“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)
The priest typically has no difficulty identifying church programs or ministries that need to be initiated or improved. The challenge often comes in how best to initiate a new program or significantly improve an existing one – especially if it is only the priest who feels an urgent need for change and this sense of urgency is not yet felt by the parish council or the general membership.
There are highly developed processes of project development as well as complex, detailed software applications designed to manage the project development process. These are characteristically required in the for profit environment. However, for parish development purposes in the nonprofit environment this simple seven step process may serve to assist. Initiating a church growth ministry or program will be the example utilized.
For some time now the parish has been static in the number of households that call the parish home. Alarmingly, there have been some years when membership actually declined. The priest knows that church membership grows in four classic ways: 1) children born into the parish, 2) new immigrants, 3) American-born families that move into the area and 4) converts to Orthodoxy who join the parish. The last category is almost always convert -driven because we are so poor in evangelization.
He also knows that church membership shrinks in six classic ways: 1) fewer children born into the parish, 2) fewer immigrants, 3) member families leaving the area, 4) people leaving the faith due to the rapid secularization of American culture, 5) few or no converts and 6) death.
In addition to the concern the priest feels regarding the gradually shrinking membership, there is a persistent concern he feels that more must be done to proactively retrieve the lost sheep of the community. Reflecting upon the ways that parishes gain members and the way that the church grew for many centuries, he decides that what is needed is an effective evangelization program to bring new member in and to do all that is possible to bring lost members back into the parish.
He recalls an analogy he once heard about Orthodox efforts in evangelization: “The great ship of Orthodoxy sails across the continent happily welcoming the few fish that manage to jump aboard because the ship itself rarely puts out any nets!”
Taking a deep breath and casting an arrow of prayer heavenward he knows that this will be a radical new enterprise for the parish and also from him. He received no training for this at seminary. Mentally, he rapidly ticks off some key points:
How will this change the long time mission of the parish to serve a particular sub- culture of America? It’s our historic reference point though that is rapidly changing
Where do I go for training?
Where do I find volunteers to serve on this committee?
What funding will I need?
If we are successful, how will the parish react to this infusion of new people, possibly somewhat different from our typical demographic?
It will be essential for the priest, if he is the impetus behind the project, to develop a compelling case in order to build support for the effort. As is lamented by almost all priests, parishes do not embrace change easily, especially change that might feel like radical change or imposed change. Nevertheless, the priest embarks upon a seven step process to invigorate the parish with new members
The Seven Step Process
1) Envision the Future: What Does the Parish look like if the Project is Successful?
The parish regularly receives formerly inactive cradle Orthodox who awaken to the treasures of the faith;
The parish regularly receives converts from non-Christian faith traditions, no faith tradition, or other expressions of Christianity;
Some members of the parish embrace the process and volunteer to serve on the committee;
As a result of an ever-growing number of new members, the values, priorities and activities of the parish begin to more closely reflect those found in the New Testament – less fundraising and less heritage-oriented type activities and more worship, service to the poor and needy, study, mission, evangelization and fellowship.
2) Develop a Project Plan
Think of this as a grant proposal to a foundation. Use the written Project Plan to secure the more support of the parish council and the financial support of the project sponsor(s)- see below. They will very much like to know what they are supporting or investing in, what the plan is, why this is being done, how this will be achieved, over what period of time, at what cost, who will be involved, the theological basis for the project, the benchmarks that measure progress, how it will be monitored and evaluated and finally, what the result will be that benefits the parish. The project Plan may or may not include the anticipated challenges in successfully establishing this ministry. Whether it does or it doesn’t, it will be important to keep these in mind and be prepared for them.
One young and naïve priest, who packed his church with a Protestant-type church busing program, was shocked to discover his parish council was not supportive: Who is paying for this? Where do these kids come from? Why aren’t their parents bringing them? Those kids are very noisy. They were sitting in my pew when I arrived. And so forth…
3) Recruit a Project Sponsor or Sponsors
It may sound obvious but the parish council and perhaps the long range or strategic planning committee must concur with the priest that a church growth program is not only needed but essential to the fulfillment of the mission of the parish.
Ideally, at least some of these same people become advocates and champions of the project. However, many wonderfully conceived and dreamed of projects soon die due to a lack of funding. The wise and savvy priest recruits a financial sponsor who agrees to underwrite the costs of the program for a trial period of three years.
This addresses the concerns of any parish council members, who in their proper due diligence, are right in questioning any new costs that appear after a budget has been approved by the General Assembly. The priest wisely involves the parish council through regular reporting knowing that he will need their support to get it into the annual operating budget after the sponsored funding phase elapses.
4) Appoint a Project Leader
This is likely the person who envisions the project and feels strongly about it. The priest knows he will have to lead this effort, so he ensures that there is funding available from the sponsor for an assistant to relieve him from some of his other duties. He intuitively knows that conversion is accepting the opinion of one’s friends about truth. The evangelization committee will have to be deeply engaged in human to human contact and cultivation.
Through reading he has learned from professionals in the field of church growth that this is most effectively achieved through personal relationships, not public events. Therefore, the priest knows that he must be educated and that he will need at least three key partners in the effort. He recruits the volunteers and secures the funding from the sponsor.
The project budget includes funds for book purchases, travel and registration expenses to conferences and seminars on church growth, materials to freely give out, and consulting services from experts in the field. Much of this training and material is likely to reflect a Protestant sensibility but with intelligent theological tweaking, it will probably be applicable to the Orthodox environment provided allowances are made for typical Orthodox shyness around this subject!
5) Develop a Project Result Statement
While an idea is a good start, it is necessary to formally write down what are the desired results. The project result statement describes the outcome expected or the goals to be achieved. The priest acknowledges that he and the team will be held accountable to these goals.
He writes the result statement as a clear and concise statement of what the project is intended to accomplish. It is specific. That way it will serve to keep everyone on track if there’s a tendency to go off on tangents.
6) Create Project Tracking and Evaluation Tools
The priest realizes that this could be as simple as a monthly written report delivered to the parish council as well as a personal letter and the report sent to the financial sponsor(s). It could also be as sophisticated as utilizing project management software to generate detailed reports. What’s important is to have a tracking and evaluation mechanism.
7) Implement the Project Plan
The goals and objectives are known. The sponsors have been recruited. The case for the project has been written. The priest is directly involved. Yet projects are never written in stone. The whole point is to test the plan and not be afraid to make revisions or to innovate. The priest knows that in projects sometimes an important step is missed or a faulty assumption was made. When the project has met its primary goal, the priest starts to plan on how to sustain the work, renew its vitality, making sure that new people who join the parish are socially integrated into the life of the community.
He is prepared for push-back from elements in the parish, even if this ministry is one of the best things the parish had undertaken in years. It’s bringing hope to the community. People are discovering Orthodoxy. Membership is increasing. And stewardship is rising. Even with all these good results, he knows there will be fault-finding, criticism, fear, uncertainty, jealously and alarm that “our heritage” is being watered down.
He takes heart, smiling to himself, because he knows that this is exactly how the Jewish and the pagan cultures of the Mediterranean world responded to early Christianity as well.
A parish that encourages and undertakes “spiritual entrepreneurship” is a living parish. Please note, the author did not write, “doctrinal entrepreneurship”! Too much blood has been spilled in maintaining the true faith to subject it to our whimsical imaginations. But the propagation of the faith? That’s different. Reflect upon this wonderful quote of St. Nikolai Velimirovich, “We must be super-conservative in preserving the Orthodox faith, and super-modern in propagating it.”