“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” Christians know this phrase from the Nicene Creed, but it took on new shape and form in my first call to serve a mission congregation on the brink of closure.
Prior to graduating from seminary, I approached my bishop about serving a small mission congregation near my home as my first call. It was a ten-year-old “seeker-oriented” mission that had experienced a serious leadership crisis one year earlier, resulting in the departure of the founding minister and half of the members.
Remaining was a very small remnant who convinced the bishop of their commitment to rebuild the congregation in a new location. Nonetheless, the congregation had a reputation for being difficult and demanding, and their prior leadership had burned many bridges. In spite of this, their need for a priest nagged at me during my prayer time and the skills I had from being an entrepreneur seemed a fit for this congregation’s needs. In spite of my doubts and those of the bishop, he agreed to send me to this congregation with the hopes of turning it around.
Perhaps it was best that God did not reveal the reality that this congregation would eventually close under my watch. Had I known, my short answer would have been “No!” and my long answer would have been “No way, no how!” Closing congregations is the “third rail” of ordained ministry and is such a taboo that even courses in congregational development rarely broach the subject. Truth be told, it’s every pastor’s worst nightmare. And yet, as the Teacher who authored Ecclesiastes reminds us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3.1).
A Troubled Past
My first indication this congregation would eventually close came from experiencing their tremendous resistance to trying anything new. I had experienced this in older, long-established congregations, but the members of this one assured me they were different and innovative because their ministry was to reach seekers. Surely they would be open to some changes, right? Wrong! The leadership crisis they experienced had instilled a spirit of defensiveness and rigidity in the community. Change was interpreted as a criticism of the congregation rather than as a possible way forward.
Relations between the congregation and our judicatory (bishop, diocesan staff, and committees) were seriously wounded. Prior leaders spoke in terms of “us versus them,” and our bishop and diocese were described as having betrayed and victimized the congregation. My role as pastor was eyed with suspicion as members wondered if I was merely there to be the bishop’s toady. Building trust seemed an insurmountable task.
The first objective was to rebuild trust. There had been a serious credibility gap with the prior leadership (both clergy and lay). My first step was simply to walk my talk. If I promised to do something, I did it and reported back to the group what I had done on their behalf. Re-creating missing church records, updating the congregation’s website, and negotiating reduced diocesan allocation payments to a level we could meet all served to demonstrate that I was a leader who could
be trusted to do what she said she would do.
My second objective was to create safe space for other voices to be heard. A church member who had functioned as the leader during the year before my arrival had an autocratic leadership style and a habit of speaking for the group. Once he spoke to an issue, there was no room for other opinions—everyone was expected to fall into line with his view. This is fairly typical behavior in chronically anxious groups but it hinders the healing process and limits creativity. To create safe space, I proposed norms for behavior and communication for our life together, such as using “I” statements, avoiding generalized statements (“‘Some people’ are upset about …” or “‘They’ don’t like …”), being quick to listen and slow to judge, modeling forgiveness not scorekeeping, admitting mistakes, and no “parking lot” conversations. These norms established covenantal boundaries of acceptable behavior. As we held each other mutually accountable to the norms, we created emotional and spiritual safe space for real conversations where everyone’s opinion could be expressed openly without fear of reprisals.
Signs of Hope
Establishing credibility and safe space came at a price. Our former leader, his wife, and one other family left in October—six months into my tenure—with the excuse that they were not being “spiritually fed.” While this was sad, it was not unexpected. Differing opinions expressed in this new safe space meant they could no longer push their own agendas. These two key departures had a dire impact on our already shaky finances; however, the rancor, bitterness, and anxiety disappeared immediately and the Holy Spirit opened a way of moving forward we could never have predicted.
The advisory team and I began reading Peter Steinke’s Healthy Congregations (Alban Institute, 2006). With the newly calm environment taking root, it seemed appropriate to analyze the congregation’s prior leadership meltdown in order to learn how to spot trouble proactively rather than be victimized again. I continued to communicate regularly with our bishop and canon for mission development, keeping them apprised of our situation. The bishop was not surprised by the departures or our financial situation, but he reiterated his vision that this congregation would turn around. I promised to give it my best effort, but I really felt I was seeing the beginning of the end.
During the fall the congregation launched an outreach ministry to collect sweatpants, socks, and t-shirts for our wounded veterans at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq. One of our members had a son-in-law stationed there who had mentioned the need for these items in an e-mail to his wife. We may have been a small congregation, but we could at least ship some sweats and shirts to Baghdad. What started as a small effort became a loaves and fishes story as community support swelled for what we were doing. In response to a press release I issued, the local paper did an extended story about our efforts (and began to cover some of our other events, too). Donations flooded in from all over the region! We had packing parties with potluck suppers at one member’s house to prepare shipments of clothing. We shipped almost 1,000 pounds of clothing to Iraq and in the process built community and trust through conversation and shared effort. The members began to remember who they are and whose they are.
But even with these signs of hope, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. In early February a number of signs that the congregation was moving toward closure came together. The financial picture was bleak; they could not even afford my services as a half-time priest. We lacked new members even after all of the newspaper publicity, canvassing, and direct mailings at Christmas. The members were also resistant to doing the activities necessary for us to attract new members (canvassing, phone banking, and community involvement). Our average age in the congregation was 61 years—not the optimum age for being “church planters.” It felt like they were just plain worn out. The time was ripe for me to bring the issue of the congregation’s future to the table for discussion at our annual meeting.
Discerning Our Future
At the meeting, I began the pastor’s address by celebrating the signs of hope and rebirth we had experienced together, especially in the outreach program to our wounded vets. But I also showed them the bleak financial picture and shared my perception that there was no heart among the members to d
o the hard work necessary to replant this church. I told them I sensed their exhaustion and fatigue and told them I felt God was calling us to do something they had never done before—enter a prayerful discernment process about where God was calling us. I explained that discernment meant going into a prayer-centered process with no agendas and no expected outcome. I proposed that we spend our Lent listening intentionally for direction as to what God wanted us to be for the world.
As I spoke, the atmosphere in the room began to lighten. Members who had been exhausted and depressed began to sit up straighter in their chairs, they leaned in to hear what I was saying, and they began to smile. One member started to cry and said, “These are not tears of grief, they are tears of relief! We’ve known this was coming and I’m so thankful we can now talk about it!”
As we entered discernment, I made a call to my bishop to report what was happening. I knew he had his heart set on having this congregation be the new mission plant in the region but things were not heading in that direction. It wasn’t the news he wanted to hear, but in light of the evidence I presented he agreed to support our discernment process.
I intentionally scheduled our discernment meetings for Tuesday nights during Lent rather than after our Sunday worship service. This kept Sunday dedicated to worship and adult formation class rather than on the uncertainties of the future. Our sessions always began with a simple soup and bread supper. We held our meetings at the local United Methodist church, which put us on neutral ground—away from our rented worship space. I announced the beginning of our discernment process at the annual meeting. In a follow-up e-mail, I invited all the members to participate in the process. I made it clear that the future shape of this congregation would be determined by those who engaged in the discernment process; we would not allow it to be derailed by those who chose not to engage but instead wanted to sit on the sidelines and criticize. At each week’s Sunday service we reported on what happened at the discernment meeting and continued to invite all to participate. Each week I e-mailed a summary of what had taken place at that discernment session to all the members and our bishop so that everyone was informed at each step along the way.
Our process began with telling our stories—our spiritual biographies—so that we understood what had brought us to this congregation. We looked at our ministries both as a group and as individuals: where had we used our time, talent, and treasure to serve God’s world during our lives? We used the ELCA’s online spiritual gifts inventory to look at our spiritual gifts and prayed about where we could best use them. We studied Paul’s church-planting efforts and reminded ourselves that not one congregation planted by Paul existed anymore. Clearly it was not the end of the world if a congregation closed. The Church would still continue. We studied the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and talked about how even his closest friends could not initially recognize him. Clearly resurrection isn’t just a slight tweak of what already is—it is a complete transformation to something different and new. We prayed about what resurrection would look like in this place with this congregation.
During the last week in Lent, the members agreed the congregation could not continue in its current form and they made a plan. We would continue worshiping as a congregation through Holy Week and our last service would be on Good Friday. On Easter our members would worship as a group at another local Episcopal church. During the Easter season our members would spend Sundays visiting other local churches and continue to meet with me on Tuesdays to share their visitation experiences with each other. I reported this development back to our diocesan leaders (our bishop was out on an extended absence) and to our entire membership.
Our canon for congregational development came to worship with us on Palm Sunday. After the service, I left the room so he could have a private conversation with the members about what was happening in the congregation’s life. It was important for me to remove myself so that everyone could speak freely and he could hear them directly. They conveyed to him their plan for continued discernment and visits to other churches. Officially we were still in discernment and my pastoral relationship continued although my liturgical responsibilities would end on Good Friday.
A Good Good-bye
We worshiped together on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in the evening. Somehow it seemed quite appropriate to be facing our congregation’s death on Good Friday. Good Friday saw the return of some members who had not participated in the discernment but wanted to worship with their friends one last time together. After the service one of these members said to me, “I know why I haven’t come to discernment. I just knew I would have to say good-bye to my friends and I couldn’t face it. But you did this the right way and this is a good good-bye, not a bad good-bye. We’re all going to be OK.”
In the weeks ahead I worked with our advisory team to pay off our final bills and arrange for the transfer of all property back to the diocesan offices. The advisory team decided, once all the bills were paid, to donate most of the remaining funds in the congregation’s bank account to two missions: The Guatemala Mission Fund and Ghanaian Mothers’ Hope who each received $3,600. We disbursed the earmarked funds we had collected for our wounded veterans’ project to Fisher House, which provides housing near hospitals for families of veterans who are convalescing. Our Tuesday discernments continued through the Easter season, and each week the members returned and told stories of meeting former members of their congregation during these visits! They were getting excited about the possibilities of a new life in a new congregation.
By Pentecost everyone had a letter of transfer in hand. Our members came to the conclusion that they were being called to different congregations and were comfortable with this development. They realized the relationships they valued could continue in a new way outside a congregational construct. Finally, I sent the bishop my formal resignation with a summary of what we had accomplished. It was finished.
What We Learned
The lessons learned from this experience were numerous. First and foremost is that processes matter. Establishing trust and calming reactivity through relational processes, our liturgical/worship process, and our discernment process were all critical elements to the resurrection of this body in a new form.
Second, judicatory support of your process matters. In the Episcopal Church, it is the bishop’s prerogative to close congregations. When this is done in a top-down fashion with little input from the members the results lead to anger, unfocused frustration, and unresolved grief. Some members are so wounded they leave church altogether. The bishop’s support for our process allowed this congregation to take ownership of it and feel they were working directly with God in conversation about their future without undue outside influence. This led to a deepening and maturing of the members’ spiritual lives as they took responsibility for their future rather than blaming others for what went wrong and playing the perpetual victim.
Third, communication matters. Staying in contact with my bishop and diocesan staff regarding the situation “on the ground” created an atmosphere of trust that allowed this first-call priest to do the necessary work God was calling me to do. Communicating the good news of the ministries happening in the congregation to the diocese and wider community also helped reconnect our members with a sense of purpose and mission
. It also helped people in our diocese who had been hurt by the actions of this congregation’s past leaders to move beyond their old wounds and experience reconciliation.
Fourth, continuing education matters. Even though I had three years of seminary and thirty-two years of lay leadership in the Episcopal Church, nothing prepared me for what God called me to do here. Studying Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, and Paul Tillich was fine in seminary, but it was more important in the field for me to study Peter Steinke, Edwin Friedman, and Murray Bowen! My work and extra study became a crash course in family systems as they play out in the congregation and was crucial to the outcome of our process.
Finally, self-care matters. I did not walk away from this experience unscathed. I survived the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—which mostly took the form of nasty rumors, secret campaigns to remove me, and just plain mean comments from those who did not want to be part of the solution. Fortunately, I outlasted the saboteurs, but their actions left scars. Taking plenty of time for my own care was important, and this included getting professional help after everything was over to assist me in processing my own grief and frustration.
“We look for the resurrection of the dead.” The resurrection of the dead is God’s work. I can’t raise the dead and neither can anyone else. But, through our relationships and our engagement in intentional processes, the Holy Spirit brought life out of death for this congregation. God redeemed an impossible situation in a way we did not expect and none of us could have predicted. We now look for “the life of the world to come” as we embark on new mission and ministry in different places.