Category Archives: Reasons to stay open

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






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

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

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 (

The Wedding Flees the Church

wedding 3So, 34 couples got married in a live, mass wedding during the Grammy Awards.  Queen Latifah (no, not ordained) officiated at the ceremony, against a projected image of stained glass windows.  A gospel choir joined in singing behind Madonna while the couples, old and young, gay and straight, exchanged rings.

I’m not going to lie: I have mixed feelings about this spectacle.  I’m clergy, so performing wedding ceremonies, along with all the preparation and education that goes with them, is a job I take seriously.  I develop a personal relationship with every couple, helping them converse about everything from their parents’ marriages (and divorces) to who’s going to take out the trash.  I pray with them and for them, write their unique wedding liturgies and sign their licenses.  For some couples, marriage preparation will be the first time they’ve been in church since their confirmation–or baptism–and may be the last time they drop in until their first child is born, or ever.  I value that fleeting opportunity to reach out to people who are making a significant emotional and spiritual turning point in their lives, and let them know God is walking beside them.

So the idea of having a live, televised group wedding in which the participants are selected by a casting agency comes off to me as a little crass.

But then, I have to admit, crass is a mild word for the way the institutional church has behaved in response to many people who long to form life partnerships.  The church has had its chance to be present in the lives of different configurations of family, and for the most part, we have said: if it doesn’t look like the 1950′s, go someplace else to get your blessing.

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that some people are going elsewhere to get God’s blessing.  They are getting married on the steps of courthouses, in parks and roller rinks, in abandoned churches re-cast as wedding chapels, and anywhere else they please, including the Grammys.

Part of me is sad that the church is losing its hold on being the place where this rite is enacted.  I like the oversight and protection the church has to offer to couples making their way in the world.  Being married is hard and, well, “it takes a village” to keep a marriage strong.  The church can be that village.

But the reality is, the church has refused to be that village for gay and lesbian couples and others who don’t “fit the mold”.  And now, the sacred ritual of forming families has broken out of the walls of our churches and is being celebrated in the open, where everyone can see the beautiful thing God can do with two people in partnership.  Couples are hopefully finding new ways to support their families spiritually and emotionally outside the church.

Or, maybe not.  I don’t know.  Maybe someday, couples will bravely venture back to the church looking for a community that fosters every shape of family.  Maybe they will find churches like the one I’m at now, where every creative configuration of family is welcome.

Maybe someday, weddings will come back to the church!

*Image from Wikipedia

The Book is Here!

June 2013 021If you are part of a church struggling with vitality and viability, and wondering what options you have for continuing ministry, I am happy to announce that my book, “Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection” is now available in print from Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers.

This has been a four year project for me and I am pleased to see it come to fruition.  My book is not perfect, but hopefully it will generate discussion that helps us all move the church forward into a new era.  I am happy that so many great stories shared with me can now be shared with others, and I encourage you to read it and let me know if it is helpful in your church.

For a brief synopsis of the book, click on the “About the Book” tab at the top of the page.

You can order the book now by clicking here , or at  The book will be available as a Kindle e-book within 3-6 months.  Libraries and educators may be able to access the book through Ingram.

If you are part of a church or denominational group, and would like me to come and talk about the topic of church downsizing and closure, please leave a comment below and I will contact you.


Whose Transformation?

witness 1I once had occasion to meet with a potential confirmation student at a Subway restaurant.  He was 6 feet tall, dressed like a punk and played in a rock band.  I fed him a sandwich and tried to explain why he should invest two years of Sunday afternoons studying the art of Christian discipleship.  I suddenly realized, sitting across from him, that after 15 years in ministry, I still didn’t know how to witness to someone about my faith.

Around that same time, I was encouraged by my Presbytery to learn about church transformation: how churches can be revitalized for re-growth.  I went to a lot of workshops on this topic.  They covered spiritual practices and becoming more missional.  There were workshops on how to connect with the neighborhood and turning committees into Task Forces, Teams or Ministries.  But more than any of that, I was discerning that transformation is not just about what happens in a church.  It’s also about what happens in a person.

The church I served during those years was not “transformed” for growth.  In fact, it died.  But I think I was transformed through experiences like the one with the teenage boy.  I am slowly learning to be transformed by my faith, and how to transmit my enthusiasm about discipleship to others.

If we wonder why our churches are shriveling, maybe one simple reason is because we don’t know how to encourage evangelism and discipleship.  For our parents and grandparents’ generations, this was done by procreation and acculturation into a society that transmitted Christian doctrine and practice through familiar cultural rituals.  For some churches today, it is done with guilt and coercion.  These methods of spreading the gospel no longer work for many of us in the Mainline traditions.

Today, I see Christian discipleship as more of an alternative lifestyle.  To attract someone to this life perhaps requires an alternative kind of evangelism.  Madeline L’Engle once wrote,

“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”  

How can we do this?  This article from Sojourners, written by a fitness coach, is a little bit strident, maybe, but it speaks of the need for churches to consider our task of making disciples more seriously, and then “get to work” doing it, instead of just talking about it.

I’m learning that “transformation” is what should be happening to us as God’s people.  If we allow ourselves to be transformed, maybe the Church will be transformed, too.  I am one who needs to “get fit” spiritually, and I yearn for a church where I can practice discipleship alongside others.

How do you want to be transformed?

*Photo by Rebecca Wilson, licensed by

A Place to Belong

winter church

I braved a snowstorm yesterday to get to my church, which is about 35 miles away.  I didn’t really have to go.  The Senior Pastor was preaching, my small part of the service could easily be handled by someone else, and the predictions were for major snow and wind blowing through the day.  But at the last minute, I decided to risk it, and once I had, a happy calm came over me.  I would get there, one way or another.  I packed my snow boots and a shovel, just in case.

Once I arrived at church, I realized why I had come.  A few brave teenagers were shoveling the sidewalks along with the custodian.  A Sunday School teacher reported he only had one student, and by ten, the congregation had swelled to around 50 souls, not counting a dozen choir singers (we usually have at least 150).  The rest  stayed home “snug in their beds” (the wimps!).

A happy little family sat in the front row holding a child dressed like a frosted cake for her baptism.  The pastor walked the baby around the sanctuary, talking to her about this new family she now belonged to, and how these strangers would become friends, teachers and fellow travelers on the journey of faith beside her.  Then the pastor preached about the passage we make “from longing to belonging”; from loneliness and alienation to connection and community, and the way that is mediated by a living Christ, who embodies for us the love of God.

While he was preaching, I remembered one Christmas Eve not too many years ago when I did not have a “home church”.  I was unemployed.  I attended a neighborhood church that night with my family, but no one there knew my name, and the liturgy was unfamiliar.  I was a stranger in a strange land,  in limbo on what can be the holiest– or the loneliest– night of the year.

Since then, every Christmas when I have found myself at home in a congregation, I am filled with gratitude, and a deeper understanding of the value of belonging, even the temporary belonging enjoyed by an interim pastor.  While no church is perfect, and no human community is permanent, we can glimpse there a momentary vision of the great, welcoming Kingdom, and our longing subsides for awhile.

All loneliness, I think, is a longing for God.  We who practice a faith regularly understand that on some level.  But there are many people out there this Christmas who don’t understand that.  They know the emptiness, but haven’t experienced the fullness of God’s love within a faith family.  They know how flawed our human versions of church can be; but they haven’t experienced the miracle of what God can do with messed up people like us.

Have you experienced that miracle?  And if you have, who are you going to tell about it?