“From Death to Life”

Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.

Romans 6:13

Since April, 2010, I’ve been researching stories about how churches discern a decision to downsize, merge or close when they are losing vitality and sustainability.  My research is supported by a Pastoral Study Project grant from the Louisville Institute.  This site is designed to engage people in conversation about how vulnerable churches faithfully discern their future options.  It will be a more lively discussion if you share ideas and questions in the comment boxes beneath each post.  If you want to receive free notification of new posts, which come about once a week, you can subscribe on the right.

Trees for Tomorrow

A 200 year old hickory tree

A 200 year old hickory tree

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” - 1 Corinthians 3:6

My husband Charles grew up eating hickory nuts. Hickory trees grow in parts of Wisconsin and there must have been some on one of the family farms because his mother always had hickory nuts to bake into brownies or sugar cookies, and he loved them.

As an adult, now in his fifties, Charles has lost both his parents. But he has not lost his love for hickory nuts. So, a couple years ago, he ordered ten hickory tree starts from a nursery. He cleared a piece of brush-covered land about 3/4 mile from our house and put them in the ground, a long ways from any water source. He encased them in little cages to keep the deer and bunnies out. All summer, we empty 5 gallon pails of water off the back of his truck to water the starts when the weather is dry. All winter, he looks across the pastures and wonders if those little trees have become snacks for hungry wildlife.

After we planted the hickory trees, we did some research and discovered they are slow to mature, but he expects that, if they survive cold winters and dry summers, they will begin producing nuts in about 40 years. Yes, 40.  He will be in his 90’s then. Hopefully, he will still have a strong set of teeth.

In an interview, a faithful church leader once said this to me: “My period of leadership is ending soon, and I sense that my church is in decline. What can I do now to leave a legacy that will help them get through this phase and move on to a better future?” One hunch was that she could help train younger and newer members with leadership skills. She also had a wonderful, “non-anxious presence” that served as a model to others, and her encouraging leadership style was infectious.  That’s a great legacy!

Whatever that leader leaves behind, she is asking the right questions. How can we be useful now in ways that pay off in the long term future? It sometimes seems we are casting seeds in the desert, unsure whether anyone will come behind us to water them, whether those seeds will be allowed to grow up as wheat among the tares, or ever produce a harvest. But seeds are seeds. It’s up to us to plant, and it’s up to the next leader, and God, to make them grow.

What has God given you the capacity to plant, or to water, in your faith community today so that it may still bear fruit in the distant future?

*Photo by G.W.  Bill Miller

 

 

 

 

 

The Task of the Storyteller

story teller dollI told a story in church last Sunday.  It was not just my story; it was a shared story from my family that had only been told quietly for a long time.  Maybe it was a confession.  After telling it I felt spent, as if something powerful had moved through me.

To be a storyteller is like having an electric current move through your body.  The story comes from somewhere–maybe you lived it, or maybe someone passed it to you–and it comes into your body and you ponder it in your heart for awhile, like Mary did.  And then one day, you tell it.  Not just for yourself, but for everyone who has a role in it.  And the telling has its own power, and the electric current moves through you and on to the hearer, and you as the story teller are changed, and the one who hears the story is changed, and even the story itself changes.

This is what it means to proclaim the Good News, to be a Christian witness, to testify to the stories that have changed us.

When I began interviewing people for my book “Toward the Better Country“, I was immediately struck by the responsibility of receiving people’s stories about  their struggles in declining churches.  I listened and recorded, wrote and edited, and the weight of those stories bore down on me.  I kept telling myself I had to finish the book on behalf of all those people who’s stories I had received.  I had promised them their stories would be told, so I could not let them get stuck inside me.

I noticed that, when people told me their stories, they were forming new meaning, and the stories changed.  The tellers listened to themselves and learned things.  And for me, listening and asking questions, I found myself  entering  the stories and becoming a part of them.

Once a story is shared, it can never be taken back.  Whatever power it has to transform the teller, the listener, or the story itself, just in the telling, that power is released like a chemical reaction.  From then on, the story does not really end.  It keeps being told, entering people’s hearts and waking them to new insights.

Last week, I attended a clergy event and ran into one of my interviewees who is a small church pastor.  I had a copy of my book with me, and I took it to him and opened it to a certain page and asked him to read it to himself.  There he found his own story, now part of a larger story of many churches that have languished, struggled, survived and been renewed by God’s hand.

It felt good to have kept my promise to him.

What story are you bearing the weight of?  Who will you tell it to?

*Storyteller doll by Helen Cordero, Cochito Pueblo

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Exposure

CC cover 3-19It’s a bit late, but I’m happy to announce that The Christian Century has printed an article I wrote entitled “Holy Stuff” in their March 19, 2014 issue, which you can find here.

This article draws on a few stories from my book “Toward the Better Country” about the way Christians mourn the loss of physical objects they identify with their life in a church that is closing.

I’m happy that the article offers my book a little exposure to people who may benefit from it as they struggle with leadership in declining churches.  The Christian Century is read and respected by many of my colleagues, and the article is helping to get the word out.

But I’m finding that marketing the book is a challenge for me personally.  People want a short answer: “What’s your book about?”  and I’m tempted to say “It’s about church closure”.   The Christian Century article would certainly make it seem that way.

But the book is about more than closure.  It’s about the grief, disorientation and powerlessness many of us are feeling as we watch our churches shrink.  It’s about identifying what is really important in your ministry and putting aside everything else that gets in the way of that most vital mission.  It’s about the creativity and collaboration–with God and neighbor–that is allowing some churches to do ministry in new, more vital and sustainable ways.

Why can’t I seem to get that into an elevator speech?

If you have read or even skimmed my book, and want to help me with my elevator speech, please post a suggestion below,  I could use your help!

Turning Burdens into Blessings

IMG_8965The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) is finally doing something about the growing problem of how church building maintenance is colliding with pursuit of a church’s mission.  They are gathering leaders to talk about how congregations can use their buildings in new ways.

The ECBF will gather on April 28th – 30th in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to discuss ways churches can transform their empty, expensive buildings into uses that complement or fund their true missions.

The ECBF website includes clips from the 2012 ECBF conference, at which Bishop Gregory Rickel and others spoke.  It was in his address at this conference that Rickel used the phrase “Religious Industrial Complex” referring to the grand building campaigns of growing churches during the post WWII boom.  This phrase seems harsh to those who lived through the optimism of that time, but to a younger generation now encumbered by the buildings their parents erected, it seems strangely apt.

Nevertheless, there is hope for churches and their buildings.  When you go to the site, be sure to click under “info., links and tools” and check out the many alternative uses for church buildings they have documented.  These are real examples from real churches in real cities you can check out.  And these are only Episcopal churches!  It is inspiring to see the creativity that is emerging as churches wrestle with the challenge of turning real estate from a burden into a blessing.

*Photo by Katjusa Cisar, licensed by Creativecommons.org

Toward the Better Country

June 2013 021Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection

by L. Gail Irwin

is now available from

Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers 

You can order your copy here,

Web price:$17.60 plus shipping

Copies are also available online at Amazon.com

Book Synopsis

The pews of many mainline churches are clearly not as full as they used to be.  While committed Christians are trying everything they can to keep their churches open and thriving, history has shown that no local church is meant to live forever in its current form.    Like people, churches are born, live and breathe, fulfill their missions, and pass away.  And recent history shows that more churches will be closing or re-shaping their ministry in the near future.

Toward the Better Country tells about the grief stages, discernment processes and creative options explored by lay leaders, pastors and regional leaders who have dealt with this sensitive time in the life cycle of a church.  These are woven in with the author’s own experience of leading a church through steep decline toward closure.

This resource, based on interviews with over thirty lay, clergy and judicatory leaders, will offer healthy, practical ways for congregations to move through the terrain of loss, discern God’s path for their future and pass on their legacies to emerging ministries.  It can be used for personal reflection, leadership training, or in discernment groups in local churches.  Scripture readings and questions for conversation are included at the end of each chapter, along with a list of additional resources for churches struggling with decline.

Chapter Titles:

1. Introduction

2. The Rise and Fall of Sacred Places

3. Expressions of Grief in the Faith Community

4. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Lay Leaders

5. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Pastors

6. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Regional Pastors

7. Multiple Paths to the Future

8. A Tale of Two Closures

9. Laying the Foundation for Future Ministry

10. Seven Ways to Say Goodbye

11. New Wine for New Wineskins

Appendices, Additional Resources and Bibliography

Does A Dying Church Work for You?

May 15 2013 026John Flowers and Karen Vannoy have written a short article in Ministry Matters about how participation in a declining congregation may work to some people’s advantage.

For example, they point out that, if you want to feel indispensable,  or if you don’t want to be disrupted by new people with new ideas,  you should probably stay in your declining church.

I think there is merit to reasons #2, #3, and #5 in the article: small, declining churches can enjoy a wonderful familiarity that is comforting, especially to lonely people who need a safe place to connect with others.  While they may say they wish for more members, in reality, they are happy for the “family” feeling they maintain in their smallness.

Reasons #1 and #7 are more questionable to me.  Here, the writers suggest that ego makes some people want to keep their churches small so that their personal influence will be big.  While that may be true for a few people, I can’t recall any lay person in my interviews who indicated they enjoyed the responsibility that was put upon them as their church declined toward closure.  On the contrary,  several lay leaders described the need to step away from leadership positions in order to help a congregation come to terms with its decline.  My overall impression was that being a leader in a declining church is emotionally and spiritually taxing, even causing some people to withdraw from the church altogether.

The writers are helpful in suggesting ways churches can promote the feeling of intimacy in a church, even while they are focusing on growth.  They suggest forming lay-led small groups, freeing up communication, and giving greater attention to the care of newcomers, among other ideas.

It’s a lonely world, and people don’t want to feel lonely when they go to church, so I can understand the attraction to smallness.  But all sizes of church should foster genuine intimacy, not just familiar closeness.  If a large, thriving church does not create small group intimacy for its members who seek it, they will drift away, and the church will shrink.

Some of those who leave may end up in small, struggling churches where they will be embraced with open arms by a congregation that is anxious to suck every drop of lifeblood out of the new member to keep their little systems thriving.  This may feel like closeness at first, but ultimately, it is destructive to intimacy.  In my book, I call these “vampire churches”.

This article reminds me that there truly are advantages to being part of a declining church.  But these advantages do not benefit the coming reign of Christ.  It’s time to stop being comfortable in an ailing system and start getting healthier.

What is your congregation doing to get healthier?

*Photo by Gail Irwin, 2012

The Mission Finds a Church

Community MissionThere is the Church.  There is the mission.  And there is the building.  Not necessarily in that order.

Here’s a story about a church that closed: Westside Church of Christ in McKinney, Texas.  Their building was sold to the McKinney School District, which found a use for it as an alternative school for students who had committed anything from “serious breaches of the district rulebook to misdemeanor crimes.”

Then, after the school was in its new home, a church that has no “home” found the school (that used to be a church) and made the school its mission.  Sound confusing?  Read the article here.

What I love about this story is that it distinguishes between a building, a church (faith community), and a mission:

* The building has been a church, and is now a school.  It’s just a building, after all; we can make it into anything we need it to be.

* The church is a group of people who have come together to serve the world in the manner of Christ, and they can do that in any number of ways.  In this case, it’s The Parks Church: a young, 300 member congregation that “has no home of its own, drifting from venue to venue since 2011″.

* The mission is the opportunity God puts in front of a congregation to live out their faith in practical ways in the world.  In this case, it means caring for the students and teachers at a school that is easily overlooked; a school that works with kids on the verge of delinquency who need a temporary, academic “time out”.

Maybe it isn’t always wise to separate building, mission and people.  Sometimes they are inextricably woven together.  But in some cases, it is good to do the exercise of pulling them apart:

* Who is your church community and what are they capable of?

* What is the mission God is calling your church to carry out?

* What is your building suited for and what does the community need it to be?

By separating these questions from each other, maybe some churches will find that the building and the people have two separate missions.  Others will find they don’t need a permanent home at all (!Let me know if you are aware of churches like this!).  Some may find the building is an obstacle to fulfilling their mission, while others will find uses for their buildings that help them carry out a new mission altogether.

Thanks again to Joe Duggan of Congregational Seasons for sniffing this story out!

Photo by Kevin Bauman (Kevinbauman.com)