Parish Consultants: Helping churches 'right-size'

Church Hill UMC decorated for Pentecost 2017.

May 27, 2019

This story is the second in a series looking at the work of the New England Parish Consultants, a team of clergy and laity with expertise to come alongside churches and help them assess God's call and how best to do ministry in their context in the 21st century. Read our story Parish Consultants: Coaching pastors

Church Hill UMC in Norwell, MA, is in the midst of really trying to redefine itself and grow, said Rev. Jenny Styers, pastor. One of the things the congregation has been working on is “right sizing.”
They began working with New England Conference Parish Consultant Rev. Dr. Betsy Waters in November 2018, after having done a “Discovering the Possibilities” study with Conference Director of Congregational Development Rick McKinley. 
The Parish Consultants are a team of clergy and laity with expertise to come alongside churches and help them with things like leadership development and church revitalization. Consultants may be called in to help churches have difficult conversations, cope with conflict, or establish a ministry presence in their community.
As part of that “right-sizing,” when Rev. Styers leaves in June 2019, the church will have a half-time pastor. 
Mark Kingston has been a member of Church Hill UMC for 26 years; he says he’s in the middle of the pack in terms of the length of his
Dr. Betsy Waters
membership. He’s also a member of the Discovering the Possibilities team that has been working with Dr. Waters. 
“We’re probably 20 percent of what we were 10 years ago,” Kingston said of church membership. “… and financially we’re just not able to pay the bills we used to be able to pay, and it was just really frustrating.”
Rev. Styers said that Dr. Waters was able to facilitate a “thought-provoking discussion around ‘Who is Church Hill? What’s important to us?’”
“When a church is trying to change or expand and grow, sometimes it has to take a step back and not always do the programs it did at one time, because it doesn’t have all the resources – financial resources or human resources – so [Betsy’s] led us in that,” Rev. Styers said. 
Moving to half-time will relieve some of the financial pressure, Kingston said, and that’s a good thing. 
“Take that financial burden off, maybe we can talk about our spirituality instead of how much we didn’t pay [in Mission Shares],” he said, “so I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to having that burden aside, and maybe folks will concentrate on what we’re really supposed to be about.” 
Rev. Lemmel says she’s seen it work in more than one church over the years. 
“Churches that fought for so long to stay full time, and then when they finally become part time - if they can shift the way they do ministry instead of feeling like a failure because they only have a part-time pastor - now they’re so much more free because they’re not fighting for every dime,” she said. “When the pressure of all that financial stuff is lifted, it really frees up the lay folk in some of those churches to be really involved. I’ve seen some part-time churches that thrive when they were just gasping along as full-time churches.”
The team at Church Hill is on hold waiting to hear who their new pastor will be, Kingston said, but no matter who is appointed there, the congregation will have some big decisions ahead. 
“Our next step is to hold a town hall-type meeting and just layout what a half-time pastor means and the different scenarios,” he said. “I think that’s going to be really eye-opening to folks. It was to me, and I think I’m pretty well connected with things like this, but I didn’t realize how much we’re going to be giving up by going to a half-time pastor.”
Rev. Styers said working with a coach has helped focus the team on potential rather than loss. 
“She listens to what we’re saying, what our challenges are, what our struggles are, and she offers us some things to think about and some routes to go,” Rev. Styers said. “In a nice way, she’s straightforward. She tells you what she’s hearing, and she doesn’t sugarcoat it. … She encourages us to keep focusing on the things that we’re working on and not to lose heart and to push forward.”
Kingston agrees this process has helped move the church. Church Hill worked with various consultants – including Dr. Waters – in the past, and “put stickies on the wall and all that kind of stuff,” he said, “It all felt good at the time, but we never really got anywhere with it.”
What Kingston describes is not uncommon, Rev. Lemmel said. “It all sounds good in the workshop, right?”
“The resistance comes up when you try to implement things,” Rev. Lemmel said, “and so we provide on-the-ground assistance to get through the initial stages.”
 “Going into this, I thought that half-time was the first step toward closing the church. I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” Kingston said. Now it’s up to the team to bring that message to the rest of the congregation: “Accept where we are but agree that there’s ways to move forward.”
“My favorite line is ‘Resurrection is not resuscitation,’” said Dr. Waters, who said that she does a lot of work with helping churches “right-size.”
“Going back to what you used to do does not meet the 21stcentury,” she said. “You have to ask different questions and look with different eyes.”
Getting rid of false assumptions – including the persistent idea that the churches of the 1950s and 60s can be recreated or that they should be – is important, she said. 
“You wouldn’t go back to a rotary phone,” Dr. Waters said simply. 
“What’s needed – and why the coaching can help – is that you ask questions that can open up the underlying beliefs and challenge some of those,” she said. 
The method that Dr. Waters is using to work with Church Hill is relatively new. 
“I coach the pastor twice a month, and she’s created a team that meets with me online – this is all online – one hour a month, and then they meet and do work in between from the work we created,” she said.  
The package was seven hours with this team and six hours with the pastor, “and that has moved that congregation,” Dr. Waters said. “It becomes a really doable model for folks where the driving is a major cost. If they’re willing to work online, we can do that for about a thousand dollars.” She said the cost would have been at least twice as much if she met with the team in person.
Time management is another advantage of meeting online, Dr. Waters said. “Because of the level of focus, it engages people to do more.”
“It works great,” Kingston said. “We’ve had some technology issues with some of the folks who have a hard time getting online, but once you’re there, it’s like being in person. It saves a lot of time … even for me, I did it from my home, so it was easy.”
The savings in costs and time make it a viable option for churches, Dr. Waters said.
As always, the initial consultation with the Parish Consultants is free. To look into working with the consultants, contact Rev. Barbara Lemmel, Parish Consultants Coordinator. Her contact information and more about the consultants can be found here.
Rev. Lemmel said people should know that the Parish Consultants are not part of the appointment process. 
“We don’t report to the Cabinet,” she said. “I don’t report to a superintendent what’s happening at a church, though a superintendent is always aware that we’re going in to work with a church; I tell [the church] if I think they need to say something to the DS.”
Dr. Waters said it’s not up to her to define what constitutes a success in terms of consulting – that’s for the church to determine: “Success is what they define it to be, not what I define it to be,” she said. 
She added: “My job is to give my gifts and to give the freedom to the congregation to choose what they will do. I see success as their having thought about things in a new way and made decisions to try some new things.”
Kingston said Dr. Waters led the team through a lamenting process to help prepare for making changes. 
“I told this to Betsy, I’m generally a really positive person, so I don’t like to dwell on things that aren’t so good, so lamenting didn’t work for me, but that’s just me. It definitely worked for everyone else in the group. … teaching that to the congregation will be a great tool to have.”
“Let’s accept where we are,” he said. “Don’t be happy about where we are, but accept it, and then just turn to God to change it and to see where we are going forward.”