New Data on Church Closures

This week’s post is from Rev. David Schoen, author of Facing Your Church’s Uncertain Future: Helpful Practices for Courageous Conversations & Faithful Decisions. To contact Rev. Schoen, email him at dschoen@ucc.org.

 

Are church closures increasing? It’s a question that I’m often asked. Through the work of the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) there is now new data that can answer that question. But before we get to statistics, I’d like to share the experience of one of those closing congregations behind the data.

The church board president, upon the recommendation of the association minister, sent me an email seeking assistance in closing their church and creating a legacy. At one time this church had more than 500 members, but now had only 25 in worship. There was no pastor at the church and the board president was doing this demanding work of closing individually.  No leader, pastor or congregation should have to face the closure process alone. I recommended the church create a closure and legacy group to work on all the tasks involved. The congregation created a legacy committee that studied closure resources and legacy options. The congregation also called an intentional interim minister to serve during this time of transition as they made the difficult but faithful decisions involved in closing their congregation with a goal of passing on their legacy.

As part of this process, the congregation identified hallmarks of their ministry through the years. The congregation had been active in service to their community, conference, wider world and church. The congregation also generously contributed to Our Church’s Wider Mission. Through their legacy planning, they sought to continue their historic mission in the community, church, and world. True to their love of neighbors, the church donated their handsome building to the city as a community center to house service organizations. Their financial legacy was distributed to support the ongoing work of local community organizations as well as the ministry of the United Church of Christ in association, conference and national settings. 

The closing of a congregation may be a time of grief, but it is also a time for thanksgiving. A time to faithfully culminate the mission of a congregation and give thanks for the many ways that the Spirit of God has moved through the congregation’s life and ministry. In an email after the Service of Closure and Thanksgiving, the church president wrote that the experience was a ‘difficult, but ultimately right and rewarding process’.

Are there more congregations like this one closing today than in the past? The CARD staff recently located notes[i] on church closures from 1995 through 1999 that helps us put perspective on what is happening today.

To answer the question, I compared three different 5 year periods from 1995-1999, 2006-2010 and 2014-2018 and discovered that indeed church closures[ii] have increased. The records showed that in both of the 5 year periods after 1995-1999 there was an increase in the number of churches that closed.  One hundred congregations closed from 1995 through 1999; one hundred thirty-six congregations closed from 2006-2010 and one hundred forty-one congregations from 2014 – 2018. 

Trend in UCC Church Closures 1995 -2018, By Rev. David Schoen

What does this increase in church closure mean to the UCC; our congregations, pastors, church leaders and members, associations, conferences and national ministries? It means more congregations and church leaders, like the board president who emailed me, will face the difficult, but faithful ministry of closure and legacy. The increase in church closures calls for:

  • Increased support and resources from the wider church for congregations facing closure.
  • Increased training of pastors to serve congregations facing these difficult discussions.
  • Increased attention to care for members, including the homebound in closed churches.
  • Increased concern for the communities and neighborhoods that closed churches served.
  • Increased collaboration among congregations to work with each other to create new alternative futures.
  • Increased missional options and strategies for repurposing church property.
  • Increased options for sharing legacies to empower future missional faith communities.
  • Increased encouragement of revisioning and new ministries creating future communities of faith.

In the words of the church board president, the challenge of facing the increase in church closures may be ‘difficult, but ultimately right and rewarding’.

[i] Thanks to the longtime record-keeping of Reverend Richard Taylor.

[ii] The closed congregations discussed above do not include churches that closed due to merger; whenever congregations merge to create a new church, the participating congregations are recorded as closed. While the number of congregations that closed without merging increased during the past decades, the number of churches that closed in order to merge with another congregation significantly declined from fifty in 1995 – 1999 to nine in 2014 – 2018.  There may be several reasons for the decrease in mergers, including; congregations finding new ways to collaborate without merging, or as I often hear, there just aren’t other nearby congregations to merge with.

8 thoughts on “New Data on Church Closures

  1. Pingback: The Last Pastor | Vital Signs and Statistics

  2. A point just hit me. We talk about church closure as a closing of a building or an institution. Perhaps part of the problem is we don’t think of it as an end to a Ministry, instituted by God to a specific purpose and a silencing of the Gospel and the one more light in the lamp of God’s Word, justice and peace going out of the world. Driving into a small town and seeing a boarded up building should be a reminder that this is one more place where the Gospel Message and the call to peace and justice may not be heard.

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    • Thank you John for your comments, ministry and concern for rural congregations and communities. I appreciate your experience of closure and legacy in the church you write of below. Indeed, not only do we need to find ways to address the concerns of rural churches, but also the communities they serve. I wonder if there is a way to connect with seminaries in the creation of rural internships to minister in the congregations and communities you serve.

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  3. Been there-done that! Two years ago one of the three congregations I was serving closed, it’s worship tools were spread among the two remaining congregations and some of its members joined and attend one of the congregations. We made sure to recognize these things as a continuation of that congregation’s ministry. It’s organ is an important tool for one church because the members of the closed church 30 years ago were forward thinking enough to buy an organ that could be set to play by remote control. There Communion set and hymnals went to another church that needed them and are still being used. This will have an interesting symbolism because my final service in this parish, in a couple months will involve people and things from all four of the congregations I’ve served since coming here. The Alter Bible was moved to another church and still sitting in the pastor’s chair from the church that closed. The biggest problem we’ve had was selling the building and land and that has now been done.
    The three congregations I’m still serving are all on the verge of closing and that need my be sped up because of the lack of clergy willing to come serve them. So in a sense we all I believe are to blame for this problem and need to talk about what to do about small church ministries and do we still have a need for a “missionary” attitude speaking out for peace, justice and the issues we value or do close our eyes and blame the congregations when in many cases the reason they are closing is people are not moving to rural America or some inner cities in numbers to support growing congregations but there still is a need for their voices.

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  4. I would also hope that a time of increased church closings is also an invitation to re-think how we might equip the members of these congregations to be the church in their local context. My hope would be that a building closure doesn’t always have to mean a congregation ceases to exist. What additional resources for equipping ALL the saints for building and being the body of Christ might be available to us?

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    • Hello Tisha, thanks for your engaging comments. There are a number of congregations that have closed a building, re-missioned themselves in a right sized facility, leased or shared. Phyllis Tickle also spoke of the emergence of small house churches as part of the future led by bi-vocational pastors, pastors serving several house churches, or led by the saints gathered. There are resources around relinquishing a building and re-missioning. I would be interested in knowing resources and more stories about new saint-led churches, also.

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