church more time, but this is a sure path to failure. 
  • Choosing growth over death means putting all of your chips behind church change. A church must recognize the process to which it is committing and genuinely be willing to change.
  • Align every aspect of your church behind growth. Real growth is not an add-on to current programs and goes far deeper than evangelism. Growth means change, not just more people doing the same things. Growth must infuse everything your church is and does -- from how it does worship to how it handles management and governance. 
  • Invest ahead of growth.  You really do have to build it before they will come. 
  • If your budget seems too small, remember that you live in an oasis of abundance, not a desert of poverty.  Some parishes have members (or even access to nonmembers) with valuable professional expertise.  They might have retired from a profession that you could never dream of paying for, but they may leap at the chance to dedicate their experience to your church.
  • Growth requires risk, and you must never stop taking risks. Once a church starts to change and experiences good results, there is a temptation to be overly satisfied. People may ask: Why risk what we have in order to grow more?  When a church has grown comfortable with itself, the leader must continue to remind the congregation that it still must “grow or go.”

 -- Hilary Greer is a program officer at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, where she specializes in organizational change and development. She has been a member of St. Bartholomew’s Church since 2003.

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