David Schoen is Minister for Church Legacy & Closure, UCC Church Building & Loan Fund.
A pastor in a recent conversation with other UCC ministers said she came to the realization that the congregation she was serving only had financial viability for two more years before needing to close. She lamented that she had come to the congregation with the hope of engaging in renewal and vitality but was dealing with decline and disappointment. Another pastor in the conversation responded saying that closing a church required vitality, but a different kind of vitality.
The work of closure and legacy is not the vitality of growth and renewal, but it is the vital work of completing a church’s mission and ministry. Completing a church’s ministry is working to culminate and give thanks for the church’s life and pass on that life mission through its legacy.
The Reverend Rosanna Walker served a small UCC rural congregation that closed in January 2020. The church chose to call their closure and legacy work group, the Completion Committee and their closing worship service, a Completion Service Celebration. She wrote in her sermon for that service, “At the time of the vote for dissolution, a committee of nine members was established to represent the congregation and carry out the necessary tasks of completing things. It was decided that they would be called the Completion Committee. My Miriam Webster says the verb complete is best defined as bringing something to a state where nothing remains to be done. We have since dedicated ourselves to bringing the mission of this church to completion. That is the reason for our calling this morning’s service a Completion Service Celebration. The thought of completing the ministry of this congregation seems to better describe the process than saying we are ending its ministry. To end something conveys a sense that it is over and done. The end! To complete something invites one to wonder what might happen to make it complete. Even to wonder what its on-going influence might be.”
The Completion Committee decided to give the church building to a community organization to use as a thrift store and food shelf. Reverend Walker reflected that ‘By giving the church building and remaining property to a local non-profit looking for a building to house a thrift store and a food pantry, the church would be repurposed to benefit the local area. While it would no longer be a church, it would remain a place dedicated to meeting the needs of area communities. Trusting in God, we celebrated hope for the promise of what will be.’
The teacher of Ecclesiastes wrote ‘there is a time to be born, and a time to die’. Reverend L. Gail Irwin, a UCC pastor, in her book Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection wrote, “In my experience with a church in decline…..I come to this endeavor with the belief that a faithful reshaping, merger or closure may be more in keeping with God’s will than a strenuous effort to stay open at all costs.’
Recognizing that a church is at an appropriate, natural, and faithful stopping point is essential for the vital work of closure and legacy. Since, this vital work takes time, commitment, planning, money, and spiritual strength, it is most important to act when a church has the capacity, energy, and leadership to do so. Sadly, many congregations resist engaging in the work of completing their ministry through closure and legacy until their vital capacity to do so is greatly diminished.
Data from the UCC Center for Analytics, Research & Development, and Data shows that 24 UCC congregations closed in 2020 and 22 congregations closed in 2019. The actual number for each year will most likely increase as closed churches don’t always get reported right away. On average, a church has closed every twelve days in the UCC since 2012. Twenty-nine congregations were also reported as inactive, (not worshipping) in 2019 and 2020. Adding those churches to the closed congregations, a UCC church closes or becomes inactive every 10 days. The impact of the pandemic will most likely hasten churches considering closure. The increase of church closures in recent years points to the growing importance of doing the vital work of completing a church’s mission and ministry.
In the months to come, many churches are likely to be considering options for the future of their congregations and facilities. Some of those congregations will choose closure. Completing a church mission, giving thanks, and passing on the good work that God began within a church is a vital ministry. Knowing and acting when a church has the capacity, resources, and spiritual strength to do this vital ministry is faithful discipleship.
5 thoughts on “Completing a Church’s Mission: The Vital Work of Closure and Legacy”
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Churches of all kind; evangelical, pentecostal, progressive, conservative, liberal, new, old, mainstream and independent, close everyday across the United States. Churches come to the end of their ministries for many reasons. Working to complete a church ministry well and pass on the church legacy for the future mission of God’s realm is being faithful.
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Yeah, sorry, but this isn’t “vital.” It’s damned pathetic. This is the UCC totally ceding the field to increasingly fascist-oriented evangelical churches, and—as usual—pretending that it’s being “faithful.” The UCC pretends that literally everything we do, including failing, is being “faithful.” Where is the fire? Where is the unbreakable breath?
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