Threats, Promises, Rescue Techniques

Let’s not be so quick to close doors of those parishes littlest and least
August 31, 2004

Our culture values size, autonomy, power, youth and change. These values slip into church life at times without our awareness, and the result can be painful.

Have you noticed how we, the church, in our dioceses and structures are often punitive and dismissive of small congregations that are identified as “not likely to grow?” In three dioceses in which I’ve served, I’ve heard disparaging conversations about parishes, often once grand and thriving, now down to their last 10 or 20 families, no longer able to repair the roof, pay their apportionment or hire full-time clergy or support staff.

Even harsher things are said of those seen as unwilling to change – places islanded by changes in their neighborhoods, where visitors are rare as hens’ teeth. Often, such church members have been through years of consultants and training programs designed to chivvy them into growth. Maybe they’ve tried a smorgasbord of strategies and new mission initiatives. They’ve shown up at endless commissions and conventions begging for grant money and abatements. They’ve listened as diocesan staff desperately tried to partner them with the church down the road. They’ve heard threats and promises of closure alternating with the latest rescue techniques from the Alban Institute and various think tanks.

When all the experts have had their meetings and gone home, the faithful, decades-long remaining members look at each other and wonder, “What’s wrong with us?” “Why are we so unlovable?” “What should we do?” and “Why don’t they understand how dear our parish is to us and why we don’t want to give up and go join the one in the next neighborhood?”

Now, some of these congregations identified as “nonviable” indeed have little life in them and need to close. Members may be caught up in depression and defeat, and worn out with trying to salvage some triumph from a losing battle. Or perhaps a particular group is dead set against welcoming anyone new, should they even find their way in. Or perhaps they have lost their vision of being a Christian community in mission to their neighborhood and world. Once in a while, they seem to be incurably “sick systems” that chew up clergy and leaders year in, year out, and sabotage their own growth. But this is by no means true of all congregations identified as “dying.”

What might happen if the wider church did a more careful discernment between these congregations, to see which ones have a stable base of committed, gospel-literate, mission-minded, mutually caring members but are in circumstances where these qualities still have not produced any growth. Some of these may be little groups of Christians who just want to live out their lives together, to keep their church home intact.

What if these congregations, instead of being scolded, nagged or goaded toward becoming something they are not likely to become, were designated as chapels – not a demotion, but a sort of retirement category? What if their dioceses said to them, “Well done, good and faithful servants! We cannot subsidize your building – you may need to become a house church and let go of that beloved edifice, releasing it for a new godly purpose. We cannot pay for you to have a priest every Sunday morning, but we can promise to help you pay for a priest to come and celebrate Communion at least once a week and to officiate at your funerals, tend you in your emergencies and, God willing, celebrate your weddings and baptisms. We can help with resource people to support your ongoing Christian formation.

We love and honor you and your history, and continue to value you as part of our diocese. We ask you to tithe your income to the diocese, and we will keep your voice and vote in our midst.”

In the drive for success and growth, in our financial worries and pressures, we often are unkind, unappreciative and scornful of our sisters and brothers in what we perceive as “failing congregations.” I’m reminded of doctors who think of their patients as having “failed treatment,” when in fact it is the treatment that has failed the patient.

When our culture’s values about size, autonomy, power, youth and change slip into our church life, they define for us what “successful churches” should look like. They obscure more subtle values like endurance, closeness and accepting the inevitable diminishments of age, loss and shifting circumstance with grace. What might we all gain by treating one another more gently, more mercifully?

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