Carol Howard Merritt is a young pastor on the rise. After resuscitating dying congregations in Louisiana and Rhode Island, the Presbyterian minister has brought her creative vision to Washington, D.C. where she pastors an urban church. She’s the author of Reframing Hope and Tribal Church, both with Alban Institute Press, and a regular contributor to the Christian Century. I sat down with her recently to discuss her career so far and what she feels are the greatest challenges facing the mainline church right now. (P.S. Check out her podcast at GodComplexRadio.com.) --JKR
You’ve been responsible for revitalizing several mainline churches now. What have you learned? What’s important?
Making sure the preaching is good every week. Understanding the local area. I was using prayers and liturgies from the Book of Common Worship when I first got to Louisiana, and then I read that there was only a 40 percent literacy rate in our area. It was one of the poorest areas in the United States, though the church had a wide range of people, including academics. So I just became very careful with my liturgy, with simplifying it all.
A lot of the growth came through understanding what the needs were in that community. I learned that the pregnancy rate among teenage girls was extremely high in that area. I began to work with the young teens in our congregation after school, just being there for them, giving them jobs to do around the church.
What happened with the Rhode Island church?
A lot of it was the same thing – making sure that Sunday morning worship was as strong as it could possibly be. In both of those places I was able to do a lot of art in worship. In Rhode Island we had a bigger youth group, so they did more art in the worship, especially during Holy Week.
So that church also grew. A lot of was focusing on college students at Brown and Roger Williams University. I would be a pastor to them, have them over for dinner and take them out to lunch. When you’re a solo pastor in a small congregation, pretty much what you have to offer is your time. You don’t have a lot of big programs, but you can spend time with people.
In your writing you’ve become known for books and articles that look at the difficult challenges facing mainline congregations but also express hope for the future. How do you balance that realism and optimism?
You can’t have half of your churches having no pastor and expect to be around in 20 years. And the average age [of congregants] is over 60 and it keeps climbing.
It’s very difficult to plant a congregation in our church [the PC(USA)]. Mainly it’s because our resources are wrapped up in buildings and properties, so the transition hasn’t happened to free up some of those resources for new ministry. But that’s a hard thing for people to hear.
But many exciting things are happening as well. I’m at Western [Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.]. It was a church that was almost closed down. In fact, it was on the floor of Presbytery for a vote, and they decided to keep it open because the members of the church fought for it. And it’s thriving; it’s doing great. So I believe that churches can be revitalized.
I understand you feel that part of the solution is to liquidate some of the denomination’s property?
Yes. I get a lot of pushback for that from people. I love historical buildings and beautiful architecture, and I think that’s extremely important to preserve them when we can. So I understand that perspective. Plus there are certain racial-ethnic populations who feel very vulnerable when I talk about closing churches.
At this point, it’s not like presbyteries need to go in and close a lot of churches, if we can just have a plan for the money and the resources that will be coming available in the next 20 years. We don’t have to push these churches to close, but when they are ready, we need to have a plan.
Short of closing, what else can congregations do with their buildings?
If it is a beautiful, historic building, what are ways that we can help to transform that building and use it more widely? I was in a church in Europe where they cut the church in half. The first half became a gorgeous café, a beautiful space. They used the balconies from the sanctuary for seating. Then you could go into the sanctuary space, which was still lovely, but it was half the size it had been.
Right now, bookstores are closing all over the US. Could we use our churches as bookstores? Can we use them for gallery space? Can we use them for coffeehouses? Can our buildings start becoming bivocational?
Let’s not become dinosaurs who hoard resources, using our churches for one hour a week, and letting them stay empty for the rest of the time. We can learn to use what we have for ministry and building up our communities. Some churches do an airspace deal. A church in our neighborhood sold their air rights so there’s an apartment building on top of the church, but the church could rebuild its own space that was crumbling and in disrepair.
Another thing we can do is have multicongregational churches. Let an immigrant congregation use the worship space.
One thing you’ve really opened my eyes to is the rise of lay leadership in mainline churches.
We’re relying a lot on commissioned lay pastors. We spend a lot of time talking about how to prepare ministers, with educational degrees, exams, internships, and Clinical Pastoral Education, when almost half of our churches are actually being led by laypeople. So if you are a person who wants to work in ministry, would you really need to go to seminary for years when you could pastor a small church right now? Why incur all of the debt for preparation?
Our denomination has historically expected our clergy to be educated. If we want to keep that model, then it will be important to fully support women and men in it. Can we give more to education so students don’t have to go into tremendous debt? Can we begin to create new jobs? If seminary graduates want to start new ministries, can we figure out ways to support them, spiritually and monetarily?
This is a great time of transition for many denominations. We will need much care and discernment to navigate it all.