Closing churches

Kirk Hadaway's most recent analysis of the parochial reports submitted by Episcopal congregations reveals that only 28 percent of our congregations describe their financial situations as good or excellent, while the same percentage says they are having at least some financial difficulty.

Even if one assumes that some parishes will fare better when the economy improves, these numbers raise a difficult issue. Should Episcopal bishops be more aggressive about closing struggling churches?

On the one hand, there are economies of scale to be realized in merging small churches into somewhat larger ones, or merging two struggling congregations in the hopes of creating one healthy one. The new church's capacity for forming the faithful and and engaging in meaningful mission should, theoretically, increase as well.

On the other hand, we encourage people to "grow where they are planted," profess that "wherever two or more are gathered" in his name, Christ is among them, and preach that a church with big numbers is no match for a church with a big heart. And anyone who has ever been a member of a smallish floundering church knows that giving often ticks up even as membership declines.

So how does the church confront the fact that by any worldly calculus it has too many units, and this surplus appears to be driving up overhead and diminishing its capacity to spread the gospel, while at the same time working within the constraints of our intensely localized polity, and people's abiding commitment to their small churches?

Comments (11)

Could we rephrase the question and ask, “How should bishops pastor to struggling congregations?” “Aggressively closing parishes” feels like euthanasia. Perhaps a hospice model would be more effective and truer to our values.

I was pastor to a dying congregation 25 years ago and learned firsthand about the immense grieving process. Kubler –Ross’s stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, pulsed through the congregation. They could not imagine a hopeful future and resisted diocesan encouragement to merge with a neighboring congregation.

Steve Ayres

Once upon a time in a land far away - the Catskill Mountains - my wife and I (a United Methodist) served 5 churches each Sunday morning. For a period of time I was appointed to 6 churches (with an assistant.)
There are a number of ways to provide clergy in many places. One of the major problems is convincing laity who have always had a full time Rector for every Church building that they can retain their sense of belonging and their building by sharing Clergy.
Might have to change worship times - aye, there's the rub.

Bill Bonwitt

Hard to close churches when the nearest one is 50 to 100 miles away. Even yoking is often not a viable alternative as each feels short-changed. Moving to mutual ministry where the church identifies leaders from within (ala St. Paul and his missionary work) has been an answer in Wyoming for many small churches - frees the $$ for mission as people work as a team - some are pastors, some are preachers, some are priests, some are deacons, etc. If anyone is paid - it is the Administrator who keeps it all organized. Where people are saddled with a huge phyiscal plant and few members - closing and finding a more appropriate space is one choice. Or if there are many churches - choose one and join together or offer a variety of styles of services

What overhead? The most economical congregations to operate are small. Economy of size doesn't work in congregations. There are no cost savings in big congregations; just the opposite. Small congregations don't cost dioceses anything and they inevitably produce income (admittedly small income). Small congregations that can’t afford their building can make adjustments or downsize. When they no longer wish to be a congregation and are ready to close they will tell the bishop.
The real problem is the assumption that you can’t be a church without a regular clergy presence. Second to this is the assumption that you can’t be a church without a broad selection of programmatic offerings. The long history of church life in America have proved these assumptions to be false.
Tom Downs
Eastern Michigan

What overhead? The most economical congregations to operate are small. Economy of size doesn't work in congregations. There are no cost savings in big congregations; just the opposite. Small congregations don't cost dioceses anything and they inevitably produce income (admittedly small income). Small congregations that can’t afford their building can make adjustments or downsize. When they no longer wish to be a congregation and are ready to close they will tell the bishop.
The real problem is the assumption that you can’t be a church without a regular clergy presence. Second to this is the assumption that you can’t be a church without a broad selection of programmatic offerings. The long history of church life in America have proved these assumptions to be false.
Tom Downs
Eastern Michigan

Economies of scale do work in churches. Two small parishes combined into one mid-sized parish need one priest, rather than two. This may make it possible to stay afloat, or hire a religious education person, or do mission work that currently goes into paying a salary. Additionally, it means there is one probably old building to keep habitable rather than two. And it means that there aren't two vestries pouring all of their time into keeping the doors open and the bills paid, which, potentially, frees up a lot of energy.

Jim, we've been yoking congregations up here in the piney woods for a hundred years. It works. I object to the idea that a large congregation deserves to live and a small one must be put out of its misery. The simple fact is that on a percapita basis larger congregations are more expensive. A small congregation can muddle along for the Lord for a 100 years while a large congregation will fold almost overnight because it can't pay it's bills. Where's the economy of size in that?
Tom Downs
I've served big and small; I choose small.

Tom, if I have given you the impression that I think small churches deserve to close because they are small I am sorry. I believe that struggling churches are a drain on resources and energy, and that most Episcopal dioceses that are honest with themselves realize that they have a number of such parishes. This poses a question for the church that I don't believe you have engaged.

Jim, I wouldn't feel so strongly about this if I haven't heard over at Bishops/Deputies occasional talk about small churches/dioceses being a drain on the Church's resources. I think this just isn't true... at least in our diocese and my experience of nearly 40 years in the ministry. But such talk, if repeated often enough, can become the "conventional wisdom" and still wrong.
I was one of the architects of our new (1995)diocese; you better believe we considered what it would cost to be the Episcopal presence in this part of the country. As it turned out we are as strong finacially as any of the other three diocese in this state (stronger than two of them, I suspect).
We have a few congregations of a dozen loyal members each, but they pay their own way. They cost the diocese nothing and pay their apportionment on time. We have an equal number of large congregations (large at least in this part of the state)and they typically are the ones that cost the diocese money and resources. Big buildings and big programs don't leave much for a diocesan apportionment. They also suck up more of the bishop's time than the typically happy little congregations.
Our congregations are between 30 minutes and an hour apart. Merging just doesn't work in most cases. Should we just let the Baptists have big chunks of the territory because conventional wisdome says small is useless?
But what can a little congregation with a circut-riding priest do that matters? If you're the little Episcopal congregation in a village of 1200, you won't have an ASA of 150, but you can still be a Christian presence and minister as you are able. Isn't that just what our Lord expects of us?

Tom, mandatory assessment? In dioceses that don't have mandatory assessments, I think you will find that many small churches don't pay their own way and are, in addition, a drain on diocesan staff time.

I don't expect small towns to have big churches. I expect three small struggling churches within a few miles of each other to consider whether they are making the best use of their resources in keeping all three buildings open.

I agree with Tom -- it is all in how you approach it. Our small church in Lander, WY - has a priest, a deacon, preachers, pastoral care leaders, teachers, etc. No one but the Administrator is paid. The building is in constant use by the community - One Stop Help Center that offers help for those falling through the cracks - not just money but counseling and budgeting help, music lessons, AA, NA, Blood Drive, concerts, etc. We could close but there would be a huge hole in the community. The tiny budget pays its assessment (40% - pays into oversight by the ministry developers), utilities and upkeep.
Sure there are dead places that need review - but there are reasons to keep the doors open if churches can catch the vision.

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