Lessons I Should Have Learned in Divinity School: Leadership in the Midst of Sunset

Thirty years ago (it’s hard for me to believe), I started divinity school.  On my three-year journey to a Master of Divinity degree, I took a great range of church-related/ministry-related courses—theology; ethics; Hebrew Scriptures; New Testament; Greek; church history; pastoral care and counseling; etc.  I never took a class on leading a church through its decline and very likely closure.  Not one.  I’m quite sure such a class didn’t even exist.  Because, well, who would sign up to take that sort of class?

I would—now.

Peruse some of the online homepages of publishing houses associated with various mainline denominations (Westminster John Knox, Cokesbury and the Pilgrim Press), and one will not see many featured publications on church decline and church closure—despite the fact that such a thing is taking place on a regular basis.  Instead, titles offer opportunities for new ways of doing things that will turn things around, away from death and dying of old mainline churches.

Yet, for many churches, the only path ahead is closure—and there are precious few resources to help those clergypersons (or lay leadership) who serve such churches.  In a theological system that is supposedly not fearful of death, it’s a sad commentary.  Churches on the brink of closure, and those that have closed, are left to their own devices in the matter of the sunset of a church.

Left on their own, lots of good church folk turn to less than positive responses to the demise of their beloved church.  After a UCC church in a town a few miles away from Old South closed about 7 or 8 years ago, a group of those church members came to Old South and eventually joined.  When I met with the group to talk about joining Old South, one of the women raised her hand and asked, “Are you sure you want us to join your church?  Our church failed.”  It was a heartbreaking moment.

Articles on church decline—how to identify the signs of a dying church, etc.—usually focus on the internal workings of the church, as if only church members are responsible for church decline.  Sure, there are some problematic behaviors of struggling churches—forgetting to unlock the front door on Sunday mornings (because “everyone” knows that they should enter through the side door, of course); telling visitors that they are sitting in the wrong place or they are doing something wrong; not speaking to visitors at all; etc. 

But, there are important forces outside of struggling churches as well, that must be recognized, and aspects sometimes of the building or community itself that are outside the control of the congregation.  Maine, for instance, is a tough place to be a Christian church—no matter what denomination or affiliation.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study (2016), Maine is tied for 48th place in the US in terms of religiosity.  Only 34% of residents feel that religion is “very important” and only 22% attend worship on a weekly basis.   These numbers are stunning, and humbling.  For struggling churches, these numbers may indicate a possible road to evangelism, since there are so many people who clearly are not attending church.  These numbers, though, indicate another important dynamic that cannot be denied or ignored:  a dramatic sea change in the lives that are lived in this part of the world.  The tide has turned, and it has turned against us. 

This hasn’t always been true, of course.  Town centers all around New England serve as collections of church buildings.  For those people who might be looking for a church home, there’s a lot of choice.  There just are not so many of those who are searching.

For the clergyperson who finds her/himself serving a small congregation with a physical plant that is too big and costly to maintain, it’s a daunting prospect not only to think about the sunset, but to outline a path through such a process.

At Old South, we may have a few options that will ease our way through.  We have a large endowment and we have a building that we may be able to share with others (although making one or both of our buildings share-able will require upgrades that will not be inexpensive).  But, we also have what can only be described as an “older” congregation.  The average age is now over 70.  And, with that, comes the sense of weariness regarding any major undertaking.

It seems clear enough that the path ahead involves confronting our decline and trying to figure out how we can maintain our mission in the midst of that decline.  Can we continue to be the best church we can be while facing fewer and fewer people to do the work of church?  And, how will the church tackle some of the most important of its decisions, like, what do we let go of first:  building or staff?  Can we continue to work together or will we fall into unhealthy and destructive habits, like pointing fingers in blame?

I wish I had something from my divinity school education that would inform my leadership during this time of sunset.  There must be ways of maintaining faithfulness even in the midst of our demise—just like in our human lives.  It shouldn’t have to feel shameful, as if we failed at being church—as long as we continue to be church and to hold our reason for being as a focal point, despite the diminishing daylight.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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