Sunk Costs?

In economic jargon, sunk costs are resources that are spent and cannot be recovered. Far too often, unsuccessful initiatives are continued due to the significant money already invested in them. Overpaid and underperforming athletes who are given playing time ahead of more talented teammates because of bloated, poorly conceived contracts are obvious examples. Instead of throwing good money after the bad, the best path is absorbing one’s losses (the sunk costs) and expending future resources in a different, more effective way.

Little effort is needed to find a spiritual growth guru or church planting book asserting traditional/mainline/institutional churches are sunk costs. These congregations are aging, their financial resources are shrinking, they have become culturally irrelevant, and their unhealthy habits are hard to change. All these statements are factually correct but the conclusion is wrong. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other denominations with many congregations fitting these descriptions need to radically rethink their approach to dying churches and double down on their commitment to partnering with God in reviving them.

There is nothing religiously sexy about such congregations. The worship service has often gone stale. The youth group is non-existent because the youth have vacated the building. Yet, inside the walls of these churches are faithful Christians tirelessly working to love God and neighbor. They suffer pain, grieve loss, and need hope. The spiritual needs and Christian formation of the members in these “remnant congregations” are real and equally deserving of pastoral attention.

The ministry challenges these congregations present are astoundingly large. A pastor in this setting has to care for the dying while working for resurrection. Some might claim that cutting losses and focusing resources in other places is the responsible and realistic thing to do. Such an argument is neither compelling nor faithful. It admits of defeat before energy has even been expended, while placing artificial limitations on what God can do when humans are willing to take risks and think imaginatively. It makes the theological mistake of assuming what is represents what will always be.

Many of these churches hold misguided priorities (spending money on a building while cutting outreach budgets, for example), but they are earnestly trying to live into their identity as Church. What they need are passionate, intelligent, and dedicated shepherds to guide, nurture, and challenge them. Developing and equipping the leaders for a time such as this is imperative.

The work of New Church Ministries is impressive and the potential of the Hope Partnership is promising. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has much to be excited about but more is needed in terms of attention and resources. Our existence and witness hinges on the revitalization and transformation of struggling congregations. The compassion of the cross and the promise of the resurrection testify that God’s People can never be sunk costs.

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About Beau Underwood

I'm a Disciples of Christ pastor currently working for a progressive faith advocacy organization in our nation's capitol. All views expressed in my posts are solely my own and do not reflect or imply endorsement by either my organization or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

4 thoughts on “Sunk Costs?

  1. How is the kingdom of God be furthered by making ourselves chaplains of a sinking ship, singing “Nearer My God to Thee” till the salt water pours down our throats? Underwood suggests that we need “passionate, intelligent, and dedicated shepherds…Developing and equipping the leaders for a time such as this is imperative.” But there has not been a failure to provide good pastors. Stop blaming all their previous pastors! These churches have resisted decades of exactly those kinds of pastors, leaving those once passionate, intelligent and dedicated leaders disillusioned, burned out and in many cases despairing of hope. No pastor, no matter how “passionate, intelligent and dedicated” can save a congregation against their will. These churches have chosen to die, and they will continue to resist the best efforts of any pastors, no matter how passionate, dedicated, intelligent or well trained – and there have been plenty. They don’t want any more heroic efforts to save them against their will. They intend to keep on being exactly what they are until they die.

  2. Maybe it is time to realise that “being church” and “being in worship” are two different purposes and neither requires the other and maybe they are even mutually exclusive. It seems that “being church” inevitably leads to being more concerned about largeness than largess, being more concerned about organization than outreach, being more concerned about persuasion than presence.

    I am beginning to think that it would be more productive to replace Occupy Wall Street with De-Occupy Church and De-Occupy Corporations. Is it time to abandon formal economic and industrial structures and, instead, create an alternative community more interested in living as an extended family of love and grace, justice and compassion, generosity and hospitality, education and art, peace and wisdom than in getting ahead and accumulating wealth and creating technology that requires rare or difficult-to-recycle minerals and raping the global ecosystem.

  3. Well, Beau, you are dead right (no pun intended) about the people in “dying” congregations – they are still people that need care, guidance, and support. They often are still active and committed. They love their church and hope what made it so life-giving for them can continue.

    The challenge is that we continue to need a larger conversation about what “revitalization” or “transformation” means.

    Are we talking finances? Can they pay their bills and a pastor now?

    Are we talking about numbers of people? Are they growing again or at least breaking even in congregation size? Do they look like their neighborhood?

    Are we talking about vision and mission? Do they know who they serve, and what God is calling them to do as a community to share God’s love through Jesus Christ?

    The trickiness is that “transformation” from an irrelevant community of faith to a relevant community of faith might be all three… or it might be something completely different. In some cases, revitalization might be letting a congregation gracefully cease, so that new communities can emerge in its place. Even for a well-trained pastor, discerning that vision and enacting it is extremely difficult. Yes, let’s provide resources, guidance, and support for congregations in need of transformation, but still, the biggest investment for that transformation has to come from the congregation itself.

  4. Seems to me the biggest investment for that transformation has to come from God. And the investment from the congregation is in being willing to listen for God’s leading, learning how to listen, trying some of the many ways to listen to find what works for them to actually hear, opening up for the courage to be what they hear (“I believe; help my unbelief!”), and strategizing and implementing therefrom. Pastors can be trained and/or may be gifted for work with the congregational investment. Most pastors are probably better at the listening for God end or the strategy/implementation end of that string, but not both.

    And old horses can be lead to a new trough to find fresh water. Though they may alternately creep or buck along the way. And may or may not finally get there. It takes a bold and a patient hand to lead them along. And one willing to also do the work of listening lest they mistakenly think they already know the way.

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