My father’s death followed a long, slow decline. We could tell in January that he had changed—he was no longer interested in leaving the assisted living center that had become his home. By early spring, when my brother or I visited him, he would “dismiss” us after 20 or 30 minutes. It seemed as if our presence became an intrusion into the solitary space he needed. By May he began losing weight from his already slender frame. Each step of the way, he was like a bud closing its leaves for the night as he prepared to pass over to the next step of his journey.
Along the way, my father received love and care from countless people. Nursing home staff, friends and family, hospice workers, and church members all understood his decline as a normal part of life. No one blamed him for being an old man whose work on earth was coming to an end. No one told him to shape up or to try harder. Nobody laughed at him or sneered in self-righteous superiority for the steps he was taking on the way to death.
When he died, I wept. My relief at the end of his suffering was not nearly enough to stop my grief. The first man I had ever loved was gone. No one begrudged me my grief, or my sense of relief. This, too, they understood was a normal and valuable part of life in the human community. And no one accused me of loving my father too much, or of being too invested in the experience of his decline and death.
Two years ago I left a congregation that by all rhyme and reason appears to be headed for death. Although I knew when I arrived that the congregation, once home to 4,000 members, had dwindled to a small fraction of that number, I never wanted to believe that it was, in fact, dying. I did far more funerals than baptisms or marriages, but I continued to look for signs of life. We ran a deficit budget far too long, until the council mustered up the will to make significant changes. People expressed their grief and fear with blame and angry voices, but they continued to come to meetings. And all the while, worship happened regularly, children and adults participated in Christian education classes, members lit candles on Christmas Eve, and they gave school supplies to children around the world and money to denominational missions.
Even as I fought to keep this church alive, I began to wonder whether it was time to let it die. Were there signs I should see that could alert me to the congregation’s need for “hospice care”? Should I make a shift away from expecting the congregation to “shape up and try harder” and toward simply loving this church as it made a slow and gentle departure from this world?
We now know some things about caring for the dying and those who are left behind; we know less about helping a church in the final stages of its life. We forget that every church death has “survivors”—parishioners who have devoted many years of their lives to service and worship in the congregation and are bereft at the thought of losing their spiritual home. Since leaving my former congregation, some things have begun to grow clearer for me, and I offer here a few thoughts about “declining churches.”
The people in the congregation need love as much as they ever did. The church is the people, as we know, but the people in a declining congregation know that they may outlast their church. The local institution they expected would embrace them from cradle to grave is not necessarily up to the task. These parishioners come to worship not only with the ordinary longings of the human heart; they also bring with them the worry that the place that once offered them comfort from the sorrows of the world may no longer be able to offer succor. Just as when a human parent becomes ill and declines, and the longing of the (adult) child for the safety of a parents’ arms must be resolved in some other way, so when a church is in decline, parishioners must find new routes to living water.
Whoever is brave enough to witness to the resurrection in this place will also have to witness death. Sometimes we avoid the dying; death is not pretty, after all, and it is not reasonable to feel at ease with someone who can no longer speak audibly or even be counted on to respond at all. Declining churches are filled with deaths: the death of beloved members, the death of a beloved club or social organization, the “death” of being sneered at by members of other congregations or ignored by judicatory staff and national offices, and the death of not being able to find a pastor who is willing to risk a career on a few years of extremely difficult ministry followed by an early departure.
Even when death seems certain, it is not possible to predict the time of its coming with absolute certainty. My father had been frail for several years; he could have passed away at any time during the months and years before his death and we would not have been surprised. My brothers and I agonized over each decision about his care. When was it time to prevent him from driving? When should he move from assisted living to nursing care? Which ailments should we treat, and when would we let nature take its course? Even when his feet had turned blue and his breathing had shifted, still hospice personnel could only say, “We think it will be soon. Maybe today, maybe not.”
Similarly, though many were hasty to predict the demise of my beloved congregation, no one could say exactly when or how this would happen. As its pastor, I wondered: Should I stay and continue my attempt to breathe life into this body? Or is it time for a ministry of hospice? I continued to yearn for resurrection, and I looked to the examples of similar churches that had “come back to life.” I read books on church growth and the life cycle of churches. Only after much prayer and patience, and with input from many trusted colleagues and church members, was I able to discern that it was time to hand over the ministry of this congregation to an interim pastor. And although that congregation continues to live, it remains in difficult circumstances. I still cannot say what the future holds for this particular arm of Christ’s body.
The church is alive until it dies. One of the things we have learned from the hospice movement is that people are alive until they die. The last thing that goes is hearing. Hospice staff counsel family members to speak kindly and respectfully, and to say what needs to be said even if they don’t get the response they thought they’d like. My father needed love and care, all the way to his final days. And, curiously enough, he continued to comfort me as well, even in those last moments. The chance to hold his hand, to witness a single tear rolling slowly out of the corner of his eye, and to pay attention to his last few breaths were gifts I will always treasure. Likewise, when a congregation is in decline, it remains a church. It is not usually a healthy church, not a church likely to attract lots of young new members, but a church, the broken body of Christ in the world.
We would do well to continue to speak kindly and respectfully to and about the congregation in decline and to treasure its ministry as long as it lasts. Churches do not live forever, but we can affirm with Paul that “…neither life nor death, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
Question for Reflection
- What are the similarities of a church in decline to an individual nearing death? What are the differences?
- What would be different if we viewed the decline of a church not as a cause for blame but as the need for a particular kind of ministry? What kind of ministry might be needed by the people? By the pastor?
- How might the people involved
find healing if the church they are part of does not?
- Are there times when a church should be encouraged to close its doors and complete its ministry? What has to die to make new life possible for a congregation?