Empty Nest Church

This is a love note to struggling churches who wonder where all the kids went.

HH and I are (sort of) Empty Nesters.  Empty NestOur 20-something kids come home for brief periods  – for holidays or between apartment leases – but then again, the home they visit here in Chicagoland is not where they grew up.  We no longer have the home where they learned to walk and talk, where they spent their first 20+ Easters and Christmases.

We moved to a house that works for us in our current situation.  There’s no swing set in the back yard.  There are no sleds or wagons in the garage.  No basketball net in the driveway.  We gave all those things away when we moved from their childhood home, and this is a good thing.  We don’t need certain things any longer, but we made sure that families who could use those things now have them.

The gifted coach and consultant JK inspired a thought yesterday regarding empty nests and churches.  Many of our congregations are still living in “the family house” where – long ago – their children grew up and spent many Easters and Christmases. It’s where milestones were celebrated and stories were shared.  “The kids” might return for occasional visits, but they are no longer around.  They’ve moved on and established new homes and new communities of their own.

Nevertheless those congregations are still gathering in “the family house.”  It’s too big for them. There’s a lot of junk stored in closets and basements.  There are countless memories. But they don’t need that space any more, and yet it’s too hard to think about moving.

There comes a time – if we’re fortunate to have lived long lives – when we need to make decisions about how we will downsize and – ultimately – where we will spend our last years.  It’s part of life.

All pastors have had parishioners who waited too long to make end-of-life plans. I knew a lovely woman in a former congregation who refused to leave her home of 60+ years.  She had many excuses.  And she assumed she’d always be able to handle the stairs, the maintenance, the yard work.  By the time she was well into her 90s, it was too late.  She couldn’t physically make the move.  She lived in squalor, unable to care for her home or herself.  She was too weak and too desperate to move into a more practical space.

My friends, some of our congregations find ourselves in this situation. We need to make end-of-life plans.  But some of us refuse to leave our “home.”  We have many excuses.  And we assume we’ll always be able to handle the stairs, the maintenance, the yard work.  But now  it’s become too late to make the necessary shifts that will help us transition.

This is Holy Week and ultimately we are resurrection people, right?

Imagine congregations that have become Empty Nest Churches making choices that make it possible for new communities to thrive.

When HH and I left the home we knew for so many years, it wasn’t easy.  It still isn’t, and yet I wouldn’t go back.  Great things are ahead for our kids and even for us. But there are times we need to let go of what is past.

5 responses to “Empty Nest Church

  1. I agree but….where the analogy breaks down is that your children are no longer children and (unless you count planning for possible future grandchildren) will never return as children so you CAN “move on.” Most churches are still hoping that “one day” they’ll need that extra space in the sanctuary, the big kitchen, even the playground. As long as they have that hope (as false as it might be), they think it’s foolish to downsize (“We really might need it someday”). That’s a much deeper shift than recognizing that our children are gone and we don’t need their stuff or that space. Though I do agree with you on the health of recognizing the reality of both.


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  3. Thanks Liz. Definitely not the perfect metaphor. You are right that some of our dying churches still believe that “young families” will come back. Not theirs but somebody else’s.


  4. It does make sense. I saw a tweet the other week that said “When the 1950’s come back, the Church will be ready”. Part of the challenge as a pastor is to help the congregation revision who they are. If you are in a community that bills itself as a retirement community and schools are getting smaller, you aren’t going to get lots of youth. But if you have empty nesters and retirees moving into the community… guess what… they may be looking for a church home and yours just might be it!

    Large facilities can be revisioned as well. Turn a Sunday school wing or building into a place where non-profits that help the community can get space for reasonable rent AND the church can partner with them in community care.

    Again, a good blog!


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