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How do you know when it is time to close a church

How do you know when it is time to close a church

In The Christian Century, the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt writes about “Zombie Churches”

Closing a church is like eating the last slice of bread—somehow if you eat the last slice, you’re responsible for consuming it all (never mind that someone else ate the last 27 slices). A church can be declining for forty years, but if a pastor comes in and starts to talk about closing a congregation, then she closed the church. Many people don’t want to be that pastor.

Many members feel anxiety as well.

They bring it up when we need to stop having certain programs. (“But if we stop having Wednesday night dinners, our church will close!”)

When they need to let go of personnel. (“If we don’t have a full-time janitor on our staff, then we might as well pack it up right now!”)

When they need to hire staff. (“I know we need a youth leader. But we can’t afford one. If we get one, then we’ll have to use the money and the church will close!”)

And so people talk around it or allow it to be a threat. (“We have to do what she says. If we lose her pledge, we might as well say goodbye to the whole endeavor!”)

In all of it, we allow the anxiety to loom in the air like a toxic gas that we think we smell but we’re too afraid to do anything about it.


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Robyn Barnes

I agree with Eric: the balance of clergy salaries is seminary debt. I saw a quote the other day about how we can pay for clergy upfront with better (MUCH better) seminary support or later with higher salaries so clergy can pay off their loans.

Money was only part of Rev. Merritt’s article. Regardless of how well we deal with the finances, some churches will close due to shifting economies and populations. We need to pay attention to the process of how a congregation closes and it’s affect on clergy and parishioners. Part of my story is here:

John Cheek

Our congregation had to leave our 150 year old building because of structural collapse. For five years we have been meeting in a rented space attached to a local brewpub. Another congregation that had to leave their building because they could not afford it joined with us to make a new church. Though we miss the beauty of our sanctuaries, we work hard to make our service lively and beautiful. The small choir keeps the music energetic and varied. The altar guild lovingly prepares the space each Sunday. Much thought and planning go into our liturgy. We are small but vibrant. Here is our story

John Cheek

Chris H.

So if not having a physical is a positive thing, why is TEC spending millions to litigate and then millions more to prop up the remnant churches after the split? It should have taken the opportunity to start afresh in new digs and a new direction. If the building is a millstone, why work so hard to keep it? On the other hand, most Episcopalians here would be horrified at the idea of renting space in a secular venue. That’s what all those independent “Bible churches” do.

Chris Harwood

Eric Bonetti

@Jim Naughton. Excellent point. To build on your comment, too often we fail to fully appreciate the implications of the report about 815, which noted that property management is not a key skill set for the church; the point is relevant for many parishes. Managing a physical plant — especially an aging one — requires a strong skill set that often is difficult to align with the backgrounds of all-volunteer vestries, Too often, I see parishes that are stuck in a goofy loop of trying to stay one step ahead of needed capital improvements and repairs, when a far easier solution would simply be to rent space. I know of a couple of parishes that have done so, including one that has a mutually beneficial arrangement with a nearby company, in which they use corporate meeting space on a Sunday-only basis. The nominal rent offsets the company’s fixed carrying costs, parking is convenient, the location ideal, and it’s very comfortable. Best of all, funds go to outreach and mission, with the result that the parish is thriving.

Jim Pratt

Besides clergy salaries, the other drain on church resources is often the physical plant. My parish is burdened with aging buildings which cost us $80,000 per year (40% of our budget) to operate and maintain (not counting major repairs, on which we have spent $150,000 in the past 2 years). Like most legacy buildings, it is not handicap accessible, and doesn’t really suit our needs for ministry in the 21st century.

A neighboring parish had vibrant community and ministry, but was burdened by their physical plant and closed. We do need to look seriously at freeing ourselves from real estate when it doesn’t enhance or support ministry (whether sharing space with other churches, using a community hall, or some other creative solution).

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