May 1, 2017—If there is a subject area of books written for clergy that usually end up making “persons of the cloth” all feel inadequate and beyond the task, it is in the area of “church growth.” But Bob Dale’s most recent book, Cultivating Perennial Churches: Your Guide to Long-Term Growth, Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 2008, might actually invite pastors and church leaders to gain some confidence in addressing church growth and development by going at it from a purely “organic” angle. Yes, Bob Dale, brings to the reader an opportunity to apply the best of the plant world’s perennial language of gardening, but sets the metaphor in the context of church growth and organizational development.
The interests of his approach are in helping the pastor and church leadership understand that church growth which is for the long term is about investing in the church’s identity, in its mission, and doing so with consistency over time so that growth will happen from season to season.
The table of contents organizes well the approach as Dale introduces the concepts of looking at long-term growth, what makes churches distinct and unique using this kind of approach, and then a chapter on seven different congregations with attempts to give evidence of these distinctive characteristics. Each church is quite different in terms of size, functional ethos, history, and flavor, which is a very positive aspect of the book for this reader, because churches are never based on a standard, cookie-cutter model and how we go about leading change and organizational development will also reflect the nature and particularities of each congregation. He then closes out the book with a concluding summary of what leadership looks like if they want to nurture churches for long-term growth, for the long haul, and for large chunks of time where the church sees multiple evidences of vitality and life in its worship, education, mission, and morale as a community.
I’ve known Bob Dale for over 22 years and continue to find his work relevant, engaging, and helpful for the regular, everyday pastor, of which I am one. I also find that he takes times both in communicating well his ideas and supporting his theological presuppositions with good biblical and theological foundations. It was easy to read, coherent, with clear concepts and lots of originality. I even used some of the material I found especially in chapter nine for a recent Church Council Retreat as I invited my own leaders to ask whether or not our congregation is planning our growth to be perennial or not?
I know that I may be very biased as I look at my congregation, but taking Dale’s approach and assessing where we are and where we want to go was both enjoyable and meaningful as we reflected upon what it takes to maintain church vitality over long periods of time. I also felt very hopeful for my own setting that we were talking about church health, congregational vision, and identity more than numbers of new members, baptisms, and converts.
It seems to me that being a Master Gardener is about understanding the many variables that help a plant to become stronger, more vibrant, and to spread beyond its original organic beginnings but still reflect its DNA in new and exciting ways. Dale is reminding us that it is no different with churches and planting thoughtfully, feeding well and nurturing the life around you, and doing it with some consistency over time makes for all kinds of growth, even numerical, but not limited to it.
Elizabeth Pugh Mills, is Senior Pastor of Hampton Baptist Church . Betty Pugh Mills co-led the Colloquy for Mid-Career Clergy, part of the Pastoral Excellence Programs at the Center for Lifelong Learning. Previously she served on the faculty of Leadership In Ministry Workshops, in which she continues to participate.