I recently interviewed two people, one pastor and one lay leader, who had helped guide their two churches through relatively healthy closures. As I looked at the notes from the two interviews, I noticed that both congregations had developed certain “tools” that made their transitions (in both cases, “blending” with another congregation) go more smoothly. What were the tools they took advantage of?
- These churches both had a history of open communication and participation in their wider judicatory bodies. They knew their judicatory staff people and understood the polity issues involved in downsizing and closure decisions. They turned to the judicatory for resources to help in discernment.
- Both churches had developed “friendships” with other area churches. In these two cases, the other churches were of the same denomination, but a friendship could exist between any two churches in the same neighborhood. This kept the congregations from feeling isolated, allowed them to share some programming prior to their closure, and gave the members church families that could actively welcome them after their own churches closed.
- Both churches were self-aware enough to understand their own history and character, the reasons for their historical growth and decline, what assets they most treasured, and what their dearest mission activity was. This common narrative gave the congregations a sense of unity that helped them through the transition.
- Both churches were clear about what they needed from a pastoral leader. This relates to the last point. A church that knows itself also knows its leadership needs. In one interview, the pastor said he heard from the search committee “one of the clearest goals I ever heard from a church” when they asked him to help them decide whether they should stay open or not. It is immensely helpful for a leader to get clear, unified guidance (and permission!) from a congregation to lead in specific ways.
- Both churches were clear about their mission. Even though they were in decline, they had enough passion for their community mission that they wanted to see it live on whether they stayed together as a congregation or not.
These tools were not suddenly brought out of the closet in time for a crisis. They were shaped by years of congregations working together in healthy ways: reaching beyond themselves, doing honest self-assessment, clarifying their mission and cooperatively engaging with leaders.
If your church is still relatively healthy, work on these kinds of traits. Get to know your neighbor churches; do some honest assessment on a regular basis, and check in with your pastor about the shared misson you are trying to accomplish together. These tools will help you through any kind of difficulty that comes along.
If your church is feeling the need for a serious assessment of its future viability, consider how you can sharpen some of these tools and make use of the resources God is placing in front of you.
What are some of the assets and tools God has given your congregation to help you get through transitions? This might be a good conversation starter for your governing board.