Congregational Closure - By Rev. Dennis Alger
Be prepared for the work ahead by going to your nearby worker-friendly retailer and purchasing sufficient quantities of facial tissue; there will be tears.
It is a factor of our time. Mainline congregations are experiencing decline; many of us find that faithfulness looks like closure, going out of business, turning out the lights—giving space for something new to develop. I offer such a story.
Long-time members of Gresham United Church of Christ remember the “old days” of energy and youthful spirit, populated by swarms of children. They also remember the appeals for assistance in paying the heating bill, the water bill, and such during more recent lean years. Full-time pastoral leadership was a given until twelve years ago. Rather than follow through on a proposal to close at that time, the pastor suggested she serve half-time. Shortly thereafter, an interim minister began serving the congregation. During her 30 months of leadership the participation grew, the energy returned, and funding stabilized. At that time, in 2007, I was called to the position on a half-time basis.
Young families showed up, and got involved; we were very multicultural; the energy was good. Until Pentecost 2012. That was the last Sunday of “church as we expected it to be.” From that time on, deaths, departures, disappearances, and depleted funds took their toll. The roles of prophet and pastor were intertwined; I knew what was required.
In 2013 I started the Interim Ministry Network training for two reasons: it is useful anytime and I saw myself involved in interim work, soon. Because I had been the settled pastor, responses to my attempts to use IM approaches had limited positive response. But I persevered. Several times I spoke with the church leadership about our dilemma; there was reluctance to go very far with the prophetic perspective. However, we did have several meetings with the congregation in order to talk about the realities we faced. In 2014 we invited active and recently-active members and friends to come together for a conversation regarding our challenges. The most frustrated were the folks who seldom participated but seemed to like the idea that the church would always be there the outcome was disappointing to me, and others in leadership, but not surprising. No one wants to think about endings; being pastoral was crucial. People still needed understanding in the midst of the inevitable transition.
This talk about change, one touching on our identity and existence, followed on the heels of a year-long conversation leading to a change in our name “Zion” to “Gresham.” We had determined that “Zion” did not fit us, although we’d had it since 1906. Surely, there was more to our journey by way of a new identity, many thought. Nothing changed; attrition was normative.
At a Council meeting this past summer I said that the elephant in the living room was not getting smaller and something had to change. The prophetic voice was needed in order to be faithful, I felt. The pastoral voice urged our facing things together; my leaving didn’t seem appropriate. There was agreement, reluctantly given, to move toward closure. We came up with a plan with several components, mostly left to me to refine and initiate. Council members (especially the moderator) had to come to terms with disappointment and reconcile the reality that this was not anyone’s “fault.” Per our UCC polity, the Congregation was the final voice and we needed to model something positive for them, something about legacy and transition.
We sent a letter to our active membership (45) which explained, again, our situation and a process of decision-making, including a projected date for closure by the end of the year, final regular worship on World Communion Sunday, and a Celebration of Life for the congregation for the afternoon of October 4th. We also invited members and friends to a “sharing session” in late August so that feelings—the anger, fear, sadness, and dislocation-could be honored. I was clear that we were there not for more problem-solving but for lament and reflection.
During September we began meeting in a smaller space; the sanctuary had become too big long ago. I determined that we needed to recognize the “exile” we were experiencing; I used passages of Babylon from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as various Psalms, and readings from Mark that speak to both the frustration and the opportunities of our shared experience. We heard again the psalmist’s revenge-seeking in Psalm 137, owning the anger component of our grief work; we “sat by the river and wept when we remembered Zion.”
During this time I was in conversation with members, including the homebound, and learned that those most affected, seemingly, were the newer members; the old-timers, sad but reconciled, seem to have seen it coming for a long time. The peripheral people stayed there; somehow, what was momentous to many was not to all. On Sunday September 20th the congregation took the leap and voted to close, sharing worship only two more times. But so soon? As one of our younger members noted, it was better to yank the band aid. Remember what I said about facial tissues? We’d used quite a few by then.
Over the months the Council had met with our Conference Minister and the Conference Attorney; we determined that the best course of action was to honor the contracts with various space user groups until the end of the year and turn the property over to the Central Pacific Conference as of January 1st. While UCC polity holds that the congregation owns the property, the idea of selling was too daunting a challenge. Helpfully, our Articles stated that upon dissolution the property would be given to the Conference. Several other congregations have expressed interest in leasing the building; we will not have to deal with that, although we’ve asked the CPC Board to have some say in the allocation of revenues from eventual lease agreements.
Once we met with the attorney, there was a sense of relief. From then on we were able to engage the tedium of clearing out closets and giving things away—things not needed by subsequent congregations.
I invited ecumenical partners and UCC colleagues to our Celebration. Eleven pastors, from UCC to Roman Catholic, ELCA to UMC, UU to PC(USA) to CC(DoC) participated along with friends from other churches and the wider community. I rang the bell 109 times in honor of the 109 years of our existence now closing. The music was powerful, the memories insightful, the community delightful. And it went on for two hours! Why not? It was a fitting tribute to those who’d gone before, those remnant souls, and the birthing into the journeys ahead.
During the Council meeting the next week, members processed the “closing ceremony.” One of the under-50 members, who’d had a hard time coming to terms with the situation and sought me out for private “conversation walks,” demonstrated how far he’d come in his own faithfulness vis-à-vis the congregation. He had helped immeasurably in all the preparation and attended both services on October 4th. His comment was, “That was the best six hours of church ever!”
My biggest learnings? Hospice care for congregations is important; exile is a powerful metaphor in times of transition; people and organizations resist change but respond to understanding; one cannot have too much Kleenex.
The author, Dennis Alger, trained through Interim Ministry Network, has been a hospice chaplain for over 20 years as well as pastor of small-membership congregations in both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ. He describes the process of congregational decline and eventual closure from his experiences as pastor of Gresham United Church of Christ in Gresham, OR, in 2015.