Last Tuesday night, Dwayne and I wanted a pizza. We have “pizza” on speed dial and called to order a pepperoni pie. There was no answer. I called again, and the ringing went on and on and on. Why? Why wouldn’t the pizzeria pick up? We thought, maybe they’re very busy. Maybe they’re on vacation the week after new year’s (I knew a restaurant that closes this week every year so the family can take a trip back to the old country.) Maybe the phone was broken. Two days later, Dwayne saw an article in the Trentonian; the restaurant and pizzeria closed. Yes, closed for good. Rosa’s restaurant, despite doing everything they could after a Hepatitis A outbreak last year, was unable to weather the storm. The owner, Rosa, had to make the painful decision to close the family business. She was in tears.
Every human organization, like every individual, has a birth, a middle age, and a death. I was not expecting Rosa’s to close. We were regulars. OK, not as regular as we had been before the hepatitis scare. But it was still “our” place. It was one of the first places we went for pizza when we moved here over four years ago. Rosa’s catered our daughter’s “Meet the Newlyweds” party. We sent many of our Airbnb guests there; we never thought they’d close. We like to think that the places we love will go on forever. We, especially, like to think that churches will go on forever, like God is forever, but, the truth is that while the Church (with a capital “C”) may have an eternal mission, each particular church (like First Presbyterian) is as mortal as we are. As mortal as Rosa’s.
Yesterday I wrote about Lizzie, our Bichon Frise. I asked our vet how we will know when it is time to put her down. She gave us a handout that gave us a
checklist of things to consider. That led me to think, what would a “Quality of Life” checklist look like for a church? I wouldn’t be surprised if Rosa had a similar list to determine when she had to close the pizzeria.
The vet’s list included categories regarding pain, appetite, hydration, hygiene, activity/mobility, happiness/mental status, general behavior patterns and owner perceptions. Let’s imagine what these categories would mean in the life of a congregation:
- pain: sorrow, frustration, regret, conflict, etc. in the congregation
- appetite: eagerness to study scripture, grow spiritually and participate in the mission of the church
- hydration: the spiritual vitality of the congregation
- hygiene: the congregations ability to sustain itself
- activity/mobility: flexibility of the congregation and its mission activity
- happiness/mental status: the optimism, positivity, hope in the congregation
- general behavior patterns: the behavior patterns of the church
- owner perceptions: the perceptions of the members, leaders, and judicatory regarding the present condition of the congregation
On the list from the vet, some of the categories offered suggestions for intervention or treatment that may be tried before a decision is made to euthanize. I’ll attempt to do the same for the congregational list as well. There is no objective count of yes’s or no’s that determine when or if the time is right. The checklist, however, gives us some appropriate questions to think about in making that determination. It gives us permission, even, to make the decision we know deep in our hearts may be the “right” decision even in the midst of deep pain. It gives us a tool. So, here goes …
Quality of Life and the Decision to Close Congregations
☐ We are experiencing conflict that may be “felt” by visitors to the church on Sunday mornings.
☐ Many members of the congregation are or appear “grumpy.”
☐ Session meetings are difficult or don’t happen regularly.
☐ We focus repeatedly on the same issues.
☐ We guard and protect our areas of interest (choir, Sunday School, kitchen, etc.) and snap if that area is touched or changed.
☐ We are tired.
Possible Interventions: a good church consultant, conflict mediator, or judicatory leader might help in working through conflict or other congregational pain.
☐ We rarely offer a new Bible study or small group opportunity.
☐ When we do offer something new, no one or very few come.
☐ We stopped doing many of the regular activities we used to do and haven’t replaced them with new ministries or mission activities.
☐ Our worship attendance is dropping, even by those who are active members in the church.
☐ We rarely invite friends or relatives to come to church with us anymore.
Possible Interventions: Depending on the reasons your congregation’s spiritual appetite seems to be waning, you could offer different types of activities, do a survey of the congregation and/or community, engage a tool like Mission Insite or Percept to better understand your community. A congregational consultant specializing in evangelism may have some additional ideas for your congregation.
☐ Our prayer life is stagnant or not as vital as it once was.
☐ We talk more more about the church’s budget than the great things God has done in our lives.
☐ We’re not as generous as we once were.
☐ We don’t welcome people who are not like us.
☐ We are not eager to try new things.
Possible Interventions: Intentional prayer, prayer vigils, periods of prayer and fasting.
☐ We are not able to keep our building clean and our yard landscaped well.
☐ Our building needs a great deal of maintenance and improvements.
☐ We use our savings or endowments to meet our budget.
☐ We have had to cut staff to make our budget.
☐ We won’t be able to make our budget if we lose one or two of our best giving units
☐ We are unable to meet our denomination financial responsibilities (pay per capita)
Possible Interventions: down-sizing, sharing staff and/or facilities with another congregation, social enterprise
☐ We are no longer active in denominational activities.
☐ Our neighbors don’t know about us, or won’t be impacted if we close.
☐ We’ve had difficulty recruiting enough volunteers or staffing for our mission outreaches (like a food pantry, etc.)
☐ We have difficulty finding people willing to serve in leadership (elders and deacons), or we haven’t elected or ordained new leadership in quite some time.
☐ Our worship service is pretty much the same as it was 10 years ago. (order of worship, music, style, participants, etc.)
Possible Interventions: visit growing, vital congregations in your area to stimulate ways you may partner in their ministries or learn from them. Try something new, even if you don’t like it.
☐ We don’t laugh like we used to.
☐ We spend more time remembering the “good ole days” than looking forward to what’s yet to come.
☐ Our members don’t usually see each other socially outside of church activities.
☐ When a member is experiencing a personal challenge or crisis (job, children, marriage, mental health, etc.) they are not likely to share it with the congregation, or see the congregation as being helpful to them during the crisis.
GENERAL BEHAVIOR PATTERNS
☐ We have fewer meetings than we used to.
☐ The same people serve on two or more committees.
☐ Many of our church officers believe that if they stopped doing their job, no one would step up and do the work (treasurer, clerk of session, money counters, etc.)
☐ We haven’t had a new member class in at least two years.
☐ We don’t have children for the “time with children” during worship
☐ I wouldn’t join this congregation if I were looking for a church today.
☐ I have talked about closing our church (formally or informally) with friends or relatives.
☐ I am holding on to my church for sentimental and nostalgic reasons (ex. this church was my mother’s church, I don’t want the church to close “on my watch,” this congregation has helped me through a very difficult time in my life, etc.)
☐ If I were looking at this church not as a member, but as a member of the judicatory (Committee on Ministry or a commissioner of presbytery), I would seriously consider closing the church.
☐ I have thought about what I would do if the congregation closed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple point system or scale that will tell you exactly what to do for your church. However, the more check marks you have, the more likely it is that your congregation has a poor quality of life, and it may be time to consider the new life that can come from closing, merging or moving a congregation.
Putting down a dog, or closing a family business, is not pleasant. It is grief laden and extremely difficult. The same is true of the closing of a church. As Christians, however, we are assured that there is a promise of resurrection. God can do miraculous things even in the face of death. New opportunities for ministry can emerge, new people may be reached, new ways of sharing the old faith can begin. Making the decision to even talk about the closing of a congregation is a real and vital step toward resurrection, into hope.
What would you add or subtract from this list?