Friday, January 20, 2012

When and How a Church Should Close

According to one estimate, in the U.S. alone more than 3,200 churches close their doors every year. On average, that’s 267 churches every month, 62 every week, and 9 every day. Recent editions of the directory Churches of Christ in the United States indicate that hundreds of our congregations have closed over the last decade.

In their book Legacy Churches, Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond ask a hard but important question: What should church leaders do when the congregation that they love and have been a part of for many years is slowly but surely dying?

The authors begin with the story of Moses who was succeeded by Joshua as leader of the ancient Israelites. They point out that just as the death of Moses did not mean the end of God’s plan for his people, the closing of a congregation does not mean the end of Christ’s kingdom. On a related note, they emphasize that the obvious decline of a church is not necessarily the result of unfaithfulness. None of the churches of the New Testament exist today. But who would insist that all of those congregations were spiritual failures? Observation over a long period of time indicates that virtually all churches experience a life cycle that features a number of stages. These include birth, growth, maturity, plateau, decline, drop-out and, finally, death. Much like people, all congregations eventually go into decline and die.

Next, Gray and Dumond discuss three unique temptations encountered by churches in the last stages of the life cycle. First, churches are tempted to fire the current preacher and hire a new one. Their assumption is that if they can simply find the right minister, then their congregation will become healthy and will grow once again. This growth-by-preacher strategy is fatally flawed at a number of points. It overlooks, for example, that the new preacher didn't create, and can hardly undo, the non-growth systems that led to the downturn in the first place.

Second, churches in steep decline sometimes believe that their better days will return if they will build a new facility in a growing part of town. But the growth-by-construction strategy confuses physical structure and location with the church. As the authors point out, a dying congregation in a new facility is just that. They conclude: "Growth by construction is never a good strategy for a church in decline" (46).

Third, churches in the last stages of the life cycle sometimes want to merge with another congregation. But as the authors point out, this strategy frequently ends in disaster. Why? Because in a merger, the two groups show up with alternate visions of what it means to be a church. Also, the leaders of the respective groups tend to compete for control of the newly formed congregation.

How can a church determine if they should consider making plans to close? In response to that question, Gray and Dumond name “Six Indicators of Potential Closure”:

1. Public worship attendance has drastically declined.
2. Staffing of essential ministries is no longer adequate or effective.
3. Annual income is no longer adequate to do effective local ministry.
4. The church has not consistently grown over the last five years.
5. The age or tenure of the membership is unusually high.
6. Survival has become the main mission.

The authors contend that when a church exhibits several of these indicators, leaders must not panic, but plan. Rather than survive at all costs, congregations nearing the end of their existence should become “legacy churches.” Specifically, they should use their financial assets to fund the start of one or more new congregations. In this way, the “spirit and the purpose of a faithful church” can be carried on “even if the worshipping congregation cannot be sustained” (65).

The final chapters of the book offer specific recommendations for the process of closing a church. The authors describe the legal and financial tasks that should be done. Above all, they urge congregations to host a closing service. They even provide three different outlines for conducting a unique and meaningful celebration of faith.

Appendixes include “Frequently Asked Questions,” which covers much of the content of the book in Q&A fashion, and “Life Cycle Survey,” a tool that can help a congregation determine its current position.

Legacy Churches is an excellent resource for leaders in congregations that have entered the last stages of life. These churches should not slip away in shame. Instead, they can and should close with dignity and a sense of hope for the future.

My main caveat (based on the comments on this post, and which the authors of the book do not discuss) relates to those small churches in isolated, rural areas. What should they do? Although they often struggle, these congregations praise God, lift up Christ, and moor the faith of their members in areas that would otherwise not have a church. For that reason, they should continue on much longer than dying churches in more-populated areas.


Adam Gonnerman said...

This is a difficult question. I've seen some churches limp along for decades and wished they'd just shut their doors. Then again, I once served a small country church of less than 20 people that was vibrant in life and worship. Years previous half the congregation decided the church should close and left, announcing it was closed. The other half just kept going (they had keys to the building). No conflict, just a continuation with fewer people. My time of service with that church marked a period of solid spiritual growth on my part, and I'm thankful for it. They still meet nowadays, every Sunday.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Adam, you point to something very important that my review doesn't take up: what about those small, struggling churches in isolated, rural areas? They praise God, lift up Christ, and moor the faith of their members. They should continue on much longer than dying churches in more-populated areas. Thanks for reminding me of this part. I meant to include it in my write up.

Danny Holman said...


Frank Bellizzi said...

Danny, you're welcome.

K. Rex Butts said...

Thanks for this very helpful blog post. I'm going to order this book and print off this blog post for the other leaders of my church to read.

Anonymous said...

As the lone deacon of a flailing 129 year-old church that hit a record low of nine (9) in attendance last Sunday, I thank you for this article; it is most helpful, particularly the assertion that all congregations close and it is not a manifestation of failure.
I would just like to add that we are strangely financially solvent and have a great, though quite old, minister who is perfect for our vision. I am also the organist, and we have a wonderful singing ensemble. It's only numbers, and they are going down. Yes, the decision is hard.

Anonymous said...

In reply to Anonymous @ 9:49 AM

I can identify with the small congregation. Our founder/pastor of our church passed awary in January of 2004. It was a sudden, unexpected death. The church split and everyone left expect myself and my family. So there were 4 members left, husband and wife,and our 2 daughters. We had to decide whether to leave or stay. Our pastor had preached years of revivals and paid a 20 year church mortgage in 3 years from the proceeds of consistent revivals! Because of caring about how hard the pastor worked to pay the church off, I took on the leadership role to keep the doors open. Two of the ones that left, came back and one lady from the community joined the church. We did a lot of community outreach, clothing give aways, food give aways, helping people with gas to get to/from church and many other things to help the people. Sunday we had only 5 people. Four were members, one was not/musician, and one elderly lady comes almost every Sunday but is not a supporter financially. However, the back end of the church where the offices are has a huge water leaking issue. And the sump pump went out again on Sunday. We just replaced it Dec of 2014. Now we have to have the street dug up and some costly excavation work done. So because of mixed reasons, we have decided to close the church.THIS HAS NOT BEEN AN EASY DECISION! But after much prayer, I feel in my heart this is the right decision for this season in our lives. I feel such a peace in my spirit, that I almost wish I had done this sooner. This does not mean the end of ministry. I love visiting the sick and shut-in. So now I'm excited to see where God will lead me next. Hopefully it won't be to pastorship. :) God bless you.

Judy Lampman said...

Thank you for all that you have done as a faithful servant of the Lord. We pastor a church in Ontario and have done so for the last 16 years. We are also closing our doors in two weeks and have a great peace about the hard, but necessary decision. The call of God on our lives is sometimes worked out through a local church but not only in that way. We will pray for you to hear His voice and know His will for you and your family. God bless you.

Sonje said...

I don't know if this is a dead thread, but I am part of a stewardship team of a very small congregation that has trouble paying the bills. I think reading this has helped me to see that we are far from dead--though we, like all of America, need revival. We may not be paying our bills, but we have other things going for us.

vjustice said...

We, too, am searching for God's heart and wisdom. The majority of churches in our poor and troubled city are experiencing decline, except for the ones that are on the more wealthy areas away from the cities, and have contemporary music and lots of middle-upper class folks. We have a good building, paid for, needing some repairs; a healthy bank account; consistent tithers; and a strong preaching cycle. However, our senior pastor and wife are 84, and declining. Our attendance is declining, from some 20-25 or so to just 5 last Sunday. Our average age is somewhere in the late 50s or early 60's if you don't add in the one toddler and her newborn sister. Our associate pastor is approaching 70. Our Lay Preacher is planning on getting married and moving to CA. Our deacon with the two littles is hoping for a better paying job which right now looks to move him out of the area, and the same job situation is happening to one of our newest members. So, we may lose 4 or 5 of our current 15 members to jobs/marriage and 4 or 5 to health problems (possibly being homebound or dead)...Potentially losing over 1/2 the congregation within the next year or so, wherein at least 6 are some level of leadership, is deeply concerning. And yet, our mission as a discipling body continues, and our support of area "good works" ministries and organizations and our outreach to the homeless has still some impact... All that to say your article is helpful, and for us a reality check. We came from a Bible study some 3 decades ago, and therefore are a stand-alone independent, inner city work. I hate to see it close, but I do not want to exchange God's plans for nostalgia or wishful thinking. We really need to hear His heart. Thank you for this article.

Anonymous said...

Frank I'm very interested in any writings or resources you may have regarding the role of a mooring church in a small rural area. That describes our church to a T. We are in currently in search of a new rector and would like to understand and be able to describe to our congregation a role that I feel we are called to fulfill in our community. We have a small military base nearby and so over the years have had transit members drift in-and-out As their life and jobs take them into and out of our community. Any pointers to additional readings you can provide would be most greatly appreciated!

Frank Bellizzi said...

Anonymous @ 10:51 AM,

When I read your comment, for some reason my mind recalled a book I read many years ago by the great Lyle E. Schaller titled "Choices for Churches" (Abingdon Press, 1990). Why did I think of it? I pulled it off the shelf and noticed that the last chapter is titled "The Rural Church and the Sixty-Mile City." That book, and especially that chapter, might be important reading for you. One of Schaller's themes is that churches sometimes have more possibilities open to them than they realize. So in this book, Schaller is pointing to various alternatives that church leaders may have overlooked. Blessings.