A couple of weeks ago I had the heavy privilege of sharing in worship with members of Freeborn Congregational UCC. It was the last worship service this congregation would ever have, for it had made the painful decision to end its ministry and close its doors after 141 years of faithful service. The grief was palpable in the sanctuary as they remembered together all the memories a local congregation creates over so many years. There was also laughter and joy in the gathering, though, as they celebrated the bonds of the Spirit that were everywhere apparent. I pray for each of those members, and for their pastor Reverend Cherie Daniel, that they might know the enduring graces and strength of a God who binds us together wherever we worship and however we minister.
A church closing is a painful and sobering thing. There have been 3 such church closings in the Minnesota Conference UCC in just the last year-and-a-half. A recent article in the Christian Century said that on an average day in the United States, nine churches close their doors for good. Such data adds to our sense of despair in the mainline church, as we wring our hands about the changing nature of church, its role in society, and its seemingly overwhelming challenges as we look to the future.
But while a church closure is always an occasion for grief and introspection, it can actually be the most faithful decision a congregation can make at a certain point. Sometimes the less faithful decision is to keep a church open “no matter what”, especially when the actual ministry and mission of the church has all but disappeared long ago. Just this week a lay leader of another of our Minnesota Conference congregations called me to ask how their church should approach the question of whether to close or not. I admired his desire to be prayerful and thoughtful about what will surely be an excruciatingly painful discussion among that congregation’s membership. After some conversation about some practical matters regarding congregational by-laws, decision-making procedures, and pastoral leadership, I left him with this question: what do you ultimately want your congregation’s legacy to be?
That’s a question worth considering when the matter at hand is how best to distribute remaining assets at the time of a church closure. But it’s also a question with which all of us– from the most vital congregation to the ones struggling hardest to survive– should wrestle. What is it that we want our congregations to have ultimately contributed to not only our memberships, but to our communities, the wider church, and indeed the world? What is the impact we want to make? What are the unique ministries to which God is calling us in every stage of our congregational life?
Confronting these questions with bold honesty and with vision in our congregational and denominational life is itself an act of faith and a sign of vitality. And we do so faithfully aware that God’s resurrecting power is always at work and stretching to breathe new possibility for mission and ministry, even when the church we’ve known and loved is no more.
May God bless this ministry we share,