[The following is a work of fiction. I made up the community and the church. But many, many churches are facing similar decisions, though often not as clear as this one. I wonder how the elders will vote?]
Celia looked around the table as she finished her presentation. She’d done more work than she had been paid for and had gone further in making recommendations than she had been asked. Still, she had been able to see the possibilities. She braced herself to conclude:
“In summary, with your membership falling you will be able to continue to operate your church for approximately five years. That is only due to the previous members who have provided unusual financial reserves for your church. With your current programs, you will continue to decline in membership.
“On the other hand there are several opportunities. First, you have the Hispanic community. There are a large number of Spanish speaking people in the neighborhood now. Hiring a Spanish speaking associate pastor would allow you to reach out to that community. Second, despite the impression of some church members that they cannot reach out to the African-American community, there are a substantial number of families who would appreciate your pastor’s style. We could identify those for you and help you contact them. Finally, you have cut out services for young couples and youth, and that has forced your remaining young people to leave.
“Your decision will have to be whether to spend your financial reserves to hold on, in which case I cannot give you any hope that things will change. The demographics for your community will get worse, not better for the style of church you have had all these years. If you choose to spend your resources on preparing yourself to serve your community as it is now, there is plenty of room for this church to grow and continue to serve.
“If I could speak from a personal perspective for a moment. This is not me speaking as a consultant, but as a Christian. You have an unusual opportunity. While you have a declining membership, you have resources that nobody else can. ‘Raise your eyes and look at the fields, because they are already ripe, ready for harvest.’ Jesus said that about a Samaritan village. I say it about your community.”
Celia sat down. She looked at the pastor. He was well educated, but not very forceful. Nonetheless, he was the one who had arranged to get her firm to survey the community and see what could be done.
Then the chairman of the board of elders spoke.
“I know that we have to do these things you’re talking about if we want to grow, but then we cannot have the church we grew up with and one in which we can feel safe and comfortable as we worship. I don’t think God is calling us to make this church unpleasant for the members who have fought for it over the years. I contributed a great deal of that money that our visitor has spoken of, and I contributed it so I could have a church to care for me in my old age. I think that the people here deserve to be cared for. That is what Jesus would do.”
There was silence in the room as everyone looked at one another. Finally the oldest man in the room moved to stand up.
“I’m 94 years old,” he said. “I have worked in this church longer than any of you. You could say I need someone to take care of me more than anyone. But when I signed on with Jesus when I was just 11 years old, I didn’t sign on to get taken care of.” He was speaking slowly, but clearly. “The people who live in this neighborhood now are the ones God has called us to care for. And you, brother,” he continued after a moment, looking at the head elder, “that money you gave the church isn’t yours. It belongs to God.”
He sat down again.
The pastor looked around the room. “Let’s not stand on formal rules. Let’s just take our pulse. How many of you would like to start working based on our consultant’s report?”