Top Ten things to remember when closing a church

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For the next few weeks in the Magazine, we’re exploring changing norms in the Episcopal Church.  In this first piece, Howard Whitaker shares the top ten things he’s learned from closing a congregation; something we’re likely to see more of in the near future

 

By Howard W Whitaker

Whatever the 21st century Episcopal Church will look like, closing some of its 20th century remnants will be one of its major tasks.  I am a priest closing a 150 year old mission church. The wardens and I are receiving many “how to” questions from others who intuit they will sooner or later be doing the same thing. I didn’t get this course in seminary. It isn’t included in the vestry handbook. For those who need help now, I suggest 10 principles to start.

 

Normalize the process for your congregation.

This is a normal—and will be an increasingly normal—life cycle event across all regions and denominations. The average life of a church is 70 years, roughly three generations… much like a family business. It is estimated that 60% of churches built after WW II will close over the next decade. The sociological reasons behind this are complex and can be easily researched elsewhere.

 

Frame the reality.

Our leadership chose to, as much as possible, work with the language “expiration date” and “life cycle” rather than termination and failure. We chose to work within the time frame of 6-8 months for our “active dying.” We did not want to just to “pull the plug.” But, we were positive that we did not want a slow, agonizing death. We wanted to go out with grace, dignity—and if possible—some celebration of our legacy of ministry. It sounds good, but only time and experience will tell whether this is better than sudden death.

 

Message discipline will save you much grief.

Post official statements to your social media or website. Stay focused and “on message.” Keep it simple. Clarity trumps empathy. Refer gossips and provocateurs back to the statement. Avoid analysis, debate, and commentary.

 

Everything we know about the grief process applies to a church closing.

The finer points of Kubler-Ross’s five stages may be open for critique, but rest assured you will know them intimately in the closing of a church. The five stages are an effective leadership tool for listening to and sorting the reactions of the congregation. You will always have people at every stage. Treat each other gently.

 

Everything we know about the pastoral process in death applies to a church closing.

Just as people frequently die the same way they have lived, the dynamic, character, and personality—good and bad—of a congregation will likely not change much as they approach their death. We all hope for deathbed transformations; they rarely happen. If anything, people turn into caricature under stress.

 

This is not the time for blame or morality plays.

The official, public line is that this is no one’s fault. Focusing on the normal life cycle and changing social and cultural norms is ultimately closer to truth. Many years of intentional, but incremental decisions bring congregations to the point of death. Clergy playing the “I piped, but you would not dance” card will be unhelpful; as will the chronically aggrieved complaining that “we were fine, the changes killed us.”

 

Of course, every context is different.

But read what is already out there. Ending with Hope, Beth Gaede, editor (Alban Institute, 2002) and Toward a Better Country, L. Gail Irwin (Resource Publications, 2013) are a good start. This is a growing field and there will soon be more resources available.

 

If there is ever a time for mutual ministry, closing a church is it.

The leadership team should tightly bind one to another. Active support of the diocese, during the process is essential. Good collaboration with area clergy is quickening and will enhance continuity of care for your members. If you are not in relationship with a spiritual director, now would be an excellent time to start.

 

Positively and transparently seek to re-home church objects, as well as people.

The ministry and sacramental purpose of church goods from candlesticks to coffee pots does not die and the sending forth into other congregations can be healing. Do expect some objects to be emotionally booby-trapped and land-mined.

 

Remember who you are.

Your congregation looks to its leaders for example and tone during this time; it’s almost over; don’t flake out now. Witness to our trust in God, the presence of our Lord, and our life after death.

 

© 2016, Howard W Whitaker. This appeared in a slightly different form as a post to the Professional Episcopalians group at Linked-In.

 

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Kathy Collins
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Kathy Collins

This estimation of church life span is very US centric. My current charge in the Highlands of Scotland has a traceable Episcopal presence dating from 1540. The current church building will be 150 years old in 2018 and has had a worshipping presence for the whole of that time. The current congregation numbers 30 resident souls spread over a wide rural area and our numbers are swelled throughout the year by seasonal residents and visitors.

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James Pratt
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James Pratt

The rural context, whether in Scotland or North America, is quite different. My first parish was a rural, 4-point charge. While one of the churches has since closed, because the village population had shrunk to only about a dozen year-round residents, the church in the largest village has existed for about 150 years, and will endure as long as the village does, as 90% of the population were at least nominally members, and had been for generations.
In the urban and suburban context (and I doubt there is much difference between the European and North American context here), people are highly mobile, the demographics of communities change, sometimes rapidly. In such a fluid environment, all community institutions face a limited life-span.

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Paul Powers
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Paul Powers

The "70-year lifespan" is US centric, but the dilemma of church closures isn't limited to the US. For example, according to the C of E's website around 20 church buildings are closed each year.

https://www.churchofengland.org/clergy-office-holders/pastoralandclosedchurches/closedchurches/closed-churches-available.aspx

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Prof. Christopher Seitz
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Prof. Christopher Seitz

"The average life of a church is 70 years, roughly three generations… much like a family business."

In a non-US context this statement seems eccentric. Average church life is seventy years? In UK or Europe or Asia?

This seems a testimony to the dynamism and fragility of US religious life.

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Eric Bonetti
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Eric Bonetti

Not all departures are endings, and not all endings are deaths.

It may relieve enormous emotional, psychological, and financial pressure to let go of a parish's creaky physical assets and focus on the real message of the gospel, which has precious little to do with buildings or baptismal fonts. So, letting go of a church building or other assets is not necessarily bad.

In cases where a parish ends, the good that it and its members have done carries on, and one hopes that the growth its members have experienced travels with them.

One particularly good piece of advice in this article: Be kind to one another in times of trouble. There is no point in making a bad situation worse by causing hurt to others. Difficult times call for redoubling our efforts to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

And yes, parishes rarely die of a single cause. They die of the cumulative effect of small decisions: Decisions to ignore problems, to sweep issues under the rug, to ignore day-to-day ethical matters, to pretend that all is well when it is not. The key to avoiding death is mindfulness, and parishes constantly move towards death or life.

Is your parish moving towards life, or is it moving towards death? And how are your communal decisions moving you closer to, or further away, from that outcome?

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Leslie Marshall
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Leslie Marshall

Anyone willing to do an experiment to keep TEC open?

In just one church, preach that the bible is the inerrant (incapable of being wrong) Word from God.
--Then, stand back, get ready to watch a mighty God work. You can't do it, but God can. He is faithful!

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Member

With all due respect to Sister Marshall and Brother Smith, the demographics of the United States are catching up with those denominations that hold to Biblical inerrancy as much as they are to those that don't. The Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God are a few years behind us, but they're on parallel trajectories.

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Prof. Christopher Seitz
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Prof. Christopher Seitz

I hear you Fr Scott. My only point was that GM will not be affected by (what could well become) a similar decline in the same way as Yugo.

When you are a diocesan church and not a congregational one, you rely on certain structural, fixed costs and realities.

The good news is that statistics gurus at TEC understand there is a major problem to be faced. They are not in denial.

Hovering around 4K ASA or under: Maine, Vermont, C-NY, Europe, LI, Rochester, Virgin Islands, W-NY, Bethlehem, Delaware, Easton, NW-PA, Pittsburgh, SW-VA, WVA, KY, Lex, SC, W-TN, E-MI, Fond du Lac, Eau Claire, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Missouri, N-Ind, N-MI, Springfield, W-MI, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, ND, SD, Wyoming, Ft-W, Kansas, NW-TX, Rio Grande, W-Missouri, W-Kansas, W-LA, Alaska, Eastern Oregon, El Camino, Hawaii, Idaho, Micronesia, Navaho Missions, Nevada, San Joaquin, Spokane, Taiwan, Utah, all of Province 9 except Honduras.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Potential for growth in Wyoming is limited - a state with around 500,000 people spread out over a large geographic area? The western part of the state heavily LDS, and elsewhere "nones" and generic protestants. Buildings were built with money from the East for places that could never support them. Sustainable congregations require creative thinking.

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David Allen
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David Allen

leaving aside whether one approves of them as Christian entities — which most people here don’t.

WOW!! I don't think that is true of most folks here at all! If so, I'm in the wrong place for sure.

I think that many of those Christian denominations don't always accept the rest of us as Christian, but not the other way around. If someone tells me that they are a Christian, I usually accept that at face value. I may not agree with their theology, but I don't make the judgement that they aren't Christian.

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Member

I am only noting reports here and elsewhere that the number of denominations experiencing decline in members due to low birth rate, low commitment among younger members, and the general secularization of the populace, is not limited to "mainline" or "progressive" churches. The trend has come later to these larger bodies, but come it has. They are not only not growing as they were, they are experiencing net losses, even if not so far in devastating numbers. I did not mean to say more than that numerically; and I acknowledge that they are larger, and so may not have circumstances identical to ours. However, these reports suggest strongly that the demographic issues are at least as important in declining numbers, and arguably more important, than theological position.

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Prof. Christopher Seitz
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Prof. Christopher Seitz

"a few years behind us" --

Could you explain what you mean, please? The Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God are nowhere near the numerical reality of 650K ASA. When a denomination gets this small, the sand runs faster out of the hour-glass and the question of survival presses. Surely you are not suggesting the same is true for the two bodies you mention in your comment. They are enormous entities and so have more institutional resilience and a longer time for survival against present trends. This is surely not in doubt, leaving aside whether one approves of them as Christian entities -- which most people here don't.

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JC Fisher
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JC Fisher

"the bible is the inerrant (incapable of being wrong)"

Whenever I read this phrase, I know that by "the bible", the writer means him or herself. Merciful Lord, keep self-worshipping bibliolatry away from the Episcopal Church.

Resurrection follows death. It doesn't follow lies.

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Stryker Smith
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Stryker Smith

Amen to that. Churches that adhere to the word of God as revealed in scripture tend to grow.

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Gregory Orloff
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Gregory Orloff

Given that there are hundreds of different denominations in the United States claiming that the Bible is the "inerrant word of God" -- yet coming to diametrically opposing conclusions and teaching radically differing things from said "inerrant word of God" -- your triumphalistic, non-Episcopalian proposition is hardly foolproof, Ms. Marshall.

Bibliolatry is a problem, not a solution.

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David Allen
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David Allen

It would be hard to be a part of a congregation that was built upon a lie.

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Leslie Marshall
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Leslie Marshall

Yes, I agree, it's hard to be part of a congregation that is built upon a lie. In fact, it's so hard... it soon crumbles to the ground.

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PoppySt.John
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PoppySt.John

So, you're saying it is OK to let the baptismal font be used by the next church or businesses as an ice chest?

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Not sure where you see this idea reflected in the article. Re-home means to find a similar place or reason for the object.

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Tim Kruse
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Tim Kruse

I think it's essential to collect written, photographic and oral histories about the congregation to send to an archive, such as the local diocese may maintain, or a third party archival service knowledgeable about ecclesiastical records ( such as http://www.ihsf.org/ for example ).

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Kathy Collins
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Kathy Collins

Kubler-Ross is a rather simplistic look at grieving process. Can I suggest The Five Cries of Gief by Merton Strommen. This is a eminently spiritual look at grief which although not specific to church closure it will resonate with your experience

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Karen Schief
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Karen Schief

We made the decision to close our church back in 2014 after 60 years. As the Warden who had to lead the process (we had a priest in charge) working with the Diocese. From my perspective, there was blame, hurt and a feeling of letting all those who built the church down. The church has since been sold to an Asian congregation. I still feel sad at times, but I know I did everything possible to save the congregation. Unfortunately, it was bigger than the handful of us that were left. We have settled in a new church and are happy there. However, I can honestly say that I don't want the same level of involvement (doing it all) and I pray that the new congregation who now worships in our church will honor and love the space as much as our parents and families did.

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