After being the last pastor in a congregation, Reverend Gail Cafferata, wondered “how other pastors and congregations who experienced the closing of a church felt and, particularly, how it affected pastors who, like me, had accepted their call with starry-eyed hopes for renewal.” Her wondering led Cafferata, an Episcopal priest and sociologist to study, research and write The Last Pastor: Faithfully Steering a Closing Church.
“United States is facing a tsunami of church closings.” Cafferata writes in her book notes. There will be more pastors serving as last pastors in the coming years. For those who do, The Last Pastor is a valuable guidebook offering light, hope, and wisdom for those who mind the tiller of a closing church.
I especially appreciate Cafferata’s focus on pastors. Readers of CARD’s Vital Signs and Statistics blogs know of her research which included UCC pastors and congregations. Many of us focus on the congregational process of closure. Gail has particularly been concerned with the experience, care, and support of pastors in closing situations. She wrote that no pastor should have to “do this alone.” It is so helpful to now have her writings, research and reflections gathered together in The Last Pastor.
Cafferata is also a sailboat enthusiast and she reflects on her experiences in sailing to discuss ministry. She uses the image of minding the tiller to describe the leadership task of ministry. She points out that Paul refers to leadership in 1st Corinthians 12:28 with the Greek word kybernesis that suggests using a tiller to steer a ship. In a blog, she wrote, “The rudder of a closing church is resurrection faith that new life will rise from the death of a congregation.” And in her book, she writes “In closing a church, pastoral leadership becomes centered in resurrection faith…Minding the tiller means bearing hope when the journey seems hopeless.”
The Last Pastor includes Cafferata’s reflections on closing the congregation from her personal journal, as well as comments from the many interviews she held with pastors who served closing congregations. Based on her research and conversation with pastors her book includes insights from last pastors on:
- leadership skills of pastors who facilitate a healthy closure,
- impact of conflict,
- grief and loneliness,
- sources of support and hope,
- relationships with judicatories,
- next call transition after the closing experience, and
- personal and vocational transformation.
Pastors interviewed by Cafferata spoke of the need for judicatories, national ministries and seminaries to strengthen relationships, resources, support and education for clergy serving or preparing to serve closing congregations. Several UCC conferences now provide coaching, resources and support teams for congregations and pastors. The Pennsylvania Southeast Conference UCC published Necessary Endings: A Manual on Church Closure written by their Church Closure Team. This helpful resource includes theological reflection, practical and legal advice, and the experiences of pastors who led closing congregations.
The Last Pastor is a needed resource as new data suggests that the number of church closures is increasing in the UCC as well as other denominations. A recent Faith Communities Today (FACT) report, The Challenging Climate for US Congregations by Scott Thuma, Director Hartford Institute for Religion Research shows a steady 20% decline in worship attendance every five years since 2005 and suggests that 50% of all US congregations will have worship attendance of less than sixty. Note that included in the report are strategies and examples for meeting the facing churches today.
Pastors and church leaders are invited to join Reverend Gail Cafferata, who will be sharing the insights and research from her book, The Last Pastor in a webinar this coming May. You can contact me at email@example.com for information on the upcoming zoom webinar and for more resources on church closure and legacy.
David Schoen is Minister for Church Legacy & Closure, UCC Church Building & Loan Fund.