A few years ago at the NEXT Church National Gathering I attended a workshop for pastors serving churches that might close. I noted that, aside from a friend of the presenter’s and a judicatory official, all the pastors in the room were women. While we may not be the only clergy serving congregations at the end of the life cycle, we seem to be the majority.
This week’s question asks how to start the conversation when we perceive it’s time to talk.
Greetings O Wise Ones!
My current call consists of a small town congregation and three very tiny (7-15 average weekly attendance) country congregations. The smallest of these knows that it’s just a matter of time before they close. They told me when they called me, and just last week after a funeral of one of their members, they mentioned it again. They are not ready to close yet but seem to be holding on for another senior member.
I feel like I should be in conversation with this congregation to do some “pre-planning,” but seminary doesn’t teach you how to close a church. What do they need to think about? How do I start the conversation?
I know there’s a larger conversation about such small worshiping communities staying open, but my only question at this point is how to best minister to a congregation that is actively dying.
What are your best practices for preparing a church to close?
Pastor Town and Country
Our first responder gets straight to the point.
Just off the top of my head, I’d start by asking THEM — and opening up for reminiscences — and take it from there.
Remember that closing may feel like death.
I have been trained as a grief counselor and a set of questions that I have worked through with many people over the years is: (1) What is lost? (2) What is left? (3) What is possible? The questions give a perspective of past / present / future. Since a congregation looking to close is grieving, it is helpful to have that conversation out in the open, to validate the feelings, to remember, to celebrate and give thanks for what has been, and to vision what their remnant may have to offer in the way of new life for someone else in the future.
Open up possibilities.
I appreciate and commend the wisdom that both CR and Anne have shared. Listening wisely to the people’s story and acknowledging the grief process is key. I also believe that all too often, congregations weight too long to discuss these things. As a result, they miss out on opportunities to make an important contribution to the larger church community. What gifts might they share with other congregations? Can they envision themselves as being a part of another community’s building or rebuilding process? Rather than gradually eating away at an endowment while in survival mode, what ministry might they support with those funds? Food pantry? Homeless shelter? Seminarians? Missionaries? How big and wild are they willing to dream? Wouldn’t it be exciting to end a congregation’s life by sharing their assets in a dynamic, grace-filled manner?
Get help from the judicatory.
I chaired an Administrative Commission of our Presbytery that was tasked with closing a church which knew it was time to close. Time for conversations and planning is very important. It allows the congregation to grieve and celebrate and find new hope. We worked with the session (leadership council) of the church and made a decision to close earlier than even their finances allowed (“stretching it out” allowed) so that they could give a substantial amount of money to a local ministry of their choice. It was a very sacred experience. We also invited members of surrounding churches of the same denomination to come and meet with the session and invite them to come worship with them.
I would add that it helps to think in terms of legacies, and it’s important to remember your own needs.
This past Sunday, I attended the final service of a church that I previously served as interim pastor. One of the things that helped them take the step toward talking about closure as a faithful action was recognizing that they no longer had the capacity to be the church as they thought God would want to see the church. In their case, there was enough money to hire a pastor, but not enough energy to be in ministry together. They considered possibilities like nesting a new congregation or outreach ministry but in the end found an existing program offering support for high school students that was looking for a home of its own; the church passed the building over to that group. I think they feel very good about having a legacy to hand down. During the final service, the Designated Pastor who walked the last miles with the congregation reminded them that while the church will be closed, they still have relationships with each other. I thought that was very helpful.
On a personal note, working with a congregation moving toward closure also carries a similar weight to walking with a family whose loved one is dying. It’s holy work, and it is heavy work. Be mindful of the feelings that may come up for you and have someone to talk to outside the church, whether a counselor, spiritual director, coach, or collegial support group.
It’s your turn, Dear Reader, to add your own good advice:
Have you been involved in the process of closing a church? What worked well? Anything to avoid? Answer in the comments below.
Are you struggling in a sticky situation? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and get some support and good advice from our Matriarchs.
Martha Spong is the Executive Director of RevGalBlogPals, a writer, and a clergy coach. Look for her new book, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith), coauthored with Rachel Hackenberg, coming in May, 2018. Martha is an enthusiastic student of the Enneagram. Follow her on Twitter @marthaspong.
Your regular curator, Sharon Temple, will be back next time.
RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.