Looking forward to surprising transformation

June 13th, 2023

As a 26-year-old often referred to as “the lady pastor” by the community I serve, you might expect that my story would be about a young pastor sent to a rural church that is declining, and that continued to decline. Surprisingly, this is not one of those stories. The Sunday before I arrived at my placement there were 25 people in the pews, and this last Sunday we had 98. We have had around 70 consistently participating in worship, and somehow this rural United Methodist church a mile away from four other Methodist churches continues to thrive. 

If you’re wondering how that happened and how a young, inexperienced clergywoman managed such a transformation, let me assure you: it wasn’t me. And I don’t have some new solution to offer every church, even those who may look remarkably like mine. All I know is what seems to have worked here, and what God seems to be doing with this congregation. 

When a 19-year-old tells you God told him to come to this church, you realize it was never about you and what you’re doing (or not) in the first place. God is at work in this place, and even yesterday someone who had not gone to church in years stopped to tell me God told him to come to our church and to talk to me. I will admit that I was unsettled by these conversations at first—maybe it’s surprising to say this, but my divinity degree did not prepare me for these sorts of things. Now, having seen what happens when I receive these surprising gifts, I am just happy to be God’s vessel and to know that something miraculous is happening in the life of the church. 


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While I am learning how to join in with what God is doing, I am also working hard to make more space for these kinds of interactions to happen. I read Don’t Look Back by Will Willimon, and I caught where he said to put 80% of your time into outreach. So, that’s what I did. Some things worked, some attempts didn’t, and here is a list of both pieces. I hope it gives you hope that if a 26-year-old woman in a conservative, semi-rural area can grow her church, you can, too. I know that our contexts are likely very different, and that there will always be particular people and places that you will have to deal with differently, so my prayer is you try to experiment with as many tools as possible and to know God is with you no matter what.

Here’s what did not work for us:

  1. Handing flyers to people
  2. Going door to door
  3. Facebook messaging everyone in the directory (this brought a few people back, but ultimately it did not work). My husband keeps reminding me that it is wiser to find new people that want to be there, rather than chase after the ones that left. 
  4. Preaching about love in a general way. I know this one seems hard and counter-intuitive to many of us, but people need more guidance than this. We need to be taught how to be welcoming, and we need guidance on how to lead people to faith in Jesus. Reaching out is work, and it has to be intentional. For example, bringing diapers to newborns and their families in the community, or having a committee that delivers cookies to visitors are great, tangible and intentional expressions of welcome. Giving out free books and pizza in the park or neighborhood can be a simple act with great impact. Or even just telling your congregation what questions to ask to get people to open up and then giving them the confidence to talk to people who are not receptive at first glance can be a significant step. 
  5. Paying for advertisements on Facebook. People will find you and accuse your Vacation Bible School program of child abuse (yes, this happened to me). And because is an advertisement, you cannot turn off commenting features, so I spend a whole week deleting mean and inflammatory comments. Unless money is directed in a thought-out strategic way, this option just does not work.
  6. This may be the hardest and most controversial item on my list: don’t try to make everything structured for kids and young families. We had 98 people on Sunday and only two children under the age of 15. Our two programs for children are great missional opportunities, but the truth is that they have not brought any church growth. Many churches have events for young families, but are not growing substantively because of them. 
    Instead, focus on helping the people who are more likely to come to your church. Then work on spiritually feeding them, instead of chasing the allure of youthfulness. I know it may seem easier for me to say that give my own age, but it is true. Young people are not sustaining our churches…and yet, they will also come and join in when you are growing and show signs of spiritual vitality. Young people like growth and to hide in a sea of people more than they like being sought out and programmed to. 

Here’s what has worked:

  1. Volunteering and helping out at other churches and nonprofits that are not my own. Building these relationships and putting effort into connecting with other people have caused our church to grow and have created relationships that help us accomplish far more than we could do alone. The people who are find Jesus in the community and showing up to work alongside him are already doing it and doing it well. Find them. 
  2. Going to bible studies and small groups at churches that are not my own. This made me realize many people are not being spiritually fed, and when they see a pastor come to their group, it catches them by surprise. It makes some folks uncomfortable, but it can also cause people to visit and even become members of your church, because you built a relationship that many people don’t even have with their own pastor. I get it: we are busy enough keeping everyone at our own churches happy! But trust me—growth helps a church heal more than anything you can say to a person who is watching their church die and everything they know about their community change. I now have members and regular visitors who were Baptist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, and even some who had not been to any church in years. I met them through bible studies and church events. People may call me a “poacher,” but if you are not spiritually feeding your congregation and not treating them as beloved human beings, they will find a new welcoming place. I just put in the effort to make that happen. 
  3. Getting lunch or coffee with almost every pastor. This simple step helped me, because when you meet other people in the community, they may say they already have a church and the conversation stops there. But if you say you know their pastor, they are often more receptive to you, and I’ve often found that they weren’t actually that involved in that church in the first place. It is just a cop-out to keep the conversation short. When some neighboring pastors would not respond to my emails because I am a woman, I would just show up at their church office and ask them how I can help. No matter how discriminatory you are, it’s much harder to say no to someone with their arms open wide and offering to help. 
  4. Preaching well…for 8 to 12 minutes. Along with shorter, more focused preaching, making outreach central and including practical examples are important. 
  5. Showing the church hospitality by visiting with people up until the minute before worship begins. I’ve also taken to shaking everyone’s hands and getting contact information during the sharing of the peace, if possible. 
  6. Making a relationship with every new visitor. This has led 99% of visitors to come back. I often invite them to lunch or walk around the park. My pastor friends have said this can feel awkward or unsafe, but, my golly, it works! 
    It is, however, is not sustainable for the pastor to do this work alone. Once a retired pastor in my congregation started doing this, too, the growth has been amazing. It may feel imposing asking someone you do not know to lunch, but as my new 19-year-old member told me, “Taking people to lunch is the buy-in they need to know the pastor cares about you and you are not just another number.” If I, a young woman, can take people to lunch when I have heard about every type of rude remark about women pastors, then you can, too. If you feel unsafe or vulnerable, meet in a very public place and leave if you get too uncomfortable. You have agency, you do not have to listen to someone go on and on about something offensive. I have told many people, “This conversation is making me uncomfortable, so can we go back to talking about Christ?” Putting yourself out there requires strong boundaries and to put people pleasing down at the door. It is a practice that has protected me and yet still helped the church grow.


My final words of encouragement are these: You are called. You are good at your job, but God calls us to be exceptional. We must have boundaries, but we also need to know when we need to go out in the world. We must get to a point where we do not have to preach about social justice, because we are already living it out in our actions. 

If your church is dying, finding one new person will do wonders to raise your spirits. Then you’ll find another, and another, and another. Before you know it, your church will be thriving, and your people will start to feel alive again. Last week, a church member asked me what I would change about our church, and I said this, “I want us to experience so much growth, that the hurting and older people no longer have to be the backbone of the church. I want them to be able to enjoy the transformation and be able to rest themselves. I want them to find hope again , when every day has been a challenge for so long. We spend so much time caring for them, and they are still hurting and hitting a wall because everything is not like what they hoped it would be. However, if we pave the way for something new, something growing that they support, then our people in their 70’s and 80’s will not be running themselves into the ground trying to save the church. Instead, they will experience God’s grace again, like children.” 

God is present in other churches that are not yours. God is at work in the homeless shelters and the food pantries and in our streets. God is working in and through the pastors in this community in ways you cannot even imagine. So, go find out what God is up to, and I promise your church will prosper. 

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