Death is not failure. Death is the natural and normal end to all of our lives. To Christians death is an inevitable step toward resurrection, to new life. While some of us face death at times that seem too early, we all will face death at some time. And we all will die. Our Christian faith doesn’t make death obsolete or unnecessary, but it does take away the “failure” of death and offers greater hope.
Last summer, as my mom’s health was deteriorating, we were faced with a decision: whether or not to give Mom a feeding tube. That looming decision led me to do some internet research, and I found information on something the papers called, “geriatric failure to thrive.” For an unknown reason, some patients just stop responding to treatment. They stop eating; even when they do eat their bodies don’t absorb the nourishment, and their bodies and minds begin to shut down. That’s what was happening to my mother. A feeding tube would only make sense if she needed a short-term boost of nutrition to get her back to thriving, but in her case, it seemed, as if her body had just said, “it’s time.”
And so we had to rely on what we knew about faith, about life, about death, about my mom’s condition, not only to make a decision about the feeding tube, but about the meaning of life … ultimately we followed my mother’s end of life wishes. We worked with hospice, and, although her death was difficult, it was faithful to the realities of her health, to the values of her life, to the foundations of her faith … and we allowed God’s love to nurture her through death to new life. Sometimes the greater hope is not for resuscitation, but for resurrection.
It’s no secret that many of our congregations are struggling to survive, let alone thrive. Our membership is aging, our numbers are declining, our buildings are showing the wear of years of fine ministry, our budgets are stretched as far as they will go. Just in the past couple of months, four congregations have been in contact with me saying that budget issues are now calling their future into question. The trend will continue.
So how DO we measure the health and viability of a congregation? And when is it time to accept the reality that dissolution is an inevitable reality? When do we decide to refuse the feeding tubes or to sign the “DNR” papers? When do we allow our hope to shift from the survival of this congregation to the resurrection of the kingdom work?
Numbers are an indicator. Membership, budget, worship attendance, etc. These are the things we tend to look at first … the “vital signs” of traditional church life. These numbers are as important as body temperature, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other blood counts are to a person’s health. They are indicators that our health needs attention, but they don’t necessarily mean it’s time to call hospice.
More important than the numbers is the ability, energy, and likelihood that we’ll make the life changes necessary in order to turn the numbers around, and that our membership “body” is capable of it. In congregations it would mean reaching outside of the congregation, “giving up” some our most beloved traditions, taking on spiritual disciplines (including tithing at a higher level) and exercising our faith in ways that work our spiritual muscles through periods of achy-ness and discomfort. Sometimes our bodies heal and thrive from the “treatment” and new ways of life … sometimes we just don’t have the energy and our bodies say, “it’s time.” It’s time to let go of this life and see what God has in store for the future.
We know how to look at the numbers … we can read a thermometer, we can take our blood pressure. But we cannot make the decision about hospice or hospital, resucitation or resurrection, without consultation from medical experts, deep thought and reflection on the meaning of life and the desires of the person, and prayer … lots of prayer.
There are pastors and elders in our presbyteries who are equipped to help guide your congregation past looking at the numbers, and to help you discern what future course of action is best for you and your congregation. Radical or experimental treatment may be helpful … but it may be time to consider the realities of dissolution of a congregation and the options that are available in preparation for the faithful end of congregational life for a particular church.