This weeks blog post is written by Reverend David Schoen, Minister for Church Legacy and Closure, for the Office of Church Building and Loan Fund within Local Church Ministries. Rev. Schoen has also completed a report on Congregations that Closed in the United Church of Christ 2012-2015.
“I hope I never have to do this again,” wrote a pastor who was called to serve a congregation that closed. Unfortunately, many pastors who serve in congregations that are making the difficult decisions considering closure often feel alone, rejected, disrespected and a failure.
In 2016, seventeen UCC congregations were reported closed to the Center for Analytics, Research and Data. Of those congregations, twelve closed in 2016 and five closed in previous years. Although the number of closed congregations declined in 2016, when these congregations are added to the 111 congregations that closed between 2012 and 2015, the reality remains that on average a UCC congregation closes every two weeks.
Studying the data on the seventeen closed congregations, I looked at the status of pastoral leadership reported in the congregations as they concluded their ministry. Five congregations (30%) reported being served most recently by full time pastoral leadership. Six congregations (35%) were served by part time pastors. Two congregations (12%) were served by a supply minister or part time local church worker. Four congregations (24%) did not report pastoral leadership. Of the closed congregations, approximately three quarters were most recently served by full time, part time, or other pastoral leadership.
This information on the closed congregations and pastoral leadership raises concern on how to support ministers in these churches.
Pastor Gail Cafferata, an Episcopal Priest who served a parish that closed, has researched the impact of closure on pastors. This year she published an article on her research ‘Respect, Challenges and Stresses among Protestant Pastors Closing a Church’ in Pastoral Psychology. In the article, Dr. Cafferata wrote, “A pastor who closes a church may experience stress related to grief as well as stigma that can result in shame.” “Regardless of how long a pastor has served a congregation, expectations of revitalization and growth combined with disappointment in the lack of their realization is a stressor, an identity threat. A pastor who begins ministry with an understanding of the fragility of a congregation is less likely to experience stress from failed expectations regardless of their source (personal, congregational, or judicatory).” “When clergy feel respected by a judicatory, they are likely less lonely and isolated, less stressed and less likely to think of leaving congregational ministry for another ministry or a secular occupation.”
“This research suggests that affirmation of pastors and their congregations through the challenging process of discernment and church death works through the vital support of family and friends as well as of colleagues, congregations and judicatories embodying the ethics of responsibility, dignity and respect. From the pastors’ point of view, it is a call to identify best practices for the care of both clergy and congregations as they discern a decision to ‘die’ with their congregations for the gospel and hope for new life in a changing church and world.” As well as studying judicatory relationships, Dr. Cafferata’s research and article speak to how the factors of age, gender, congregational relationship and setting impact the stress and challenges of pastors in closing congregations. For more information on this article and research you can contact Pastor Cafferata at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is clear from Dr. Cafferata’s research that the stress and challenges for pastors in closing congregations are lessened by the communication, care and support received from the wider church and colleagues.
UCC Conferences and Associations are starting programs that attend to the needs of closing congregations and the pastors in those congregations.
- Penn West Conference created a Church Closure and Legacy Team to meet with pastors and congregation leaders as they make decisions concerning closure.
- Ohio Eastern and Western Reserve Associations have trained coaches to support pastors in many different situations including closure.
- Missouri Mid-South Conference and the Mid-American Region (DOC) are working together in the Naomi Project to accompany pastors and congregations through the conclusion of their church’s ministries.
- Massachusetts Conference and Illinois Conference have developed policies and programs to address and assist congregations considering closure and legacy.
This past year, the Church Building & Loan Fund convened discussions with leaders from Conferences, UCC National Ministries and Related Organizations on resourcing pastors and congregations considering closure and legacy. Participants in these conversations included Conference Ministers, Conference staff members, UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer, and staff members from Church Building & Loan Fund, UCC Local Church Ministries, UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, United Church Funds, UCC General Counsel Office, and The Center for Progressive Renewal. These conversations have discussed:
- missional theology for church closure and legacy,
- training, care and coaching of pastors for closure and legacy,
- good practices for churches concluding their ministries,
- legal issues,
- repurposing church buildings according to a church mission legacy,
- recognition of congregations’ legacies, and more.
One resource created by conversation and collaboration between the Church Building & Loan Fund, United Church Funds, UCC Local Church Ministries, and UCC General Counsel is the Living Legacy Workbook which includes a chapter that deals with the pastoral, ethical, and congregational leadership of the pastor.
The growing attention to the care and support for pastors and congregations facing difficult closure and legacy decisions is positive and helpful, but there’s more work to come. Please be in touch with your experiences, resources, questions or comments on the faithful, missional challenge of concluding a church’s ministries.