Behind many of the words that we use are numbers and data to give credibility to our thoughts and ideas. With data, we can chart and plot and see trends that otherwise we only know through intuition or anecdote. And as any student of statistics learns, numbers and data can be used in a variety of ways that lead to various conclusions and actions.
Besides the data behind the words, there are also motives and emotions. In a recent UCC gathering the keynote speaker shared that they had never heard of a church closing until they came into the UCC. The pitch and condemnation in the statement stung. I can handle the pain of facing the data that shows the decline of our membership. This was not the first time that I’ve felt as if current and previous leaders of the church should feel shame or blame for our current context. I don’t think attempts to shame anyone changes behavior. The implication that I heard was that the UCC had not done “enough” or been faithful “enough” or had just been too entrenched in the views of the dominant culture. Although the church uses the metaphor of the body of Christ, we are human institutions. And institutions have beginnings, middles and ends, of one kind or another.
As a 4th generation pastor with my own 30 years of ministry in this denomination, I have attempted to serve faithfully. As an immigrant, my great-grandfather, Rev. Paul Sommerlatte, brought to light the plight of those coming to these shores in the late 1800’s. He helped to begin and then serve on behalf of the German Reformed Church on Ellis Island at the turn of the last century. Words of his testimony were shared during worship at the last General Synod. The congregation that he later served in Philadelphia closed in the first part of the 1900’s. Both of his sons were ordained in the Reformed church and served multiple congregations, several of which closed by the 1950s. The closing of congregations is not new and is more complicated than just faithful service.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a church reunion. The people who gathered had been members of Covenant Community United Church of Christ in Brunswick, Ohio. My father was the founding pastor of that church in 1967. The church closed before its 50th anniversary. This is the congregation that raised me. Covenant Community UCC played a significant role in my understanding of what it means to be a community of faith and this community laid the seeds of my call to ministry.
What happened to this intimate faithful community? Like most congregations, their short history was complicated. Is there sadness and pain that that congregation no longer exists? Yes. But in that reunion, behind their words of remembering, there was joy in knowing that that community had a profound impact in their lives. There was no doubt that when they had been called together as a church, they sought to make a difference in the world. The pain and circumstances that had brought about the end of their community is now diminished in comparison with the appreciation for the joy that had brought them together in the first place.
I recently had a conversation with the conference minister in a neighboring state. He was reflecting about the challenge of bearing witness to the ministry of so many congregations that are not “doing well”. Their worship attendance is below 50. They can only support part-time pastors. They struggle with a sense of failing to be “successful”. They struggle with the possibility of having to cease to be a community in the future. But he also shared what an honor it is to be able to enter into their life and see and feel the work of the Spirit. He considers it a part of his role to reflect back to them that their faith and their witness is not in vain. Love is present. Transformation is real. Behind his words is a genuine appreciation for their ministry located in the small crossroads and towns where they live.
Again, in a conversation with a clergy friend just last week, she was sharing the ministry philosophy of another colleague. He sees the purpose of his call to help congregations close with respect and dignity. He helps them to remember and see the difference that they have made in the world. He helps them plan how their congregation might leave a legacy after they cease to gather for worship. He is called to help them create a “healthy” closure. It is not about helping them “die”, but to bring the current form of their community to a close and to help the members find companionship in new communities of faith.
As we consider the data of declining membership and the make-up of our congregations, it is my hope that we consider the way in which we share the information of which the numbers speak. In many small towns it is not just the church membership which is declining, but the population of the community, county and region which has shrunk as well. There are multiple factors that all add pressures to the life of the entire community.
Yes, we need to see the trends and study the data. But as we form the words and discern new directions for the future could we please not add shame to the message? It is important to recognize the dignity and worth of ministry shared and to learn from past actions. It is important to ask for forgiveness and to offer pardon for actions done and words spoken. Perhaps these important liturgical elements of our tradition, confession and forgiveness, might help equip us with the hope and faith to lean into God’s future as together we discover new forms and ways of living as the body of Christ. Because, more than the impulse to blame or shame, it is our faith which lies behind the words that will ultimately give us the courage to make the changes that are needed to be the church in this rapidly changing world.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Executive Director, Ruth Parker Center for Abundant Aging at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.