Perhaps the most difficult part of starting a conversation about downsizing or closure
is the sense that you have become a traitor to the church by even suggesting these options. What if you incite the wrath of people you love?
When Peter, a lay leader in his church, first suggested that his church might need
to close, some older members responded with expressions of loyalty to their
building. “But we love our pretty church”, they told him. Peter had to stay true to his message while also learning compassion for the older members who, he admits, had a much different experience of the church’s history than he did.
“It’s harder for the elderly,” he said in retrospect. “They remember a better time. They remember the 50’s and 60’s, when all the kids were in Sunday School and we had youth groups and women’s groups. Our memories, the 50 year olds, are different, it’s not such a big part of our lives as it was for them.”
At Pastor Bob’s church, when the signs of the need to close became obvious, there was still some resistance from a few older members. But younger members were ready. They approached the older group as a team and
said, “We want to stay and help you close if that is what is decided. But if you decide to stay open, you need to know that we will be leaving. We need
a church with programming for our families. You will have to go on without us.” That may be a harsh message, but it was the truth told in love. The older members couldn’t imagine moving ahead without the younger, and they decided to all move together to a new congregation.
Resistance may also come from a pastor. There are many reasons why a pastor may not see or heed signs of decline, including the fact that the church provides his or her livelihood. But congregations that pretend to follow the leader, saying yes when they mean no, for example, only assist the pastor in delaying needed change.
One night a couple lay leaders and I attended yet another program about church
revitalization. On the ride home, as we discussed the program, someone said, “Maybe we should think about closing our church.” Although I had this same
thought many times before, I felt I should not express an opinion one way or
another at that point. After a pregnant pause, I said, “Well, that would be something to talk to the regional minister about.” This being a connectional church system, I knew that was protocol. More importantly, I felt it was a decision that needed to be shared with a body larger than myself and my parishioners, since it affected not only us, but the wider church and neighborhood as well.
When you sense that some members of your congregation are ready to discuss
significant downsizing decisions such as hiring a part time pastor, selling
your building or closing the church altogether, it is best to widen the
conversation to include your pastor, the entire congregation, your regional judicatory leader, and/or an appropriate committee of the wider church, depending on your denominational polity.