Singing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land: Pastors’ Journeys through the Closing of Their Churches

This week’s post is written by the Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata, an Episcopal priest and sociologist of religion whose current research focuses on pastors who close churches. Learn more about Gail in her bio below. 

…Just as we are mortal, so are churches. They have life cycles…they will come to an end, and that is where we find ourselves,” preached one pastor at their closing service. “But here is one thing we must always remember, and that is that we are an Easter people. Because we are an Easter people, we know that death is not the end; it is merely a new beginning.”

We are Easter people, but not every day or season is Easter. We are Easter people; but when our church closed in the season of Easter, we would not sing “That Easter day with joy was bright.” I don’t think it was happenstance that a solar eclipse darkened the sky during our closing worship. In a recent survey, pastors who had closed churches were asked:  “If closing your congregation were like a church season, what one would it be for you as a pastor?” Nearly six in ten answered Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Twice as many said Good Friday (28%) as did Easter (13%); some chose Advent (9%) or Christmas and Epiphany (9%). (Total may exceed 100% because people could check multiple responses.) One pastor chose to close her church in Lent: “I wanted Easter; but in some ways I think that Easter would have been very hard – resurrection when they were so clearly still in Good Friday.” Serving a closing church can be like singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

Pastors live as Easter people through all seasons of the church year. One pastor wrote, “Ash Wednesday… I was feeling kind of penitential about it and there’s always, in the back of your head, the thought that there was something that I could have done. Even now, two years later, I can’t think of anything that I could have done differently.” For many pastors and their congregations, the process of closing a church is like Lent, a time of prayerful introspection, resting along the wilderness path, and speaking the truth in love.

Palm Sunday opens a season of Passiontide, of Jesus’ suffering and stumbling to the cross, like waiting by the bedside of the dying. Hope visits. Hope flies away. Those who overcome pangs of trembling come to witness, hold a hand, whisper words of love. Some flee the church altogether. Others wait apart for the dreaded news. Holy Week is not knowing what to do, feeling helpless and powerless to stop the death. The faithful gather, the frightened scatter. For many pastors, closing a church is like this.

StPetersUCC

Members and friends gathered at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Kansas City, MO for their final worship service on April 3, 2016. Service was led by the Rev. Jody Furnas-Wright. (Photo by Rev. Dr. Ginny Brown Daniel, Missouri Mid-South Conference.)

For many, “It was like Good Friday only in terms of blackness, which would’ve been the appropriate garb. And it was not Good Friday in the sense of that this is the triumph of the church.” Jesus who healed the lame, leprous and demonic, challenged oppressors of widows, orphans and the poor, and promised a new community of compassionate kin-ship for all, will die today. Memories of blessings and grace are crushed by the reality that this is the end. Bystanders and crazed relatives show up to watch. Some gawk. The faithful wonder “Where were you when he was accused?” Mary Magdalene and a few faithful dare to sit at the foot of the cross. When he dies, Joseph of Arimathea offers a tomb for the burial. We will do the right thing before the day ends. For many pastors, closing a church is like this.

On Holy Saturday Jesus lay in the tomb. The disciples flee while John and Mary, Jesus’ mother, now son and mother, cling to one another. One pastor said, “It’s very much like Holy Saturday…I’m sure that the apostles felt when they were in the upper room, they had buried Jesus, he was dead. Everything, all the hopes and ideals and goals that they had had in life, for good or for ill, were gone. They had no vision of where to go from there.” Another said, “…maybe Holy Saturday, that incredible time of quiet; and I know that at the closing service as we were leaving, it certainly felt like Easter… or maybe like women heading for the tomb on Easter morning, but I’m not sure we ever found the empty tomb.” The faithful honor the dead, hover near the tomb and wait. For some pastors, closing a church is like this.

One pastor closed her church on Easter: “I had given it some thought because I needed to do it on a resurrection, on the resurrection.” Churches in Easter celebration saw the resurrection of beloved church ministries in other churches or community non-profits. Memorialized fonts, windows, altars and organs found new church homes. Churches were gifted to new congregations and endowments to charities. Faithful members weary of holding their congregations together for so long look forward with joy to being simply a person in the pew. Pastors rise from sorrow and grief into renewed life as pastor of a sister or mother church, explorer of new or bi-vocation, or as a well-deserved retiree. For some pastors, closing a church is like this.

Pastors are Easter people who dare to recognize and enter into the darkness and fears of Lent and Holy Week with their congregations and, as one said, “to preach Easter, I really felt like that was my worship…to preach Easter every week.” Pastors recognized in themselves and their congregations the whole of Jesus’ life—Incarnation, Baptism, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. At closing worship they proclaimed “We are closing this church but we are not closing our relationship with Christ. We’re not closing our relationship with God and that continues uninterrupted and actually renewed.” Pastors are Easter people who proclaim to the closing church: “Christ is the turning point, the turning point of history. When something dies, there is always a resurrection. We just have to wait for it.”

CafferataThe Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata is an Episcopal priest and sociologist of religion whose current research focuses on pastors who close churches. She serves as Associate at Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA; Interim Supply Priest at St. Andrews-in-the-Redwoods, Monte Rio, CA; and Visiting Researcher, Boston University School of Theology and Center for Practical Theology. The UCC Center for Analtics, Research and Data provided data for this research project, and several UCC clergy who closed churches were surveyed and interviewed. Gail was awarded a 2015 Louisville Institute Project Grant for Researchers to continue this research, which she has also written about previously on our blog.

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