Strategies for congregational growth

Tips from thriving congregations

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With Episcopal churches closing at an alarming rate, attendance in decline and ever-shrinking budgets, being hopeful about the future of the church can be difficult.

But despite these challenges, some congregations are finding ways to grow – and even thrive.

Here are some of the ways they are doing it.

Welcome & Integrate

Since fall 2005 when the Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer arrived at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, their average Sunday attendance has doubled, to 100. The church recently added a third Sunday service as well.

Wagner Sherer attributes the growth to several factors, including a “radical” welcome for new faces and a desire to integrate the secular with the sacred.

For starters, Wagner Sherer sends new people a handwritten note thanking them for attending a service and invites them to coffee.

“Starbucks is my second office,” she said.

Over coffee, she will ask them about their interests, what motivated them to come to church and invites them to come back.

Wagner Sherer went on to say that even though she tries not to “put anyone in boxes,” when prospective members speak about a hobby, such as gardening, during that meeting, she takes note. Then when they come back to church, she makes an effort to introduce them to members who share the same interest.

“My role is to connect people,” she explained.

She also pointed out that too often churches focus the majority of their efforts on blessing “church things” and “ignoring the secular part” of people’s lives, and warned that this can start to make church seem irrelevant to otherwise faithful Christians.

Wagner Sherer said her congregation tries to counter this way of thinking by, for example, praying for accountants during tax season.

She admited the prayers made some folks chuckle a bit at first, but the congregation was on board.

“People like that we acknowledge that all aspects of life are holy,” she said.

Grab Low-Hanging Fruit & Let Go

Before the Rev. John Mennell arrived at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, N.J., in November 2006, average Sunday attendance had dropped by more than half, to under 100, leaving an operating deficit of more than $100,000.

“The leadership was exhausted. But the Spirit was alive and well,” Mennell said.

Today, average Sunday attendance is more than 210, and plate and pledge giving has doubled.

Mennell credits the growth to “God’s grace and lots of wonderful parts coming together.” One of those parts is Mennell’s focus on what he calls “low-hanging fruit.”

“There are so many amazing programs out there, but I feel like people long for simplicity and community,” he said.

So after coffee hour one Sunday, he joined some of the kids playing wiffle ball on the parish lawn. Over the course of a few weeks, they came up with some rules for a home-run derby and formed the St. Luke’s Association for Wiffle Ball (SLAWB) and allowed everyone to participate.

They made a web page, tracked the stats and had up-to-date, tongue-in-cheek reporting. The No. 1 league rule was that you had to receive communion that day to participate, Mennell explained.

He knew his idea was a hit when a family who lived two hours away said they drove all the way to St. Luke’s because their sons wanted to participate.

While SLAWB died out after about three years, the impact lingers, he said. “The equipment costs five dollars, but the community building was huge,” he noted. Mennell said it worked because it created an immediate need and excitement in the community.

“Look for what’s right in front of you, and use it,” he said.

A willingness to let a program die once it has run its course is also essential for growth, he added.

Study & Pray

In the spring of 2011, the Rev. Jason Emerson and the vestry of the Church of the Resurrection in Omaha started the Unbinding the Gospel series by Martha Grace Reese.

Working and praying through the exercises of the first book in the series, Emerson and the vestry members reported growth in their own spiritual lives.

They also noticed growth in the pews as the church’s average Sunday attendance increased from 55 to 75.

This fall, more of the church’s leaders will start the series with the goal of the entire congregation beginning in Lent 2013.

Emerson said the series has not only helped deepen the leaders’ faith, but has provided more tools for them to speak about their faith with others.

“Prayer works,” Emerson concluded.

Social Media & Small Groups

In the sanctuary of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Katy, Texas, two large video screens project song lyrics and the sermon outline during services.

Darrel Proffitt, lead pastor, often uses videos that highlight congregants’ personal testimonies to support points of his sermon.

Sermons are always presented as a series, which allows the church to promote coming attractions to members, regular attendees and guests. The outlines of sermons, or “messages” as they’re called, are included in the bulletins but are also available on smartphone and tablets through the YouVersion live events.

“Social media is part of the way we connect,” Proffitt said.

He went on to explain that an emphasis on small groups is also driving growth at the congregation, which has an average Sunday attendance of 400 to 500. Over 200 church members meet weekly in people’s homes and in the church. There are between 25 and 30 small groups, he said, and that number continues to grow.

“When someone joins us, we hope to help them make nine new friends in six months,” he said. “If this happens, we don’t lose them through the back door, since they’ve developed relationships with others.”

Tap the Youth & Serve the Neighborhood

A Sunday night prayer-book worship service at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Phoenix may include a rap or a testimony by a church member, said Celebration Pastor Matt Marino.

This youth-focused church plant, which is growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year, isn’t afraid to try new things to resonate with its multi-ethnic community, whose members are mostly under 35 years old. This fall the church has about 55 members and about 84 people who attend services each week, an increase partly due, Marino explained, to a nearby college that is back in session.

Marino points to an All Saints’ Day liturgy that the congregation wrote, which tells the stories of Christian martyrs through the ages while large altar candles placed around the room are lit – a ceremony that appealed to this group.

St. Jude’s also hosts a family-friendly Cinco de Mayo event where they rent a big bouncy house and pass out postcards inviting the people in the neighborhood to attend.

“Everyone comes,” Marino said, “the families, the homeless guys, the meth heads.”

Events like this help get folks who might not otherwise come to a church-sponsored event in the door, Marino explained.


(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship and a parishioner at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.)


  1. the Rev. Ellie McLaughlin, Ph.D. says:

    Where is the focus, opportunity for communal, personal encounter with the Holy, the possibility of discovering Self, World as grounded in the Enchantment of the Spirit…is there not too much focus here on ‘learning’, or social connection without an Opening to the Mysterium Tremendum? Just wondering, old cradle Episcopalian, medievalist, Please someone comment…I’m trying to write a book about the Church as faithful and I find Modernity, post Cartesian epistemology, especially USA brand of Market Global Capitalism as well as individualism and the temptation to Accommodation to the same as what is killing the Church???? Ellie+

    • Diane Ludin says:

      As a fellow cradle Episcopalian who has been on a long, bumpy faith journey, I offer this reply:

      Although the unchurched need “an oppurtunity for communal, personal encounter with the Holy” as well as the rest of us, they may not know it. However, they may recognize a need for community. If they are attracted to community by something they understand, even if it be secular, they will have the opportunity to grow in Christ’s love within that community.

      As Christians, we all have the opportunity to exhibit Christ’s love in our lives. It is that love, often experienced through community, that has and always will grow our churches. What’s more, I feel a faithful Church and a faithful person is one that follows God’s primary commandments to love.

  2. At St. Luke in the Fields in NYC, we keep the doors open–and people come in. Don’t underestimate the attractiveness of a simple open door.

    We’ve also found that a prayerful, well-executed worship service with high quality music attracts people who are looking for something *different* from entertainment.

    We have a booming 20s/30s group, whose members mostly attend our choral Eucharist. We have a professional choir that sings everything from early chant to premieres of Mass settings. The congregation sings too–loudly and well. There are weekday Eucharists Monday through Friday, prayer groups, as well as social and service opportunities.

    Pledging was up more than 10% last year, and we are constantly attracting families and adults for baptism, confirmation, and reception.

  3. Tony Gomowad says:

    The past five years, I’ve been attending Sunday services of a few churches on island, Episcopal, Lutheran (supported by both the ELCA & Missouri Synod) United Church of Christ, and a few times at the Roman Catholic Church. The congregations that are thriving share a common feature: their leaders are significantly involved with the lives and concerns of their regular members. Their “Prayers of the People” usually takes more time and there is equal emphases on the celebration/sharing of “joys.” There must be more but being used to the pretty set “Prayers of the People, Forms III & VI” in the Episcopal Service, with Leaders obviously not having done any preparation at all, I usually took notice of the difference.

  4. Trinity’s weekly worship attendance has increased by over 40% in the last year and our pledges have increased by 70%. We are a downtown, historical/traditional parish. Whatever success we have is 100% due to parishioner participation. Simply put, I (the rector) ask/listen to parishioner’s discuss their passions. These lead us into new ministries. If we support something new, then fantastic. If not, it goes by the wayside. We try new things, not forgetting our past, but to embrace it as we move forward. We love our traditional worship, even a few smells and bells; but we’re also not afraid of big screens, contemporary music and the newcomers they seem to attract.

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