[See all articles in this series HERE.]
In the 25th chapter of the Old Testament book of Leviticus the concept of a sabbatical year and a year of jubilee are presented. Without going into deep biblical interpretation, let me simply overview the concept.
For six years the land is farmed. During the seventh year it is not. It is a year of sabbatical. For seven sets of seven years the land is farmed and a sabbatical taken. The 50th year is a year of jubilee. It is like starting over.
This is the basic concept. Biblical scholars and theologians can educate and entertain us with much more in-depth understandings of what Leviticus 25 says.
My purpose here is to draw from this brief overview what I believe is an excellent comparison to the pattern of the life cycle of congregations. It is a pattern congregations need to understand and follow. The amazing thing is that it seems to fit what might be close to an ideal pattern for congregations.
The number seven suggests something is complete, perfect, or finished. Thus, a stage or stages of congregational life is nearing completion after six years. The seventh year should be a time of sabbatical to pause for a fresh discernment about the leadership of God for the next stage of a congregation’s life. Congregations should follow this pattern for seven stages of their life.
Every 50th year congregations should start all over again. They should relaunch for a new half-century. They should aggressively jettison the cultural baggage that weighs them down so they can honor the heritage that enrichens their life. They should discern what their life and ministry might be for at least the next season of six years followed by a sabbatical year.
The Life Cycle and Stages of Congregational Development
The concepts of sabbatical and jubilee can be used to characterize the stages of the congregational life cycle. Many of the stages, or a spiral through a stage, can be characterized as seven years. There are some exceptions, but this is a reliable pattern.
This does not mean a stage is exactly seven years. It can be more or less. It does not mean that after seven years, congregations automatically move on to the next stage. It is more complicated than that. It is just a good beginning point for assessment and dialogue.
The stages of congregational development are ten. They are Birth, Infancy, Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood, Maturity, Empty Nest, Retirement, Old Age and Death.
Every congregation has a life cycle into which four organizing principles fit. These principles are Visionary Leadership, Relationship Experiences, Programmatic Emphases, and Accountable Management. [See overview article HERE.]
Looking at congregations according to their life cycle assists in developing the ability to see, understand, and pursue opportunities and choices available to congregations at a particular stage of development. The life cycle begins with Birth, followed by a period of growth, the achievement of prime involving Adulthood and Maturity, a period of aging, and then Death. Redevelopment forward to a new partial life cycle can occur at any stage along the aging side of the life cycle beginning with Maturity.
Birth and Infancy tends to be around seven years. Childhood is seven years, and so is Adolescence. At this point congregations usually attain Adulthood which is part of the phase called Prime. Within another seven years or less they move forward to Maturity.
After Maturity, the stages of Empty Nest, Retirement, and Old Age follow. But, they are not necessarily seven years each. This is where it gets complicated. Where the seven years comes in is that once a congregation reaches Maturity, their ideal next stage is to spiral forward to a new partial life cycle.
Once a congregation is at least a generation old of 21 to 28 years, it needs to spiral forward at each sabbatical every seventh year. If it does not, it will continue down the aging side of the life cycle to Empty Nest, Retirement, and Old Age. Or, it can redevelop forward.
If congregations ignore the sabbatical and jubilee years through which they pass, they will eventually die. Death is the end for many congregations. For some congregations, following Death there can be a resurrection. I will address this another time.
As you think long-term about your congregation, consider hardwiring into your pattern of life appropriate sabbatical and jubilee years. Your congregation will be much more vital and vibrant throughout its life if you do so.