This week’s blog post is written by Reverend David Schoen, Minister for Church Legacy and Closure, for the UCC Church Building & Loan Fund. Rev. Schoen is one of the writers of the Living Legacy; Church Legacy and Closure Resource (http://www.ucc.org/legacychurch ). To contact Rev. Schoen directly, feel free to email him at email@example.com.
- “I served as an interim at a very small congregation that never explicitly discussed or entered into a discernment process regarding their future, but it was often underneath the surface.”
- “I serve a church that believes they will ‘run out of money’ in five years. I want to be thinking about how to help them reach a decision on whether or not to continue being church together.”
- “I am frustrated with their resistance to dealing with the fact that they will have to close due to finances and fatigued leadership within the next 2-3 years.
- “Understand resistance as caring and go one by one for grief counseling to the most resistant. Make sure communication about process is frequent and clear (transparent). But clearly, getting down to the “nitty gritty” of closing and deciding on a legacy is hard to face.”
These comments were shared in a survey of interim ministers in preparation for a Zoom online conversation with more than 40 pastors on Ministry in the Times of Church Discernment and Closure.
The conversation led by Reverend Gail Irwin, author of Toward the Better Country and Reverend Jonathan New, Associate Conference Minister In Massachusetts for Stewardship & Financial Development discussed the unique ministry of serving congregations that are (or need to be) at a moment of considering their next most faithful steps, including closure. Ministry with these threshold congregations call for faithful honest conversations, which pastors and congregations might sadly avoid.
In a thought-provoking CARD Blog last month Do Clergy Increase End-of-life Costs of Care? Reverend Beth Long-Higgins wrote about two recent national studies that suggest clergy find conversations with members about end of life decisions to be challenging. As I read Beth’s blog comments “What clergy say – and what they do not say—can make a major difference in whether believers experience a “good death”, I thought how the end-of-life conversations with a member, are much like needed conversations on decisions concerning a congregation’s future options, including closure and legacy.
The information in the recently published UCC Statistical Profile – Fall 2017 shows that nearly one-half (49%) of congregations have 1 – 50 participants in worship and eight out of ten (82.6) UCC congregations have a worship participation of 1 – 100. Certainly the vitality and viability of a congregation is not determined just by worship participation, membership and financial figures. However, many of these congregations even if vital in mission and service will most likely need to have conversations concerning their capabilities, community relationship, facility and finances for the future.
Part of our hesitancy to have these conversations on future options, especially discussions on church closure and legacy may be a misdirected belief that our individual congregations may be eternal instead of One of the churches serve. We fail to remember that the eternal God of resurrection power is present in our lives and deaths, even the life and death of a congregation. Reverend Gail Cafferata wrote in her blog, “Mind the Tiller: Leading a Church to Closure” “The rudder of a closing church is resurrection faith that new life will rise from the death of a congregation.”
The Conversation Project dedicated to helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care has good conversation starters for clergy that can be adapted to conversations concerning a church’s future.
Here are some ways a pastor or church leader could invite the conversation:
- “I need your help with something.”
- “I was thinking about what happened to (another congregation), and it made me ..”
- “Even though we are doing okay right now, I’m worried that …… , and I want to be prepared.”
- “I’m thinking about our future. Will you help me?”
Find opportune moments to start these conversations with individual members and leaders. Then gather a small group of folks willing to have the conversation with each other. Prepare an open and transparent conversation with the church council and congregation. There are resources and programs to help a church discuss options for their future. Always stay in touch with your Association or Conference leadership to let them know of your conversations and discover resources they offer or recommend.
Gail Irwin in her book, Toward the Better Country wrote “Many churches in the last stages of their life do not have adequate pastoral care. Those who do are at a distinct advantage, as long as the pastor has the courage to assist them in the discernment of the future. Do not underestimate the power of your presence or the importance of your ministry to a church that is considering closure.”
Good advice came from two pastors in the Zoom conversation on Church Discernment and Closure who served a closing church:
- “Remain engaged. Be honest. Be open. Grieve well. Finish with a sense of celebration and hope.”
- “We ended our ministry on Easter Sunday and celebrated the Resurrection. It was not a wake.”
In the Zoom conversation, Jonathan New who served as an interim pastor said, “Part of the uniqueness of this ministry is the special reward that is reserved only for those who are willing to engage a congregation at the deepest possible level with the promise of the gospel – that ours is a God of life and that death doesn’t have the final word. If you’re not willing to go there, this probably isn’t the ministry for you. But, if you are, you’ll know you went to the tomb with the people and helped them move through to life on the other side.”
Let’s have the conversation.