A Potter's Perspective on Life, the Church, and Culture

When is the right time to close a church? The technical process of discernment and action is outlined in Paragraph 2549 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, but the emotional process is much more complex. The bigger issue for me is the distinction between abandoning a church or discontinuing it. I haven’t closed a church in my 8 years as a District Superintendent and, as I’m in my last few months in office, I don’t plan on doing it now. It wouldn’t be fair to the next superintendent.

There have been a few Columbia District churches along the way that have been “on the bubble” in this regard, but I strongly believe what the anonymous author said, “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” If there was enough movement of the Holy Spirit to start a church, why not wait and see if the fire can be rekindled? This seems like a plug for revitalization of existing churches over new church starts and maybe it is. I strongly support doing both!

Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that “Where two or three gather come together in my name, there I am with them.” That can be an awkwardly low number. I heard about some ladies comparing their previous week’s worship attendance numbers. One said that they had 500 in worship. Another said that they were at the 100-person mark. The last person said their crowd was so sparse that when the pastor said, “Dearly Beloved,” she blushed. Is there a church size that is too intimate to be effective, too small to really be church?

A case in point is Cedar Creek UMC in the Columbia District. It was founded in 1742 as a German Reformed congregation then Bishop Francis Asbury and circuit-riding preacher “Thundering Jimmy” Jenkins came through in 1785 and the whole congregation, including the pastor, became Methodists. There’s a wonderful historical marker in front of the church. Unfortunately they’re down to five members now, all in their nineties. I’ve told the pastor of this three-point charge to go to Cedar Creek and wait, work on the sermon, and if nobody shows up in 15 minutes, move on to the next church. The people are faithful more than they are able at this point, but how dare I close a church that predates American Methodism?

None of the Cedar Creek folks want it on their conscience either so we’ve made an agreement. I will not start the process for their discontinuation. When they have all gone on to meet the Lord or the Lord has come back to meet them, then the church will be subject to the abandonment clause. However, this bothers me somewhat, too. Is there any spiritual value in the difference between abandonment and discontinuation? Maybe there is since you must have a death before a resurrection!

Sure, the Annual Conference trustees will do their best to see that Cedar Creek’s property is used in a way that promotes Christ’s ministry and the funds that they are currently using will be redirected to more flourishing ministries, but there’s still a sense of loss, even death. As Cabinet Secretary for these past eight years I have been the one who has stood in front of our annual conference and presented the resolutions for church closures. It has always been solemn, moving, and a funeral of sorts, except it’s hardly ever felt like a “Service of Death and Resurrection.” The resurrection part has been largely absent except when there’s a church whose assets have been designated to start or fuel another ministry. There’s real gratitude for past ministry, but seldom a hope of future fruit.

What is there to do? Oh, there are lots of avenues that have been explored through our excellent Congregational Development Office, great nearby churches and other partnerships, but in an area where the deer vastly outnumber humans there’s a dilemma. This is true across our denomination and others where demographics have changed. I have seen churches in the U.S. repurposed where a former Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh was turned into a brewery and a Baptist one in New York City has become an excellent Italian restaurant.

What happened? Is there any valid excuse for a church to close? I’m really struggling with this. You can visit Wesley’s Chapel on City Road in London and quickly discover that people don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but they still have an active congregation! In Cedar Creek’s case its near-demise seems to be all about location, location, location, but in New York City and London people can catch a subway or ride the tube to get to church. There are plenty of cars and drivers around here to get people to Cedar Creek, too.

So maybe the problem isn’t as much about location as what happened decades ago or sometime in the interim. I don’t think that this is Cedar Creek’s story, but I have certainly seen it in other places: Many if not most of our declining churches either started as or at some point turned into family chapels and the families have died out. For too long we have counted on people having children who stayed put: duty, loyalty, and inward focus; i.e., too much intimacy without welcoming the stranger and the church has shrunk. If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication.

To replicate the New Testament church we have to sometimes shut a church’s doors for a season in order to squash the old DNA and later reopen it as a new ministry. Frankly, the results have been mixed, but we have to do something. Rocking along propping up failing institutions is a horrible drain on our human and financial resources without much fruit to show for it. Our Wesleyan Movement ends up motionless.

The preferable response to this inertia is worth repeating: If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication. For instance, use the official definition of “replication” in computing. It is defined as: “sharing information so as to ensure consistency between redundant resources, such as software or hardware components, to improve reliability, fault-tolerance, or accessibility.”

Now, that will preach when I think about keeping churches alive and well: sharing information (talking about Jesus Christ and his mission), ensuring consistency (discipleship), between redundant resources (connectionalism-“Together We Can Do More!”), such as software or hardware components (people and buildings) to improve reliability (sanctification), fault-tolerance (loving communities), or accessibility (openness to new people and ideas).

My task as a District Superintendent is to be a “chief missional strategist” (Par. 419.1 BOD). That means that I need to help churches effectively share the Good News of Jesus by using all the resources of replication. In Cedar Creek’s case we might build a buzz and momentum for Christ’s witness by turning it into a teaching church. I have 65 churches in the Columbia District and 58 charges. What if I got at least 52 of those churches and charges and/or their Sunday School classes to go out there and hold services once a week for a year? It would be a chance to hold a lab school of sorts about the early history of Methodism for both adults and confirmands, an opportunity for Lay Servants to hone their speaking and teaching skills, a place to talk about ways to retain relevancy when your demographics change and the need for churches to engage new and different people.

The Board of Ordained Ministry could use it as a place for Residency Groups to learn about the Wesleyan Movement and have their very own class meeting. They would have a chance to get ready for the Proclamation Committee, too, by sharing the Word. Gosh, the Cabinet could meet there as a big reminder of two big questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” Rather than be repurposed into a bar or restaurant, the Lord’s Supper could be served to Emmaus gatherings and others. There are lots of opportunities that need to be explored.

My wheels are turning, but I need to hear your thoughts and dreams. What do you think that we should do with Cedar Creek and others like it? What are your suggestions? I’m all ears,

tim

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Comments on: "When Is The Right Time to Close a Church?" (39)

  1. Tom Griffith said:

    Tim, your essay struck a chord with me.

    I retired almost 3 years ago. Half of the (admittedly small) churches I served in my Annual Conference have closed. The most recent one was where the congregation and its SPRC had voted 3 years in a row to ask that the pastor be moved, but it did not happen, 3/4 of the congregation walked out. Only 6 were left–so the church got closed. Who was at fault here? I know most of the people who walked out, and I sympathize with them. Sadly, the pastor was a very nice and faithful person (Local Pastor) whose appointment was a mismatch with the church. Her style was very different from that of the church. It was not the fault of the members, who served and gave faithfully; it was not the fault of the pastor, who was doing the best of what she believed she should do. In many ways, it wasn’t the fault of the cabinet or bishop either, for this was an ethnic minority congregation in which we have a short supply of full members of the conference. They depend upon local pastors, many of whom either do not have a Methodist background, or if they do, they came out of a congregation where a charismatic preacher was able to lead his/her congregation in one style, but that style did not translate to other congregations. This was a sweet church of good people. Even though I am Anglo, I had my Charge Conference membership in that church.

    A larger problem we have in my Annual Conference (California-Pacific) is that of Korean language churches. The 1965 changes in Federal Immigration Policy changed the port of entry for most immigrants from New York to Los Angeles. We had a slew of immigrants from Korea come to the area. Many experienced pastors, who already had congregations going, applied for membership and we took them in, happy to have their members added to our membership list. The majority of these pastors were at least technically “Methodist” from Korea. But the “technically” is the killer: “Methodist” in Korea is more like “Presbyterian” in the U.S. These churches continue to operate as independent congregations. We have not moved their pastors around from one church to another much, because most of them have an emotional if not cultural attachment to their founding pastor. When we do move a pastor, if we can’t move him at least 100 miles away from his former church, his congregation will follow him, leaving his successor with a faithful, small remnant. We now have more Korean monolingual pastors than we have places for the, so they have had to be appointed to English language churches. This has not been a successful practice. Worst of all, these churches give benevolences generously—but none of it gets paid in apportionments. They sent their benevolent givings to missions back in Korea, to churches or missions that have ties to the pastor or members of the local church. Average apportionment giving from all Korean language churches in our conference are 17% in a good year; less in not-so-good years. The bishops and cabinets have had “come to Jesus” meetings with the pastors, but it does not make much of a difference.

    Sadly, remembering the old adage that “if you want to get a mule to move, first you hit him in he head with a 2×4 to get his attention,” I can’t help but wondering if finding a mid-size Korean language church that has a along history of not paying apportionments, and using that as the reason to declare it abandoned (and concommitantly throwing the congregation out of the building and changing all the locks) might be a good missional idea. It might get the attention of other Korean language churches and help them realize that doing things the “Korean way” doesn’t work in the U.S. and there are consequences for not changing.

    That may seem cruel—but if we are to have expectations of our local churches, should we not enforce those expectations?

    In Korea, the Presbyterian Church (which sent most of the missionaries to Korea over the last 1.5 centuries) have given new congregations a building, not mission seed money. As a result, this has been an expectation of new UM Korean language congregations. Perhaps too often we have done so, giving them a building formerly used by an English language congregation that had closed. The Korean congregation sees it as “their” building, and the conference should have no authority over them. They will even go to court to fight such a closure, just as they will fight receiving a new pastor unless the old pastor hits mandatory retirement.

    The differences between “Discontinuance” and “Abandonment” really seems to depend upon the circumstances—and of whether the conference and the D.S. must take immediate action to recover control of the property. It also seems to revolve around whether the pastor is a full member of the conference or a local pastor (who can be removed without objection by the pastor at least!). And finally, it revolves around whether a congregation, who may well be self-supporting and paying its full apportionments, is literally a closed organization that no longer wants new members, as compared to the possibility that a growing congregation could do a better job of “evangelizing” new members if they were in that facility.

    None of which, I am sure, will make your decision-making easier. Rather, I write this to explain some of the factors which you did not list in your essay, which are indeed real.

    Tom Griffith
    Member in Full Connection (Ret.)
    California-Pacific Annual Conference

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Tom, I appreciate your observations! I have been quite involved in appointment-making via a Korean UMC in my district. It’s polity is much as you described and very much like the Presbyterian system. it is a great church with great people. They do pay 100% which the Columbia District has done now two years in a row! There are cultural challenges that must be handled with great care and sensitivity. This is a challenge in every setting, just as you describe. We have got to do a better job in cultural sensitivity. I am grateful for the work of GCORR as they help cabinets and others in this process. Thanks for sharing, tim

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      • Tom Griffith said:

        Tim, dealing with ONE Korean church is not bad. When you are in a community of 100K new Korean Immigrants and 400 Korean language churches in of multiple denominations in 5 square miles (and that doesn’t count the folks who have been in the U.S. longer and have moved to outlying areas), there are enough people who speak the language that they don’t have to speak English, or operate by ideas that are alien to their traditions. We have about 35 Korean churches in our conference, almost all on two of our five districts. Too many of the share facilities with smaller English language churches, and unless the Korean language pastor really will keep on his people to be cooperative, problems are rampant.

        I too have had to struggle with issues of whether churches should be closed or not. Since I deal as a defense advocate for clergy in trouble (mostly Administrative Complaints), I have noted that pastors that no other DS wants tend to get assigned to those problem churches that have an iffy life expectancy. That simply continues, if not magnify, the problem.

        Further, 4 out of the last 6 churches I served shared facilities with Anglo or Black congregations. In every one of those churches, we had problems.

        Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

        Tom Griffith

      • Tim McClendon said:

        Me, too, Tom. We have three Korean congregations in whole conference so our context is different. Cultural issues abound wherever you are, though. Truth-telling in appointment rationales need to be up front and model Christ even when it is reproof. This isn’t a Christian strong suit. We tend to pigeonhole and claim we don’t – sad. God bless your advocacy, tim

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  2. Another great post, Tim. Republishing for UM Insight. Thanks!

  3. Christopher Arries said:

    In fifteen years I have served 9 churches (2 3-point charges, a 2-point charge and station) and unfortunately in the past two years, two of those 9 churches are no more. One was surely demographic (3 United Methodist rural churches within a six mile radius with no population growth because it is all cotton farm country) and the other a big church (facilities-wise) located in a former mill community/transitioning community that the congregation had trouble relating to its new neighbors when I was there 10 years ago. All of those churches were holy ground as people came to Christ there, were baptized, ate from the Lord’s Table, worshiped and did ministry to the glory of God.

    Yet … for argument’s sake, aren’t they just buildings too? Is it faithful to keep the facility standing; putting time, money, ministerial and lay resources into keeping the doors open of a church where people’s great-great-grandparents once ministered or is it just stubborn? I appreciate your mention of resurrection because I love the idea of new life in places where death and brokenness run rampant but I remember the hesitancy of parishioners of staying in the church building one minute after it got dark because of the “night life” that surrounded their church building in that transitioned community.

    I wrestle with closing churches and mourn the passing of once vibrant congregations that get discontinued because of the worldly concerns of resource drain and aged congregations. It seems remarkably un-Christian to say five is to few to support a congregation when Jesus said that one lost sheep, coin or son causes such heavenly celebration! And yet we serve a living Lord, with a mission to make disciples to transform the world, and it seems we need to devote all of our energy, our people (the body of Christ) and our resources to living out that mission. We are a “movement” after all … not just because of our Wesleyan heritage but because our Lord calls us to “come, follow him.”

    I miss people I ministered to and with in those two discontinued churches I once served but those I knew and loved are still ministering and living with the Lord regardless of those church buildings’ current usage. Thanks for the thought-provoking blog entry.

    In Christ’s Loving Service,
    Chris

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Chris, Well said. It’s a struggle when our Gospel heritage started with small numbers to house churches and now to the worship of buildings. The church is the people, not the steeple. It’s a hard decision and I don’t want to be either too quick or too slow about it. God bless you and see you soon. I appreciate your ministry! tim

  4. Mary S. Luoma said:

    I live in Hemingway, SC. I can think of six churches within approximately a ten mile radius. Most are struggling with low attendance and aging populations. Youth groups and young families are nearly non-existant. Unfortunately, most of the committee members (I can only speak for my church) are elderly and have been on them for DECADES. They do not like change and discount most suggestions. The churches are dying, but it doesn’t appear that they care. They seem to prefer death to change. I would love to see the book of discipline adhered to as far as committee rotation and composition. My prayer is that prayer would actually become the primary tool for decision making and determining the direction of the church. I also think a practical solution would be to combine several churches into one, but things are too political and no one appears to be willing to compromise or give up their turf. I have been a methodist all my life and I love my church and my church family. But am I disappointed and disillusioned with the church? Yes, I am. I have served in most every capacity, given my all over the years, prayed faithfully (as have many members), to what appears to be no avail. Until the church powers are willing to change, the church will remain stagnant and will eventually wither and die. It saddens me and I ache for the youth. God help us.

  5. Michael Henderson said:

    Tim, years ago, back when AC met at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, and Bishop Tullis was presiding, we were routinely closing churches at one of the sessions. It was routine- resolution read, bishop asked the question, everyone raised their hand (wanting to get on with the next part of business). In the middle of all this, Washington Kerns jumped up and said “Bishop, I need to be clarified!” You could hear a groan go through the auditorium. We wanted to get on with this. “What is it, Brother Kerns? Bishop Tullis asked. “These churches we’re closing- they don’t have people living around them?” “I can’t speak for all the churches, but I imagine they do,” the bishop responded. “And these people, all of them are going to church somewhere?” Kerns asked. “Again, I can’t speak for all of them, but I imagine they don’t all go somewhere.” “Then why are we closing the churches?”

    Good question!

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Mike, It is still a good question! It is THE question that we need to address in local churches and as a conference. Thanks for the comment! tim

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  6. David Lupo said:

    Tim, I have to disagree with you on parts of this one. In my last appointment, I preached every Sunday at a church with an average attendance of about eight, then I drove back to lead worship at the larger church, arriving as folks there were getting out of Sunday School and moving into the sanctuary. One summer while I was at that appointment, the annual conference paid for me to attend a Christian education workshop at Lake Junaluska, where I heard, among other things, that one of the key elements in a successful Sunday School program was the involvement of the pastor.

    Now I will grant that there are other ways of being involved when one can’t actually be present for the event, but it seemed to me that there was something seriously wrong with the reason for “can’t” in this case. The pastor could not be present during Sunday School because the conference/cabinet/bishop had decided it was more important that he be down the road conducting a service for a small group of people, even though they weren’t without other opportunities for worship. In fact, most of them drove past another United Methodist church in order to get there.

    A pastor trying to serve a three-point charge doesn’t have time to wait fifteen minutes at one church to see whether anyone is going to show up if there’s Sunday School going on at one of the other churches. That’s time that’s being taken from ministry that could be going on with people of all generations, especially children, in that other congregation.

    Congregations have to learn to let go of programs that no longer meet the needs of the people they were designed to serve, even when there may be a few people around with fond memories of what those programs once meant to them. I think that superintendents and conferences need to dare to make the same kinds of choices when it comes to closing churches.

    • Tim McClendon said:

      David, You make a good point. In this particular case it hasn’t kept the pastor from Sunday School or anything else at other churches yet. Thanks for your input! I hadn’t thought of this. Appreciate it, tim

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  7. Tom Griffith said:

    Tim, to lift up another factor. Four of the churches I served in a 40 year active career have been closed. One of them was because most of the members had died or moved away, and it was not able to reach out to the changing population to grow a new congregation.

    Three of them were small churches, admittedly, but they were functioning and serving their community. The common factor: they were sent a succession of two or three pastors who were ineffective. The sad thing is that the cabinet knew they were ineffective, but since they had to find a place to appoint everyone, they sent these pastors to small churches, figuring that if they “killed a small church, it wouldn’t hurt as much as if they ruined a larger church.”

    After having been the defense advocate in 15 cases of Administrative Complaints against pastors who were perceived to be ineffective, I discovered several things: 1) Sadly, it turned out that the vast majority of those individuals actually had a physical illness, even if the symptoms were psychological. Rather, their illnesses (and a few of those pastors didn’t even know they were ill) sapped so much energy they couldn’t keep body, mind and soul together. 3 of them were mismatches, between the personality and gifts of the pastor and the personality of the congregation. We got them re-appointed to other congregations that were good matches, and they have all done reasonably well. And, a couple of them simply did not have the gifts, graces, or experience to effectively be a pastor.

    I throw the issue of declining churches right back at the hierarchy. One problem can be a mismatch. They happen, no one (Bishop, DS, or minister) did it on purpose, and they can be addressed. The larger problem is the fact that we like to be nice, at every level. Most of the clergy whom I defended were persons I had known had had problems for over 20 years, and I never was on a cabinet. I wasn’t the only one who knew this. What hadn’t happened is that cabinets and bishops do not have the authority to ask the historic Wesley question: “What is the state of your soul?” No pastor can answer that question honestly to one who has authority over his/her career and job. Instead, cabinets who knew this, and had watched some of these pastors be moved every 2 or 3 years, passing on the problem, did not have the courage or pastoral honesty to say, “Brother/Sister, there is a problem here, and the central factor seems to be you. I am going to file complaints against you for ineffectiveness. What I want you to do is to call (name of another pastor who has been an effective advocate for clergy AGAINST the cabinet at times) and meet with him/her. Let him/her help you figure out what is the best thing to do FOR YOU. Then, lets see what we can do to accomplish the best thing for you and your family.”

    An honest Advocate is one who does not have authority over a person’s career, but can be a pastor who can ask not just “What is the state of your soul,” but “what’s been happening in your life? With your family? With your marriage? With your health?” We UM clergy have been trained to be like the Energizer Bunny: we keep going and going and going, even at a threat to our own physical well-being, because we were taught that not to keep going and going constituted a form of moral failure. Most of these folks had not had a physical exam in years. I dealt with one who didn’t even know that he was moving from first stage diabetic kidney failure to second state diabetic kidney failure, and was less than a year away from dialysis. He didn’t even know he was sick—but his health problems ultimately had led to the failure of his marriage, to aberrant behaviors, and gross ineffectiveness. He was desperately ill, but the problem had never been addressed. He should have been on Medical/Incapacity Leave years earlier. But he killed one church and nearly killed another.

    I had another clergy, a friend even back from seminary days, who had been getting more and more rigid in his work as a pastor, and in dealing with others. It turned out, after we talked a lot, that he had a congenital birth defect that, in early years was never a problem. But, it had led to a continuing degenerative problem in which he was living in constant pain. (Gee, I can’t imagine why a pastor living in constant pain would get more and more rigid!) His way of coping with this had led to a serious spinal problem, where even his doctors (with whom he had not seriously talked) said “You need to stop working, now.” Again, Medical/Incapacity leave was the appropriate resolution. The church he was serving where it had been declining under his leadership, now is back to where it was before.

    There are other stories I could write. The commonality is that we may say (with our mouths) that clergy need to take care of their health, but we don’t give emotional permission to clergy to have illnesses that are not immediately visible (such as a heart attach or stroke.) Second, we don’t, as cabinets, when we see clergy having a pattern of ineffectiveness, make the management decision to say “Let’s stop this problem. Let us instead address the problem by bringing in the people who can help do the pastoral work we can’t do as a cabinet, to address the situation, and find the best way we can help these, our brothers and sisters, be the best Christians they possibly can be.”

    Yes, some churches need to be closed. Before we do this, though, we need to address the real, most often, pastoral problems honestly, fairly, and with compassion.

    Tom Griffith
    Elder in Full Connection (Ret.)
    California-Pacific Annual Conference

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Tom, I really appreciate what you’re saying. It is truth! I hope that many cabinets will read this and begin with a pastoral response through an unbiased advocate. I know I will share you thoughts with mine! Thanks for your compassion and ministry! tim

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  8. Tim,

    I can’t find any interior pictures of this church, but am wondering if it would be a nice place for one-day retreats for those in the Columbia District. Picture it – UMW luncheons, UMM meetings, small weddings? (Since the popular trend is “country” weddings, this place looks like a perfect venue for those who want a church wedding, but aren’t inviting a large crowd to fill some of our larger sanctuaries.) Since “deer outnumber humans” in this location, it sounds like a great place to commune with Abba. Who knows? The seeds for the next congregation may be in one of these visiting groups.

    I’m just thinking outside of the box. I would hate to see this church close before its Saints leave this earth, but, perhaps they would be happy knowing that their beautiful chapel is still being used for God’s glory.

    Carol

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Great ideas, Carol. Cedar Creek is pretty sparse and has no restroom facilities, but a lot of it’s lacks can be compensated for by the Spirit. Thanks for sharing, tim

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  9. David Combs said:

    Tim I was assigned three years ago to a two point charge. One congregation was around a hundred people the other was about six. The problem was one of neglect. Not by the pastor or the conference but the church had neglected the community. I would introduce myself in the community as the pastor of the Methodist church and they would say where’s that. My response was across the street from the post office where you get your mail. To make a long story short we merged the two churches on the charge. I sill pastor a church of about a hundred in attendance. We have two services now One traditional and one contemporary. but the miracle is in the old building. We kept the building where AA had met for over fifteen years so that they could continue meeting in that community. A realtor had been renting the old parsonage for over ten years and the money coming in from that pays the utilities and insurance. We started a help office for the county that is now sharing the building with AA. In just under three months this help center has grown to the point that it is serving over three percent of the population of the county. We are passing about twenty two hundred pounds of food through there a week. There are at least six different denominations working together to reach out to the people of our county.As a church we had an impact on six people. Now we have an impact on over five hundred and fifty people. I wish we could have had that impact as a Chuch but it seems God had another plan

    • Tim McClendon said:

      David, Great results and sounds like there’s still a church, too – just not called a “church.” Now there s certainly no neglect of the community – a great success story of the Spirit! tim

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    • Tom Griffith said:

      David, I’m glad that a positive outcome could occur in all of this. Closing a church is a sad thing. Keeping the building open for ministry is a blessing that can help alleviate the sadness.

  10. Dan Ashton said:

    Tim, in my years of hospice ministry, I have mourned the death of many people. I have seen the effects of long-term sickness finally take their toll. Even though I still miss the people with whom I shared ministry, I live in the peace which is beyond understanding, knowing that they died a good death. There is nothing more horrible than struggling to walk through the valley with people who insist on spending their final days and hours hooked up to machinery that only prolongs the process. In hospice care, ministry focuses on deep-seated family issues, struggles over estate planning, grudges from ancient days that suddenly resurface, etc.

    I have seen churches that survived long after they were brain-dead, simply for the sake of surviving. As Christians, I believe it is our duty sometimes to walk with people through the process of recognizing the Truth. It doesn’t take very long before we begin to appreciate the subtle difference between extending a life and extending a death.

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Wise words, Dan. I guess the assessment of terminal illness is the hardest to make. My Dad was given 6 weeks to 6 months to live with aggressive cancer at age 48. He lived for 38 more years mostly because of my mother’s anticipation of life. I’m convinced that though hospice work is needed in families and churches, the expectation of the Holy Spirit’s renewal does more good no matter the final outcome. Of the seven churches in Revelation, the only one still around is in Smyrna/Ismir, Turkey. I have often wondered why. Much of this is mystery, tim

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      • Tim, the best sermon I ever heard from the pastor of a church being discontinued came from the Book of Revelation. He pointed out that indeed, all but one of the 7 churches in Revelation were long gone, BUT God’s kingdom didn’t close when those churches did. It continued to reach out to all the world, and so it is today. It was one of the truest and most hopeful messages I have ever heard. We do not need to preserve every congregation ever established; indeed we cannot. God doesn’t ask that of us.

  11. Dan, thanks for offering this perspective. Discontinuing a church, thoughtfully and with the participation of the DS, district board of church location and building, its members and its pastor, seems like hospice care to me. It acknowledges gratefully a life given by God, now reaching its temporal conclusion. In my 6 years serving a district, I worked with 7 churches on the discontinuation process. Of course there was reluctance and even resentment, but there was also relief. The remaining members were working hard to maintain the building, but not outreach ministries or even much Christian nurture. Worship included fewer than two dozen, sometimes fewer than one dozen. Resources were being spent down in a futile attempt to keep the doors open. Are there still people around those places? Certainly, and there are other UMC’s around those places too. We insured that all members of discontinued churches were connected with the church of their choice. The people were not “abandoned” and neither were the buildings. It was time to thank God for the life they had shared, and find new life in new communities of faith.

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Jeanne, I especially like “the people were not ‘abandoned’ and neither were the buildings.” My mother’s family’s home Barr’s Chapel church near Modoc, SC was closed back in the 1930′s. I wonderfully remember my grandfather showing where he sat, and over the years those who were the remnant have gone back and held services. It is under the care via the AC trustees of Edgefield UMC. It is a Communion of Saints place for me. May help explain my reluctance to close churches. I have worked with our DCM and District Board of Church Location and Building and yoked several churches and done creative appointments. For instance, I’ve one situation we worked out where a larger nearby church needed contemporary worship space and I had a congregation with avg of 20 in attendance. Now the larger church’s pastor preaches/pastors in the smaller churches members who are transitioning to the larger church and the larger church has brought new life via the contemporary services the smaller church. Has been a great solution and outreach to community, “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” This is like organ donation after a death, “The gift that keeps on giving.” Thanks for your reflections, tim

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      >

  12. I wonder if ‘pointing fingers’ is more important than solving problems in many cases. It is easy to blame, but much more difficult to honestly and earnestly address the ‘problems’. What are congregations doing to ‘grow’ and/or stabilize churches? Are the people seeking ‘new’ people to enter into the fellowship of the church?. I realize that some of these ‘due-to-close- churches are in areas which are not conducive to growth. Is there a plan in place to renew and ‘sell’ attendance and/or new membership in a church? Have people sought new members? AND..this is not just the responsibility of the preacher. And, by the way…size and membership is not the only criteria for closing a church. Some larger churches should face ‘closing’ by the behavior they exhibit. Some or all of this goes back to not only believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, but striving to ACT like Christian brother and sisters every day of the week. All too often the unchurched or non-attending persons see the hypocrite who sits by someone on Sunday and does not recognize the same person on Monday, Tuesday or on. What are ‘we’ doing to share the love of Christ and treat others with respect so as to gain members into the church? As congregations grow ‘old’ it is a problem and not absent of many emotions or feelings. I pray God’s guidance in every case of discernment for keeping open or closing a church.

  13. Jerome Jolly said:

    Thank you for an insightful, encouraging, and stimulating read.

    I am currently a 4th generation member of a small congregationally aging church in rural Arkansas. The last couple of decades have not been kind to our attendance for services. Age, sickness, death, and lack of employment opportunities in our local area have all contributed to a slow and painful decline in church membership. To many outside the walls of the church building, including the hierarchy of the UMC, we must have appeared to be fading fast. We have felt like we were “under siege” and “on the bubble” for closure for several years.

    Then it happened. The small group that we are…. decided to act like a church. We opened the doors literally and figuratively. We have committed to tearing down the invisible barriers to the community and taken our ministry into the economically depressed community. we have convinced ourselves that the walls of the church building will not define us, and that our ministry should be to influence and make differences in people’s lives… even if it is only in a small way. We must till the soil and plant the seeds that we have neglected in previous years. The results will not be immediate in some respects. We realize that we must reaffirm to the community that we are more than Sunday morning United Methodists.

    Our first step has been to establish a youth group. We had two youth… After some prep work and recruitment, we came up with seven… Then twelve… Then 25… and some fluctuation since between thirty and forty. Our Sunday morning service is still small and our congregation still ages, but there is new hope and new purpose. There is a new dedication to making disciples for Christ

    What I would offer, in response to your capable writing, is that no church is dead.. until it is cold and dead.. It is why we warm up bodies fished from cold water after extended periods of submersion. It is why we cannot be in too big a hurry to shut down the struggling.. Even if it seems to make better fiscal sense to do so. In my uneducated opinion, as a lay person, the goal is to share the Good News… and not be in such a perceived hurry to fill the coffers. I understand there are “real life” fiscal items to consider and weigh, but given a close balance… the local small church may just need warming.

    Thank you.

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Jerome, Well Said. I agree wholeheartedly. Your church sought new life in the community and you are alive! What a great testimony! I prefer revival and sounds like your church does, too. God bless and thanks for your response, tim

  14. Jim Parkinson said:

    As someone who serves on a Conference Board of Trustees that routinely finds new purposes for former church buildings, I understand your consternation, but the congregation that votes to discontinue their “church” always survives the closing. As the song says, “the Church is the people,” not the building or the corporation, and the people live on to worship and serve God in other “churches.” I am all for revitalizing congregations and for starting new places for new people, but I am not for preserving church buildings for sentimental reasons.

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Amen, Jim and I assure you that Cedar Creek’s staying open isn’t for sentiment’s sake. It’s about history that we need to creatively utilize. With the ages of the members there will either be a terminal point or a resurrection. I appreciate so much the work of the SC Trustees! We are working right now on discovering all of our property. We don’t have an AC policy per par. 2548. If your AC does, I would surely love to see it. Thanks for your comment, tim

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  15. My reply to all this is simple. Grieve and then close the church. Think about birthing a new church here if it makes sense missionally and practically. Otherwise consider repurposing the building for other spiritual uses or sell it to a B and B, and use the proceeds for 21st century ministry.

    • Tim McClendon said:

      Succinct and practical, but the grieving process differs in each situation. It is also too easy sometimes, I think, to think that the money will be better used for today’s ministries. Every situation is unique. I agree with you in principle but in much of our current thinking we want to leave the past behind when we should learn from it!

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    • Tom Griffith said:

      How easy it is to make a comment like that, when I suspect you’ve never had to pastor such a situation.

      I always operated on the “going concern” theory: I assume that my Bishop was appointing me to be the pastor of a “going” local church. I told my DS, every time, that if they wanted me to close the church, tell me that in advance. Reason: because after 90 day, I will love those people so much that I will fight heaven, hell, and my bishop who after those 90 days might want to close it—at least until it is no longer viable. In two churches I served, I dropped my own appointment from full-time to half-time to make sure that the church could live within its income and pay its apportionments.

      Yes, Churches are people, not buildings. And yes, there are times when membership gets to be so small that the church cannot reasonably sustain itself anymore. But I do think that when the people in a church who find it a treasure to themselves are able to cover the costs and be in ministry—even if they are in a community where they cannot easily find new members—deserve the chance to save what is precious to them.

      Wait until you are in such a situation before you make such comments.

      Tom Griffith
      Elder in Full Connection (Ret.)
      California-Pacific Annual Conference

    • I agree except that I do not believe any decisions should be made without fervent prayer and waiting on an answer from God.

      • Tim McClendon said:

        Of course! tim

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  16. Tim McClendon said:

    Tom, I hope that you are responding to Paul’s post. Just wanting to make sure because I agree with your thoughts. BTW I served a three point charge where one of churches had 8 members. I served there 5 years and it’s still doing well in ministry.

    • Tom Griffith said:

      Yes, Tim, I was responding to Paul’s Post.

      The big problem we have in Cal-Pac is that we made decisions in 1947 and 1948 that set as our goal, a seminary educated pastor for every church, and only one church per pastor. As a result of following that tradition, we are probably the only remaining Annual Conference that has only (count’em) two, two-point charges, and those are both in Hawaii. Our minimum salary is higher than can be sustained by small churches. However, we have too many ministers who have to be placed as they are full members of the Annual Conference. We probably have over 100 pastors who could retire in the next five years, but they haven’t/won’t. We are lowering the amount we spend on Equitable Compensation Fund support, but until a couple of years ago, it was over $750K per year—almost all of it going for salary support for ethnic minority churches.

      It is not sustainable.

      Tom Griffith

      • Tim McClendon said:

        Wow, Tom – two! What you describe is unsustainable. I two 3-point charges and several two’s am about to appoint several pastors to two charges, primary appointment one and supply one, and in other case to be a PL at two and we’ll put in equitable comp to provide another PL to be he associate at a downtown turnaround situation with a person who has urban renewal experience. Trying to be creative and sustainable – always a risk, but would rather trying to make it work. Our equitable comp outlay is about 300k per year mostly all for new church starts and need-based new ministries. Sounds like the decision made back when your AC set this up has created a clergy much like the settled clergy of Wesley’s Anglicanism; I.e., his own Dad. Peace, tim

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