This posting is another on the subject of judicatories closing (or more formally, extinguishing) churches.
I’ve been wondering what kind of due diligence really makes sense for judicatories thinking about the congregations in their midst that are on the verge of closing.
In a conversation about church closings with Bob Gallagher, director and founder of the Church Development Institute, the country’s premier training for congregational development, he suggested that determining a given church’s main task would be at least one of the questions to ask.
I notice that demographics and fiscal conditions don’t top his list. Why shouldn’t they be the first and main points in determining a congregation’s viability?
The answer has to do with a church’s founding, I believe. We found congregations to offer worship, to offer service and Christian care to others, and to nurture and form Christian lives. The demographics and the finances of a new church are important, but never the main reason for founding a parish. Neither should these be the main driving reasons for extinguishing a church. At the beginning, they smack loudly of self-reliance, and at the end, they smack of convenience.
What’s done in the years leading up to extinguishment really matters. Helping a congregation gain clarity around its main task takes time–lots of time. Maybe years of time and patience. Effective help takes commitment of resources and attention on the part of the judicatory leaders, and not just to the single parish but to an overall vision for all the congregations within its oversight.
If there is one single key moment when one can see a parish standing at the crossroads between the short distance to extinguishment and the long distance to renewal and revival, it is the pivot between the last full-time clergy leader and whoever comes next. Of course this can happen in any geographic setting–urban (church building too big, neighborhood long since past being prosperous), small town (local industries folded and never replaced) or rural (farms not able to hold succeeding generations, remoteness of area unable to draw new populations). And of course the decision not to hire another full-time rector or pastor is complicated. Individual reasons should never be reduced to a theory or generalized to a category. But that limbo, that semi-paralytic state in which so many parishes languish for so long before gray heads outnumber any other sort in the pews, has to be an early warning sign to everyone who cares about the Body as a whole (made up of all of us in all the congregations around, whether we are part of the denomination of the declining congregation we have in mind or not).
The first move with the church in question? Identify its main motive power. Taking time to treat a congregation as viable is only due diligence. (Did their strength lie in membership growth? in outreach or service? in the formation of Christians? Does the current outside situation need any of those signs of Christ’s presence?). Can they yet find energy and will to answer a calling? If not, the lamp is out. If so, a flame might yet be breathed into life there.
Of course it’s possible to bring churches in a kind of permanent ‘transition limbo’ from the state of part-time retired clergy leadership to a fresh start. Of course it’s possible to bring the parish out of slow decay. A judicatory with half its parishes in transition limbo resembles a house with its front yard full of cars, trucks and boats waiting to be fixed or sent to the junk yard. Don’t start seeing this as inevitable or normal. But don’t wait to start thinking until the front yard is full of clunkers.
In plain language, even when a congregation has only 70 year-olds left in its pews, Christ’s motive power may still be present. Is a congregation in a slow, remote little town or on the dusty side streets of a 3rd tier city? Christ’s motive power may still be present. Is it inconvenient and complicated to arrange for such discernment? Is it discouraging, especially when ‘facts’ speak so plainly (no services held in half a year, no members baptized or buried in 12 months, no new leaders in 3 years)? Are those Gospel excuses? Under such circumstances, perhaps it is too late to ask clarifying questions. But what can profit a judicatory in avoiding the struggle to find Christ’s power and purpose in a congregation with survival issues? And what else is it, really, besides a survival issue, that creates the circumstances of transition and interim limbo?
Clarify the main task of said congregation. Ask what resources are available both for development and for spiritual first aid in the membership. Follow spiritual first aid with new emphasis on spiritual formation. Become intentional about serious congregational development in the judicatory and in the parishes. Emphasize judicatory leaders’ training in sound organizational development skills and competency. Engage in serious leader development in the parish. Consider wild and unusual ideas (yoking 3 or 4 parishes having the same problems, whether they are of the same denomination or not). But start early and start with intention. Why do less?