Church Closings Bring Sadness, Can Also Bring New Hope


A religious building can give up its "life" and yet live on, Hugenot says.
Closing congregations is not taught in seminary. In fact, it tends to be spoken about in hushed tones.

As congregations explore the question of closure, I am hopeful such conversation is guided by a commitment to being thorough, transparent and timely.

How congregations make decisions about the closure of a church must be a shared decision, even as some parts of the process require work by committee or outside assistance, especially in the ecclesiastical, legal and realty side.

It is a dramatic moment that does not need the extra drama of members feeling uninformed or rushed in making big decisions. Informed congregants make informed decisions.

Beyond the questions of "due diligence," I suggest we give due consideration to those for whom the closure or sale of a religious building is not just a matter of parting ways with a building.

For those under a church's roof and within its walls, you are losing a part of your identity, where lives have been nurtured amid this brick and mortar. The sale or transfer of church facilities is not to be taken lightly.

Paying close attention to the ways we feel deep down about this structure is not to be ignored or dismissed.

There is a great need for the congregation to experience the discernment process to leave a building or close down its ministry as an opportunity for care, ritual and exploring the ways our given faith tradition speaks of transitions, change, lament and hope.

Clergy need to remember that they are not alone amid these difficult questions. A clergy person may find it helpful to spend time with her judicatory official to talk about the "pastoral" implications of what is happening.

You may even find it personally and pastorally helpful to sit down for some intentional conversation with a mental health provider.

The stress load of weathering such times is high for laypersons, but honestly, the clergy person bears much as a shepherd leading a flock of divided minds and breaking hearts.

A clergy collegiality group could be a source for stepping away and having the shared wisdom around the table as you think through how the decisions and process of a building's closure should be cared for through sermons, pastoral care and worship planning.

You are navigating a major decision as well as something akin to a trauma as churches making the decision to close a building are very much like the family going through the difficult, emotional and sometimes contentious decisions about selling the family home or the old homestead.

If a building must be closed, congregations can find some hope amid the grief when they think about legacy.

For example, a church in St. Louis decided to sell its building and donate the proceeds to my alma mater, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kansas City to endow a faculty position for congregational health.

Another congregation opted to gift its building to another church for a minimal sale with some of the contents remaining to help the "new" congregation continue.

Other assets were given or sold to other congregations, with the proceeds benefiting religious or charitable purposes in the community.

Being thorough about leaving a building in good condition, addressing the interior and exterior issues at hand (for example, building contents and property maintenance), is part of the good stewardship of leaving a facility in the next owners' hands.

A thoughtful guide for such a season in a church's life can be found in "Ending with Hope: A Resource for Closing Congregations," published by the Alban Institute.

A religious building can give up its "life" and yet live on. Finding a way to put the facility into community use as a place for nonprofit benefit is especially attractive, as the tending of those in need is consonant with religious values.

However things end, aim to end with ways that speak of hope.

Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. He blogs at Preaching and Pondering, where a version of this article first appeared.

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