The Death Spiral: Businesses and Churches

A Death Spiral is a sequence of destructive choices that collectively lead to certain disaster, but are each the best choice available at that time. In other words, once you’re on the death spiral, you’ll either ride it to the end, or else you’ll make a break for it. But making a break for it is most likely to bring a more rapid end (with a small chance of saving the situation).

Death Spiral is a term that came into business-speak originally to refer to a spiral of debt, where more debt is needed to service the previous debt, and so on, until the company is bankrupt. But if the company had not taken on more debt, it would have risked having to miss orders, miss salary payments, default on its loans, and spoil its reputation: so the best option at each point in time was to take on more debt. And hope.

Hope is the key feature of the death spiral. As a business owner, you see where things are going. But the choice is to severely damage what you have, or to keep on hoping. Hoping that there’ll be a sudden influx of customers, hoping that productivity will suddenly soar. You can’t afford to invest in those things to make them happen, so all that is left is hope.

Many mainline churches are stuck in their own death spiral, clinging on to hope. The church is shrinking, those people who remain are being pressured (overtly or implicitly) for more money, more of their time, their responsibilities are growing, the minister (if the church even has one) finds their time is getting more stretched, even as their salary shrinks. Meanwhile a very small handful of churches are growing, are glitzy and attractive, full of great worship and enthusiastic children’s work. Growing mostly by sucking people out of the surrounding churches, particularly those people who are impatient to see something happen, leaving behind those who prefer to be, rather than do.

But death spiral churches can’t just change direction. That would alienate those already in the congregation, disrupt important relationships and damage the community. And the church owes those stalwarts continuity and support. They have been loyal, and their giving keeps the church running, even as there are fewer and fewer of them. No, radical action is unfair, as well as dangerous. If many of them left, before new folks came, the end would come much faster, and with more certainty.

Better to hope. Hope for a new influx of people, hope for a wave of enthusiasm, hope for fresh ideas, hope that God sends help.

Stephen Lingwood, the Unitarian minister and blogger, posts every year on the numbers of Unitarians in Britain. The numbers shrink, churches close, others struggle with no minister, or prospect for growth. Some grow, most don’t. It is a pattern repeated across different denominations. It is easy to focus on the politically brash and big churches and ministers, the mega-churches, and the tv-stations. But most churches aren’t like that, and most are doing poorly.

If you are in a death spiral, what do you do? What’s the right answer?

There isn’t one. Breaking out of the spiral isn’t the right thing to do. At any point it is a bad choice. In a business it might mean putting people out of work, in a church it might mean alienating people from their community. Sometimes the right thing to do is to ride the spiral down, to live in hope, and when the time comes, face the end with dignity.

Some businesses and churches try new things, but that’s often not a good solution. A friend of mine was involved with a business in a death spiral, they set up a completely unrelated business on the side. The new business grew, and the old one was allowed to fizzle out. This was fine for their management team and shareholders, but not for their highly skilled staff nor the companies in their supply chain.

Some churches are doing similar things, running parallel congregations, different expressions of church. A church in my town growing up did this: it started a new all-singing service alongside its traditional one, and gradually over a couple of years, the traditional one continued to decline, until it was stopped all together. The old church initially celebrated the influx of new people, but when it became clear they were not going to invigorate the congregation, but replace it, things got nasty. The minster left, a new replacement was hired, one with even less reason to sustain what had gone before. A successful new project can accelerate the death spiral in the old one. While the management/minister and a few others can make the transition, most will suffer the same fate in either case.

There is no right answer. But it is a miserable process. I reflect on the business ventures I’ve started that have failed, and there is nothing quite so soul destroying and knowing where things are going, but being powerless to avoid it. And I can’t help but feel sorry for those I know who’s congregations are going the same way. Particularly as, in many cases, the churches who are struggling this way are those that I think are positive forces for community and support.

[This is an extended and bloggified version of a conversation I had today with an online friend who is a former Methodist minister.]



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7 responses to “The Death Spiral: Businesses and Churches

  1. John Clavin

    Most churches follow a paradigm of dogmatic belief that does not work in our modern world. The human race is continuously evolving with a more sophisticated level of understanding.
    Here is my list for the Catholic church as to how they can stay relevant and not upset the existing congregation.

    The new order of Catholicism

    1. Women can be priests.
    2. Gay is OK for marriage and priests.
    3. Priests can get married.
    4. Birth Control is OK.
    5. The focus is on spirituality and not belief.
    6. The stories of Christ can be considered metaphors.
    7. The Nicene Creed has been changed to respect all beliefs including atheism and humanism.

  2. Ian

    Would be an interesting turn around to see!

    And while it is true that many churches are failing, often it is the mainline churches that are dying more quickly. Certainly around here, and certainly the ex-minister I was talking to was thinking of this.

    It would be nice to think liberalism was the answer, but the Unitarians around here are dying out very quickly. I’m not sure what the answer is.

  3. It was interesting that Unitarians are dying too. It all reminds of me of evolution and of a free market: things change and losers lament.

  4. Ian

    It is definitely free market-ness. Church is now thoroughly a leisure activity, and despite their rhetoric of bringing in new believers, most are purely in competition with each other for a diminishing and aging market. Those churches crowing about amazing growth are — as far as I can see — mostly succeeding by out-competing others and drawing in adherents from other congregations.

  5. John Clavin

    It seems that Unitarians still have the belief there is intent to structure in the universe. I can’t see this working in the modern world. A truly contemporary religion would eliminate all belief requirements and focus on the spirituality of the human mind and human connectivity.
    The Catholic church would be great for this type reconstruction. It would put them back on top.

  6. Ian

    Thanks John. Any ideas how to encourage the Catholic Church in that direction. Would it take a papal reformer, or a grass roots movement?

  7. John Clavin

    Ian, Good question. I think unforeseen events over the next 30 years will be the main impetus. A papal reformer could take advantage of such events. I believe most Catholics would welcome such changes. We all adopted the fish on friday change without a problem.

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