Servants' News

Jul/Aug 2002

An Aging Ministry – A Major Problem Developing in the Churches of God
Changing from a “One True Church” Work to a “Service” Work Church Headquarters Growth Simple Points for the Future

While this article uses most of its examples from the UCG-IA, the situation is important for nearly all Church of God groups, including the numerous independent congregations.

The Sep/Oct 2002 edition the United News (the newspaper of the United Church of God, an International Association) reported: “By far the most pressing issue is the fact that our ministry is aging”. Other CoG organizations have to be facing the same aging issue.

Some figures were given (Emphasis added for clarity/emphasis): in 1995 the UCG-IA began with 123 employed pastors. After a “large attrition rate… that number is currently 96… Four men have resigned from the full time ministry in the last two years; two have died. Five have been retired in the last year.” It was also reported five more retirements are scheduled by June 30, 2003.

The article continued, “Within ten years, 39 of our 91 pastors (in the United States) will be at least age 65; 25 of them will be at least 70. That requires hiring at least four new pastors every year for the next ten years just to “hold our own”.

More figures were discussed at the Council of Elders meeting March, 2002, “the average age of a salaried elder in the United Church of God is now 56, and increasing, since there is no organized program to bring younger men into the field. By the end of this year, fully one-third of the employed ministry in the United States will be over the age of 60. Clearly something must be done, and soon.”

It was pointed out the aging ministry issue is compounded by financial considerations. The news article went on to explain. “But replacing an active pastor usually means retiring another man, which also bears a cost. In general terms, between hiring and equipping a new pastor to serve, and retiring his predecessor, the Church can be facing an annual cost of $100,000 for each replacement (total costs involved for both men)…” What about financing health care for retirees? Or for the widows of pastors?

There is another side to the aging ministry coin. It is the aging members. As brought out in the Council of Elders meeting March 1, 2002: “A survey of Feast of Tabernacles attendees in 1999 found that 70% of those attending the festival that year were (then) over the age of 45. Nearly three years later, that same percentage is now [over the age of] 47 or 48. Within the next 20 years, most of that group will retire, living on less income. What will be the results in financial support for the work of the Church?

An Analysis of the Problems

So at the same time retirements and replacements are increasing salary expenses, deaths and retirements mean decreasing revenue from more and more of the members. It is important to consider that the CoGs have long held that tithing is not required on social security or other previously paid into retirement benefits. (While Church Bible Teaching Ministry does not promote tithing, it is the main way that many Church of God groups are supported, ask for How Do We Give to the Eternal? for more information.)

The United News reported on still another aspect of the problems by saying, “How can we continue to help our youth see the value of following God’s way as they grow into maturity?” Good question! This writer often wonders what young people must think when they look around at the Churches of God and see relatively few young people, but rather see aging pastors and mostly elderly members.

[Norman Edwards has asked a number of young people what they think: they find nice people in the CoGs, but lots of division over obscure doctrine and not much teaching or doing good to the outside world as Jesus and His Apostles did. The young people often find that there is little for them to do. Some wonder if the CoGs, as we know them, will survive.]

The scenario pictured here of ministry expenses increasing, while the income from an aging membership will decrease, is obviously not a sustainable one. What to do?

One possibility is being tried by UCG-IA. However, as the United News put it, “The Ministerial Candidate program is a good start, but it is just a start.”

A Bleak Picture

The picture as painted by the above figures is a bleak one. Instead of lively, vibrant, growing churches, the figures show more of ones dying. We can probably draw this conclusion: New, younger members have to be developed in large numbers or the present system will collapse from its own financial weight and burden.

A Thought “Outside the Box”

Some points follow which are offered as possible helpful suggestions.

Suppose we think “outside the box”? Could new, younger members be developed if 1) local congregations had their own buildings and 2) instead of the present “shotgun” approach, evangelism monies were spent in those areas with their own local buildings? Could new growth then expand outward from those greatly strengthened bases?

There are many larger CoG congregations (75 or more members) who have met in rented facilities for 30 to 40 years! Does this seem somewhat incongruous and wasteful to you?

One large CoG organization even publishes a booklet advising others, entitled, “Managing Your Finances”. What is your opinion, do you think paying rent for 30 or 40 years, and still paying rent, is managing finances well?

Consider that thousands of Protestant groups of smaller numbers than 75, in just a few years after starting their small group manage to acquire their own building. To their shame, some CoG members, have in years past looked down on other groups. But could their zeal to have their own building, and to make a visible presence in their community, possibly be a lesson we might learn from? Hmmmmm?

The financial outlay can be close to what many congregations have been paying in rent. One small CoG congregation (about 40 members) bought a store-front building and re-modeled it themselves for a cost of about $100,000. Their finished product is very attractive! Another CoG group in 1992 bought a small (capacity 110) Baptist church building, one half-mile off the Interstate, for $25,000. An exceptional buy to be sure, but bargains are around. How about looking?

Even in worldly settings don’t we see secular shepherds, out of love, concern, and responsibility, seeking and providing for the sheep in their charge the best grass, water, and yes, even shelter, housing?

Is There Any Growth?

Unfortunately there seems to be pitifully few new outside members being added to the Churches of God.

One prominent CoG elder is very much concerned because as he points out the Head of the church has told us to go and “make disciples”. In all of the Churches of God groups, how many disciples have been made in, say, the last five years? On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate the job being done in carrying out this vital part of the commission?

Even more importantly, on a scale of 1 to 10, how do you think the Head of the Church rates the job that is being done of making disciples?

Do changes, maybe even radical changes, have to be made? What do you think?

One large CoG organization had 154 baptisms last year. At first glance, that might look like some growth. But on further reflection we realize there should have been that many, or more, baptisms just from the member’s own children who have reached adulthood.

[If the number of member deaths are subtracted from the number of member baptisms, the growth is small indeed. Church of God members may change groups fairly often, but the real new growth of a group is the number of people it baptizes, minus the number of members who die from the group. —NSE]

One group claims a few dozen baptisms of outsiders, but one analysis showed they were done at a cost of about $100,000 per baptism. We have to wonder, could such a large sum of money be spent more productively?

For example, that same $100,000 if spent for a church building, besides providing better shelter for the sheep, might it help bring about a single baptism? [Or hundreds of baptisms over the years.]

Consider that a former top WCG evangelist has stated that at the same time they were spending millions and millions of dollars on advertising and media, that half or more of WCG’s growth came from members influencing their friends and relatives. And this was in an atmosphere, remember, when the “laity” were not even supposed to be doing any such efforts on their own.

We have to wonder, what would happen if today’s members were turned loose, actually encouraged to influence, even evangelize, and were able to do so from a base of having their own local building?

There Is Growth

There is, however, some real growth taking place.

Unfortunately, that growth seems to be in buildings at the headquarters of several of the Churches of God. Unfortunately, this does not alleviate the aging member/ministry problem, but instead financially adds to it. (It makes sense for a modest headquarters to be owned and not rented. At the same time, just as army commanders are not to sit down to eat until they have provided food for their troops, shouldn’t headquarters first provide as many buildings as possible for their sheep before providing one for themselves?)

More Thinking “Outside the Box”

Since this article is engaging in some thinking “outside the box” let’s pose one more question.

Pekka Vuorio, a Swedish CoG researcher operating a large website, asks: “Why are large headquarters needed anyway?”

Is this a silly question? Let’s consider. As he points out, many CoG members “would volunteer to do home office work. To share the load, to be equally yoked, to work together, to co-operate with like-minded, so all do the work of love. All should take part. Locally done work in their own city…” What a radical concept! (And to empire builders, a frightening concept.)

Based on this writer’s 38 years’ experience with CoG people, the volunteer response would be overwhelming!

What if one congregation volunteered to handle, say, the mailing of the organization’s church newspaper? Another of the church magazine? One congregation could prepare the envelopes for booklets, which could then perhaps be mailed direct from the printer. Maybe a group nearby to the printer could stuff the booklet envelopes? How about, say, much of the Human Resource work being done by an early retiree from that field? One such immediately comes to mind. Another congregation, that might have some knowledgeable accountant people, could handle the organization’s donations, which would be mailed to their local post office box. And on and on—you can think of your own projects.

Do these tasks seem too complicated to “farm out”?

Consider donations, which you might think of as one of the difficult tasks. As the head of a Mortgage Banking firm, even before today’s more advanced computers, I can tell you handling checks was fairly easy. We received and processed 5,000 mortgage payments a month. That would be today about five million dollars a month. Furthermore, as Mortgage Bankers, my company had to do written, extremely detailed, mathematically perfect reports on each and every one of those 5,000 checks, reports that will never be required from a CoG group. And yes, all of that can be done today from anywhere, from a local church, even from someone’s home.

One CoG retiree was once the head of a large European hospital. He speaks four languages. A man of talent, experience, and ability? Apparently. Yet as far as I know the only use being made of him is to warm a church seat once a week.

More Numbers

The United News reported UCG-IA has a total of 359 elders in the US, of which 92 are full time. That leaves 267 men already selected as unpaid elders. Could some of them (just a few are needed each year we were told) be retired, but still quite capable? If so, might they be available to be hired at nominal pay since they already have an income and would be serving out of love and concern? And their service does not have to be full-time to be helpful and effective. Has any survey even been undertaken to determine how many might be in that situation?

What about “common members”? There has to be a multitude of men who spent three, four, or more years going through various Spokesman Clubs. Figuring each meeting for two hours, 40 meetings per year; hundreds, maybe thousands, of CoG members have 240, 320, 400 or more hours of this valuable training and education. A plus for tapping this resource is that they now have the added benefit of years of experience gained in the real world holding real jobs. Add to all of that some nominal additional training, and you might have some formidable and very capable potential elders. Has any survey been taken to determine how many such men are available to be utilized by the Churches of God?

More Possibilities

How about using the Internet to train new elders and helpers? Others are using it effectively, why aren’t we? It is certainly a cheap way one gifted person can impart their experience and knowledge to thousands of others.

By chance (or was it?) the very day I am composing this article the local paper wrote about Indiana University, ranked as one of the top business schools in the country. As many know, an MBA is one of the hardest degrees to achieve. Yet of the 535 students enrolled in their MBA degree program, as the article put it, “4 out of 10 of those students will never set foot inside a classroom”! Instead they will receive their Indiana University schooling entirely over the Internet.

How about more use of videos? One large Protestant church organization, growing at a rapid rate by the way, has their most gifted speakers do videos. These videos are then viewed by prospective members, as well as others. By using videos from their top talent, Church messages and training are given in the best possible and most effective way. Why are not the Churches of God using more video training?

After all, both the Internet and videos are not speculative resources, they are proven successful (and very inexpensive) ones.

To Sum Up

In summary, we might all thank UCG-IA for 1) identifying so well, and 2) then openly acknowledging the problems caused by an aging ministry and an aging membership, thus giving all of us what should be a loud wake up call.

Indeed the problems of aging elders, aging members, little or no growth, and congregations with relatively few new, young members, should greatly concern each one of us in the various CoG groups; Christ’s own spiritual body.

The questions we face are really two very simple ones:

1. Do we again want lively, vibrant, growing churches—ones making disciples?

2. Are we willing to make the drastic changes that seem to be needed to bring it about?

It can’t be stated better than the largest organization coming out of the WCG stated it, “Clearly something must be done, and soon.”

Our complacency and failures to act are heading the CoGs for what could be disaster. Can we arouse from complacency? Can we straighten out our priorities? Can articles like this one, which open up some suggestions, be catalysts for discussion, catalysts for bringing about some real changes?

— One-third Century in CoGs


Changing from a “One True Church” Work to a “Service” Work

When the WCG had its large media efforts, it made sense for people to drive whatever distance was required to get to a WCG congregation for Sabbath services—because that was the “one true church” in most members’ minds. Renting buildings was sensible for several reasons: 1) With fast growth, the location of services and ministerial circuits frequently changed—finding a new building to rent was much easier than buying or selling one. 2) The WCG had little interest in local evangelism or service, so the “community presence” of a local building was not needed. 3) Most members lived so far away that it would be difficult for them to help maintain or to make use of an “owned” building during the week. 4) Occasionally, ministers would leave the WCG with their congregations; if the WCG headquarters owned their church building, they would be stuck with it.

But today, none of the CoG groups has a massive amount of growth from their central headquarters media efforts. Television and big religion in general are much less trusted than they were thirty years ago. A local presence is more valuable. Owning a building, and making it available for scout meetings, a used clothing exchange, a teen drop-in or other community events tends to bring people to hear one’s message. It also provides a place for Bible studies (not services) designed for new people. A variable sign outside with weekly Bible study topics is an ongoing witness to the community: “What Does the Bible Say about Hell?”, “Easter or Passover?”, “Keep God’s Feast Day”, “Why celebrate Satan?”, “God’s Love in His Law”, “The Real Story of Jesus’ Birth” etc. Adding “Your questions are always welcome” as a permanent part of the sign would be a great idea. — NSE

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Church Headquarters Growth

The Church or God groups appear to be placing a priority on buying large “headquarters” grounds and buildings. Within the last two years:

The Philadelphia Church of God purchased 160 acres in Edmond, Oklahoma in the year 2000 to begin Imperial College and eventually to include the church headquarters. They completed their “field house” in June of 2001, a building similar to the Ambassador College, Big Sandy, “field house” that is used for nearly every function of college life. (Source: www.icedmond.org).

The Intercontinental Church of God (Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association) dedicated their new headquarters building in Flint Texas, June 29, 2002. It is on an -acre site. 164 attended the dedication. (Source: The Journal, July 30, 2002).

The Living Church of God (Rod Meredith), is buying a 38,000-square-foot building in Charlotte, NC. This is 0.87 acre, a 475% increase from the approximately 8,000 square feet they are using now. (Source: The Journal, Aug 30, 2002.)

The United Church of God, an International Association, on May 4, 2002 dedicated their new 26,000-square-foot (0.6 acre) building on its 5-acre site. They previously rented 6,000 square feet, so this is headquarters growth of 433%. (Source: The Journal, May 31, 2002, and March 1998 board meeting report from Clyde Kilough.)

The reason these church organizations sought out new office space was probably because they were crowded where they were. But as an example, how does the UCG-IA’s increase in space compare to their membership growth?

The May, 2000 edition of the United News reported the first day of UB attendance at 12,111. It reported the last day attendance at 11,703. We can strike an average of 11,907. The June, 2002 United News reports Pentecost attendance of 11,758. It seems that there has been no significant increase in members in the last two years.

Owning a church headquarters building can be a long-term money-saver. So can owning a local church building. But it all seems concentrated at the headquarters. Why are these church organizations purchasing four times as much building as they are currently using when their growth is relatively flat and their ministry and membership is aging? Is each hoping that the other organizations will collapse, leaving the members of all four groups to them?

We hope they will quickly realize that the reason for lack of church growth is not lack of a headquarters’ space, but a lack of doing what Christ wants to be done. May He show all of His people, including independent local groups, more clearly what we should be doing!

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Simple Points for the Future

The survival of our local congregations must be addressed in the next few years while there is still time. We have had about 10 years since the breakup of the WCG, and it is clear that there is no group that is growing rapidly from new baptisms. There is still enough ability, energy and money in many of the groups to change their method of operation now. There needs to be time for planning—time to make mistakes and recover from them. If nothing is done now, in another 10 years there probably will not be enough ability, energy and money to make significant changes.

It is true that God must call people, but Christ gave His disciples the job of going and delivering the message. Historically, the Apostles healed people, and the grateful people wanted to hear their message. Today, we have financial and teaching resources that they never had, so we can help people, and then teach them in ways that the Apostles never could.

If headquarters evangelism efforts are not bringing people to our fellowships, then it would be best to learn to teach others locally. TV or radio is possible, but live studies seem to work better. Most of the lessons we need can be learned from the Truckers Bible Study (Servants’ News March 1998 to present—available if you ask). Arlo and Lenny (who conduct the study) are reaching a difficult audience—people whose jobs take them all over the country, who can almost never attend regularly. The same techniques applied to a church should work even better. The important lessons as this writer sees them:

1) Tell God you want to serve Him and ask Him to show you how.

2) Start with people who are committed to work hard for several years with a specific plan to teach others. Arlo and Lenny patiently waited through a number of weeks during the first year of their study when nobody came to listen.

3) Have a definite location and time. Most new guests come by reference from a friend (there is a lot of suspicion of advertisements for religious groups). The location can be your own building, a long-term rented building or a facility available free.

4) Have a topic planned for each presentation, but be willing to answer questions, even if they occupy the entire study.

5) Let visitors with sound Bible knowledge share it with the others.

6) Do not look down upon, but be willing to teach and help “sinners” (drug users, prostitutes, criminals, etc.) Reject them only when they pose a real danger to others attending the study.

7) Be ready for confrontation or questions that one cannot answer, realizing that teachers will get better with time.

8) Do a modest amount of inviting and advertising to the study. Do not try to portray it as something “big and important” but as humble people getting together to answer questions from the Bible.

9) Have Bibles and literature available for those who are interested. You can use literature from many groups. (Media-based church organizations are usually fearful to send out another group’s literature lest they lose prospective members to that group. But, a local group with live, interactive studies is not likely to lose a prospective member to a distant organization by giving out some of their literature.)

10) Don’t give up. Only stop one program when you are replacing it with another one that is clearly better.

— NSE

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