In reviewing some of the comments made about this post, it’s clear that many congregations are anxious. And this is why so many pastors are indeed expected to “bring in the young families.”
Aging buildings, declining attendance, and budget deficits add to the anxiety. And so these church leaders often contact denominational leaders or consultants for some coaching on How To Transition. They may not like it, but they realize that shifts must be made to be a thriving congregation in the 21st Century.
And then there are the churches with no energy or no capacity to make these shifts. What do we do with those congregations?
One of my brilliant colleagues and I sometimes discuss this and we have (especially he has) come up with a few ideas. These ideas would not work in every denomination or situation, of course. In the PCUSA (my denomination) we tend not to close churches unless the congregation itself wants to close.
But what if . . .
- The church cannot afford even a part-time pastor? (Translation: They hire someone to preach on Sunday but no one necessarily provides pastoral care, educational support, administrative guidance, vision casting, or missional leadership.)
- The church leaders are landlords rather than spiritual leaders? (Translation: They rent out their church building space to all kinds of organizations to cover their basic costs.)
- The church is isolated and isolating. (Translation: They do not reach out to partner congregations, their denominational resources, or anyone else for assistance.)
Yes, there are congregations who exist to survive long enough for their own funerals. Honestly, some have said these very words to me. And are we – as denominations – being faithful if we perpetuate a survival model of ministry?
My own denomination has had congregation choose to close with great faithfulness. They have realized that their congregation’s ministry is over but – if their church closes – the resources left behind can serve future congregations. This, my friends, is resurrection. And that’s what we who try to follow Jesus are about.
What if – denominational policies allowing – we closed congregations that:
- Have been served only by a supply preacher each Sunday for at least the past two years?
- Funded over 50% of their budget from resources apart from congregational giving?
- Do not effectively manage their finances as displayed in the lack of a regular review of their books?
- Have no ministry relationships with anyone outside their congregation. (Note: Writing checks to an organization ≠ a relationship.)
God deserves our best. We who gather in Christ’s name are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all nations. All of us can do better and most of us try. But when we cannot try any longer, it’s a holy thing to let go.
Image from a church building we see on vacation every summer. Yes, every summer for the past six years.