A few thoughts of care at the end of life for congregations.
When is it time to close a church? I came across the grim statistics again about the number of congregations in our annual conference that worship less than twenty people every Sunday. It took me back to the classes and seminars I have been in where we were taught how to handle end of life issues with dying parishioners. How to preserve dignity and give permission to those whose death was, barring divine intervention, inevitable. Now let me be clear, I believe in miracles, both in the lives of individuals and in the lives of churches. I have been part of a small congregation that had less than ten on any given Sunday where, when God showed up, the average worship attendance grew to thirty and beyond. Where the people faithfulness, steadfast devotion to prayer and spiritual formation, and their willingness to reach beyond their doors facilitated a miracle and God gave the increase. However, some times, in some places, it is time to allow the remnant of once thriving congregations to experience the dignity of an honorable funeral that recalls those faithful saints who have served the church rather than to simply hold on, clinging to life, without any chance of recovery. I believe that it is time to close a church when three conditions are prevalent: when the remnant care more about the cemetery than the community; when the tools of ministry become more sacred than the souls beyond the doors; and when the ministry has turned inward rather than outward.
All across the countryside you pass small churches with large cemeteries. Where every Sunday morning far more members are singing in the Church triumphant than are singing in the church building. Whenever a small church spends a significantly larger portion of its meager resources maintaining and managing the cemetery than it does serving those in the surrounding community in mission then it may be time to close. Cemeteries are sacred ground, to be sure, but struggling schools, community centers, and migrant camps are holy ground. I do not recall Jesus ever spending time in the midst of the dead, but he did spend time with the poor, the sick, and those burdened by the cares of living. Whenever the remnant of a church cares more about the cemetery than the community, it is time to consider closing.
I have been in many churches, large and small, where every piece of furniture, every pew, and every hymnal had some indicator of its benefactor. There is no question that the gifts that made these precious items possible were given with a generous, and often sacrificial, heart. The giver knew that they were relinquishing any “right” to those items once they entered into Christ’s service. Another sign that it may be time for a church to close is when the items that were donated take on greater value than the souls beyond the walls they were given to serve. When moving the communion table causes great anger, or the obstruction of piece causes an uproar, then it is evident that the items meant to serve ministry have, somehow, taken on a “sacredness” of their own. Perhaps a powerful spiritual memory is tied to it, or maybe it was given by a beloved relative, either way, when we begin to worship the symbol we lose sight of the Savior. The tools of ministry are just that, tools, designed to convey the message of hope to a world in desperate need of hope. If the tools become more precious than those they were meant to reach, then it may be time to consider closing.
Every church has as part of its calling the care of the saints. Nurturing the faithful, providing care for the sick and ailing, and having a system to offer relief to those in grief and experiencing burden are valid and valuable ministries of the local church. However when the sole focus of ministry has turned from prophetic to pastoral. When ministry focus has turned from outward to inward and there is more demand for chaplaincy than spiritual challenge, it may be time to consider closing.
Care at the end of life is an essential ministry. We must find ways to provide a dignified and honorable way for churches that are no longer capable of sustaining life, making disciples, and serving their community to celebrate their life and embrace their death. Some of the most powerful times in ministry happen in the midst of funerals. Jesus said that unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, new life can never come. Perhaps what is keeping the United Methodist Church from growing are a few well planned and administered funerals.