The Myth of the Congregational "Life Cycle"?

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


While I was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1980s, I read Robert Dale's book, To Dream Again, whose fundamental insight was based on describing congregations in terms, more or less, of a life cycle. I later got to meet and talk with Robert Dale when my father in law invited him to Evansville to address the annual pastoral care conference he hosted as chaplain for Welborn Hospital.

It's a very good book, very helpful in many ways. Among other things, I'd suggest that Robert Dale here really sort of scooped the ideas presented the later discussions of adaptive versus technical change. The original version of Dale's book came out in the 1980s. The others are at least a decade or two later. The other titles no doubt made more money-- maybe in part because they were sold to a broader audience than congregational leaders. But Robert Dale really did nail some key concepts, I think, about what sort of changes can produce what sorts of results at various stages of a congregation's or organization's life.

But what I'm coming to question both about Dale's book and a good bit of subsequent literature in congregational and organizational development is the notion of organizational life cycle.

Do organizations have a kind of life? Yes. But is whatever one calls organizational life analogous to a life cycle, and in particular a human life cycle? Here, I'd argue no. The analogy is tempting, sometimes even somewhat illuminating. But from what I can see, it represents a category error.

A "category error" or "category mistake" happens when you try to describe one type of phenomenon in terms of another type to which it does not properly belong. In common parlance, it's describing apples using the properties of oranges, or perhaps rocks. Apples make very strange oranges, indeed. Maybe even stranger rocks (except for the plastic ones, I guess!). I think the history of very long-lived organizations such as the church, in all its diverse forms, is pretty good witness that trying to apply descriptors of life cycle to organizations is misleading at best, and perhaps even rather damaging.

Here's the problem that comes from that category error, especially for congregations and other intentionally institutional forms of Christian community. We can end up creating or reframing our congregations as if they are intended to be short-term organizations with short-term vision and short-term mission if we buy this.

In other words, we get "disposable church." Or "disposable conference." Or "disposable-name-your-organization." And so we do not plan for what we seek to build to outlast us-- and to continue to provide a solid foundation for taking the best of what we can see forward for generations to come.

To be sure, not everything we do as church needs to have that kind of longer range expectation. There is good merit in the short term for all sorts of things--- mission projects, special-purpose small groups for study or practice, some musical groups, and so on. Mortality is not only an enemy but also a gift in some ways. There is plenty good room for things to come and go. Not everything needs to last beyond us.

But some things do. And I would argue (and I invite you to disagree and counter-argue!) that congregations may be among them. We need to build those public institutions to be lasting, in every way, if we intend them to have a lasting influence on those who are affected by them. At least, that is, if we believe that such institutions represent and support values that not only outlive us, but that we are ready to die for.

I can hear a counter-argument. What about all those United Methodist congregations built during the "big boom" of Methodist church starts from the 1880s-1920s out in small towns where nobody lives anymore? Didn't "building to last" turn out to create more of a liability than a benefit?

It's a fair question. I'm not denying at all that congregational facilities may now be poorly located, or that some congregations themselves may be, organizationally speaking, zombies (dead, but still walking around). Things happen. People move. Towns dry up. Jobs move away. And, yes, congregations get too internally focused on survival and move into a sort of "congregational dementia." Those things occur.

What I'm denying is that visioning for what our congregations are should begin by taking those possibilities as inevitabilities. What I'm denying is that the life of a congregation (or organization) is necessarily limited by erstwhile generational trends.

What I fear (because I've seen this done a few too many times!) is that the notion of congregations (or other entities) having a life cycle (rather than a kind of life intended to outlast us) foreshortens our vision, cripples our planning, and, in a perverse way, gives us an excuse NOT to build sufficient organizational capacity when, if we didn't have the idea of the inevitability of organizational mortality in our minds as we began (or even dreamed again!) we really could have planned better and done better in both the shorter and the longer term. For, after all, the most we can ever hope to work for is whatever we imagine the organization's expected life to be-- and we've pegged that, in this model, more or less to a human life cycle.

Neil Cole, I know, would argue vociferously against this. Indeed he has, calling any interest to build what is intended to outlast us a form of blasphemy, heresy and idolatry. He is deeply concerned that building institutions is a sign of a decay in a movement. His argument here is compelling-- about movements and organic groups. Not so much about institutions.

I would argue to the contrary that the founding of institutions could be seen as a sign of maturation of particular aspects of a movement, or that it is actually not necessarily related to movements at all. I would also argue that movements aren't good or helpful (or harmful!) because they're movements, any more than institutions are good or helpful (or deadly!) because they're institutions. Rather, I'd suggest that different forms of human organizational life are best suited for producing different kinds of outcomes. Movements are great for hands-on involvement and personal transformation. Institutions are great, potentially, at providing supportive structures, resources and other kinds of networks that can support those movements-- IF the movement and institution see themselves as each supporting the other and neither sees itself as "the one right way."

So when it comes to organizations such as Christians congregations that are, or at least have been now for 1400 plus years, local public Christian religious institutions, maybe rather than talking about life cycles, a more appropriate kind of language might be "trajectories."

So maybe the question isn't whether a congregation or denomination is "dying."

Maybe the better question is about whether it still has or can recruit momentum enough to stay "in flight" or to increase its angle of velocity to continue to reach its targets, and if so, for how long.

That's not an organic question. Telomeres will win out on all our cells, period. It is better understood (though not solely so!), I think, as a question of forces and capacities. I'm all for biology! And I'm all for organic forms of Christian community. We need more of them!

But when it comes to organizational longevity, physics may be the more relevant source for describing what makes for effective institutions, including congregations, for the longer run.

I still find To Dream Again insightful and useful. I just don't find the life cycle analogies to fit what congregations (or other institutional forms of Christian community) are or have been designed to be for quite some time.

What do you think?