Category Archives: church closure

Churches That Helped Make It Happen

More Light PresbyterianSince the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage last week, I’ve found myself reminiscing about one of my previous churches.

This was a church in which roughly half the active members were gay and lesbian Christians, many with partners and children.  Back in the 90’s, word had gotten out around town that this church was “welcoming” of all.  We were not a “More Light” church or an “Open and Affirming” church.  Our members merely wanted a safe place to worship  God, a place where being gay and being Christian didn’t have to collide with each other.

My tenure at that church fell during the years that openly gay Christians were not considered eligible for ordination as lay leaders or clergy in the Presbyterian Church.  And the Book of Order had no provisions for same sex marriage.

Coming from the UCC, I took vows to be loyal to Presbyterian polity, but from the beginning, I broke those vows, primarily by ordaining gay Christians as elders and deacons.  I justified this in my mind over and over again with this thought: We are breaking the rules now, but eventually, history will catch up with us. 

The PCUSA did eventually loosen its teaching regarding both ordination of gay Christians and same sex unions.  Ironically, that all happened after my little church closed its doors.

I often wondered if it was cowardly of us to be a “closeted” church.  Maybe if we had been more outspoken in the community about our character, we could have moved history along a little faster.  Other like-minded Christians might have found us and we would not have had to close our doors.

Well, that’s all water under the bridge now.  But I would like to think that the witness of our little fellowship did make its mark on the world. I believe we were a small piece of the story of the recent Supreme Court victory.  I know there have been many churches, large and small, where grace has reigned when it came to the inclusion of gay and lesbian families; where those families were honored as legitimate, long before the state and wider culture honored them.  While the Church as a whole has stood in the way of this victory, there are local churches (including two I’ve served) who have taught that all people have a right to form families.

Churches like ours contributed to the Supreme Court victory when we baptized the children of gay couples.

We contributed to this victory when we blessed partnerships, civil unions and the adoption of children by gay parents, expecting the same fidelity from these commitments that we expect from straight couples.

We contributed to this victory when we invited the partners of deceased members to sit in the “family pews” at funerals.

We contributed to this victory when we created space where gay couples could just hold hands.

Gay Christian families have existed for many years.  Every church that has welcomed them has contributed to this victory and you should take credit if you are from one of them.

This is not unlike what Paul and Peter were called to do when confronted with the challenge to include the Gentiles.

This is what it means to pay attention to what God is doing in the world and follow, even if it’s in a new direction. Eventually, maybe a very long time from now, others may follow, too.

 *Photograph by Alex McNeill, licensed by Creativecommons.com

Crushing the Butterfly

butterflyA friend I will call Jean came to a summer party at our farm recently.  Jean is an animal lover who   entertains raccoons,  squirrels, ravens and even bears in the woods near her home.  When they appear sick, she feeds them with syringes or takes them to the wildlife refuge.    All the neighbors know where to drop the stray cats.

But she surprised us the night of the party when she found a monarch butterfly and brought it to show us.  Apparently, it was injured and could no longer fly.  She held it gently in her palm while we beheld its stained-glass window wings. “So beautiful,” she said.  “but I’m going to have to crush it.  It’s been injured.  It can’t fly anymore.  It needs to be put out of its misery.”

Suddenly, before anyone could protest her assessment of the butterfly’s prospects, she placed it on the ground and stomped on it squarely with her foot.  Shudders and groans swept through the group surrounding her.  The action was so swift, so authoritative, so seemingly heartless, we were all speechless.

I have thought about that action again and again.  What kind of impulse drove her to it?

I believe it was love.

Most of us love animals because they entertain and amuse us.  We imagine that they exist for our pleasure.  But Jean’s action expressed a deeper love, a compassion for the butterfly itself, not for its elegance or the hopeful symbolism it offered her.  More important than its resplendent wings was its unseen soul, its anguish, however imperceptible, at being injured and unable to fulfill its truest calling.  She put herself in the position of the butterfly and did what she thought was best for it.

To Christians, the demise of a church is a tragedy.  We love our churches and all churches.   We love what they represent and the good they have done in every corner of our world.  When we see them shrinking and closing, we recoil.  We want to hold those colored windows in our palms and preserve them forever.

But those who truly love the Church know that it was made to fly by the power of the Holy Spirit.  And a dying church can be a place of spiritual injury, a cluster of injured souls straining to survive as a human institution instead of reaching for the sky as a creature of God.  The Church should not exist to avoid hurt feelings, to maintain friendships or to preserve historical character in the neighborhood.  The Church exists to make disciples, and when the disciples are at the end of their rope, tired and thirsty for spiritual nurture, maybe someone needs to put the institution out of its misery.

Nobody wants to be the one to crush the butterfly.  It makes you look heartless and cruel.  But there is a kind of love that knows when it’s time to do just that.

The butterfly, remember, is living its second life.  It has already experienced resurrection once, so it has no fear for its future beyond the grave.  Shouldn’t this also be true of the Church?

 

* Photograph by Estela Romero, licensed by Creative Commons.

The Church After Katrina

Camp Restore/ Prince of Peace

Camp Restore/
Prince of Peace

Last week I went on an unforgettable mission trip to New Orleans and encountered a couple churches that gave me a lot to think about.

One was Prince of Peace Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.  In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama.  Over 250,000 homes were destroyed, plus businesses and community buildings.  Prince of Peace, once a thriving church and school, was flooded.  But with assistance from the wider church, its expansive building was renovated and converted into a volunteer camp, now called Camp Restore (a separate non-profit agency), which brought in thousands of volunteer workers to do hurricane clean-up.

Camp Restore has become a thriving center that provides bunk style housing and meals and matches volunteers with work sites where they do everything from hanging drywall to playing bingo with senior citizens.  They average over 3,000 volunteers per year.

Meanwhile, Prince of Peace is a tiny shadow of its former self.  At one time, they housed over a hundred members and a busy Lutheran school.  Since Katrina decimated the population of their community, they are down to about ten members.

I asked Bill, the church’s president, what it was like to experience such a massive loss of members all at one time.  “Well, honestly,” he said.  “We had other things to be thinking about.”

Those “other things” included the clean-up and restoration of an entire city.  “The only people who stayed,” Bill explained, “were the people who still had a house, a job, or a family here.  Everyone else left.”

Today, Bill occasionally stands in line to eat breakfast and meet some of the volunteers that crowd his church’s sanctuary for meals at long dining tables.  Recently, after years of meeting on Sunday mornings, the tiny congregation decided to try worshiping on Wednesday nights.  They invited the volunteers to join them, and the first Wednesday they tried it, they ran out of communion elements, because they weren’t expecting so many people in worship.

I had the privilege of worshiping alongside the congregation one Wednesday during my stay, and was joined by about 30 other volunteers.   Although in many places, Missouri Synod Lutherans do not share communion with people of other traditions, we were all welcome to kneel and partake at Prince of Peace.

I had to wonder what the Prince of Peace congregation is made of: they have survived one of the fiercest hurricanes in history and stayed in place.  Yet they have also take a huge leap into new territory, allowing their building to be transformed from a traditional church and school into an entirely different kind of ministry in rapid response to an emerging need, making all the sacrifices necessary in order to do that.

What can you and I learn from this tiny, amazing congregation?

 

 

 

Not Today

Die todayI had an encounter recently that left me feeling dejected: at a gathering of clergy, a pastor poured out to me his frustration with his declining church.  He could not get the congregation to change their behavior, even though they were on a path of steep decline.  He was looking for some answer, some ray of hope.  All I could do was listen and nod my head.

I went home and asked my husband, “What am I supposed to say to these people?  Your church might die.  Sorry about that.” 

He looked at me for a moment, and then said, “Not today.”

“What?”

“They’re not going to die today,” he repeated.

It took me a second to get my head around that. My husband, a farmer, speaks from experience.  This is a guy who works to keep animals alive every day.  They get diarrhea and pneumonia and swallow pieces of metal.  He is always injecting someone with penicillin or patching a sore eye or bandaging a hoof.  When a heifer is gasping for life and he’s pumping her veins with electrolytes, he is saying, “You might die.  But not today.  Today, it’s my job to keep you alive in case you get stronger tomorrow.”

In his usual sparse way, he had said so much.  If you are not closing your doors today, there is still work to be done.  Any church that is worrying about the fact that they might close some time in the future is wasting time.  There is important ministry to be done today.  And I don’t mean cleaning the grout in the church kitchen tile.  I mean, there is a mouth to feed, a grieving family to be comforted, a love to be celebrated, a story to be told, a cold body to be warmed.

I know this contradicts so much I have said about planning for a generous, faithful end of life for churches when that end seems inevitable.  I still believe in all that.  But at the same time, letting church decline sabotage whatever good ministry you are doing now is not the answer.

Just this once, forget about dying tomorrow.  Keep being the church, alive, today.

*Photo by Marshall Astor, licensed by Creativecommons.org

 

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!

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

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 Amazon.com.  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.