At Deathbeds: On Closing Churches

In the last 18 month I’ve been present at the closing of three Churches. I was their priest; they had been a cluster when I was called. In each case it was excruciating and sad. In each case it was the right choice. Churches, the actual communities, the buildings located in towns and cities, are not immortal. While The Church, the larger universal body has outlasted change after change, its constituent parts are often subject to the changes of the world.

I am often asked what it like to close a Church. This rises out of, I suspect, the pastoral wish to let me talk through my experience. And, in an age where we are inundated with fearful “the Church is shrinking” messages, the fear that the person posing the question may experience their Church’s closing. (1)

My answer is simple. It is like watching someone die.

Much like the deathbeds I have been privileged to be present at, there have been times when Churches close suddenly, times when we were waiting for the last Sunday as much as we were dreading it, and times when we knew the last Sunday was coming but none of us would ever be ready.

Three deaths, 18 months. The stories I want to tell have little to do with the last Sundays, with the ultimacy of closing–much like the stories told at funerals aren’t usually about reading the will or cleaning the house out.

I want to tell about potluck dinners instituted by parishioners. About hospital visits and funerals. About children who graduated. I want to talk about rediscovering coffee hour. About how the purpose of one Church was to bury the last of a generation. I want to talk about how it was important to understand the purpose of a church before one Church could close. About the classes I taught and the subjects we discussed. I want to talk about a Church community that rediscovered itself. About sermons preached and conversations had.

I want to talk about how we lived.

What I have faith in, what I believe, is that none of this is lost. God’s grand economy of us, of our faith, means that none of our actions, faith-filled or otherwise, are meaningless, lost, or forgotten. Walking out of those buildings for the last time, not just for me, but for the last time for a priest of the congregation, is a test of Resurrection Theology. My faith is not that these congregations will somehow rise from the ashes, that what is now dead will survive. My faith is that these congregations’ actions, their faith will be part of the day of the Resurrection. At which time we will understand how this part of our lives was God drawing straight with crooked lines. (2)

1 Watch Dean Markham’s on the The Myth of the Decling of the Episcopal Church”
2 Portuguese proverb

Later this week I’ll turn to Sermon Reviews and what this next chapter of my life looks like.

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An Anglican/Episcopal priest, bibliophile, dog owner, and Montanan

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