Membership Sunday Message

Membership Director Meagan Cox shared this Personal Point during our Membership Service on Sunday March 26, 2023, where we welcomed new members and celebrated those who have been with us for a time already.

The Life Cycle of a Congregation

In preparing for today, I thought a lot about how I could connect Membership Sunday with our worship theme, Mortality. This year I’ve heard lots of discussion about congregation health, so it seems like this would be the perfect opportunity to explore that question by sharing the Life Cycle of a Congregation.

A congregation is like a living organism, and it too follows a similar bell curve pattern in its life cycle. In a high-level view of the bell curve, a church has a birth, period of growth leading towards maturity and stability, and then it can have a decline leading towards death[i].

But there is so much that happens within the life cycle of a congregation beyond these milestones, so let’s dive a little deeper. A congregation has a birth or launch as we discussed. For Follen that came in 1835 with the first religious services in the East Village and Charles Follen as hired preacher. Following a congregation’s birth, we see a period of congregational growth and development. The initial growth phase is known as Momentum Growth and can be attributed to the momentum created simply by being new with a few loyal followers who propel the movement forward. Sneak Peek: Rev. Claire will touch on the concept of Momentum Growth at Easter.

Next we see Strategic Growth leading into Stable Health. This growth can no longer rely on the initial momentum, and it requires an invest of time to learn about the needs of the community, and implement programs, events, governing structures, and more to meet those needs. With these strategic investments, the congregation further establishes itself, and moves into a phase of Maturity and Stability. At the point a congregation reaches “Maturity” the community can feel like it is fulfilling the vision named in those early days of church life. In that Maturity and Stability phase it feels like every Sunday the Sanctuary is at capacity, the RE classrooms are full, the choirs are bustling, and the action teams and committees are firing on all cylinders. Often times it can be easy to look back on that period as ‘the good ole days.’

On the other side of this Stability we see Maintenance. Why would maintenance be on the downward trend of the curve? Because in this space a congregation is simply maintaining the status quo. Maintenance is not a bad, but if a congregation stays here too long, they will inevitably start to slip down the curve. Once a congregation enters the Preservation phase, it can be really difficult to process because for many it feels like not that long ago everything was stable and healthy. The good ole days. Difficult decisions must be made about what to keep and what must be sacrificed. Sadly, in the preservation phase, many people not deeply invested in the community will leave, and it can be challenging to stave off a quick decline to life support and closure[ii].

So, where would you put Follen on the bell curve? I would offer that we are in the Maintenance phase, and a lot of that is situational. These past years have been challenging. We had to accept strain and sacrifice in order to create our new building, and then directly on the heels of this we found ourselves enduring separation brought on by the pandemic. We have been forced to hunker down and maintain.

However, like the Spring daffodils, I see our Follen community slowly peaking its head out. And I have good news.

There is an opportunity within the bell curve for congregations willing to put in the work. In this space, congregations must ask the hard questions, be intentional, and redefine what the community wants and needs are now and moving forward[iii]. These conversations can be challenging because for some the focus might on returning to the ‘good ole days’ when everything felt stable and healthy. RESIST. We are not that congregation any longer. We are changed, and with that we must grow. We must create avenues to engage EVERYONE in the community in our re-envisioning. Listening to the ideas and needs of newcomers is as important as those from longtime members and friends. It is here that a congregation – our congregation – can find itself reinvented. Reborn.

Gratefully, we have lay leaders who are poised to welcome this opportunity for growth and change at Follen. Our Parish Board is in the initial stages of building a plan for a new visioning process for this community in the coming year. I hope you will join in those spaces and conversations –newcomers, long-time members, and all those in between- as we nurture our community and build our future together. I leave you all today with a few questions to start the conversation – who do we want to be as a community moving forward? What do we want to pick up and what to we want to put down? And what might our next steps be?