How to Kill a Dying Church

10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” 11 The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” (Jeremiah 1.11)

This is a great call story. It is typical in the fact that like other prophets, Jeremiah does not feel qualified to be God’s messenger and God quickly reminds him that God not only finds him suitable, but will provide what he needs to get the job done. Also like other prophets, Jeremiah refers to a weakness as his greatest defense of not accepting the job . . . in this case his age and ability. What is wonderful about Jeremiah’s call story is that God reminds him that God not only created him and therefore knows him, but also believes that Jeremiah is a sufficient vessel for this work. Unlike the Presbyterian ordination process, there is no training program and no hoops to jump through. A simple ‘yes’ will suffice.

The job that God has tasked Jeremiah with is not a small one. What I find interesting about this interaction between God and Jeremiah is the question that God asks him, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I believe in many ways God continues to ask us this very same question: what do we see? In many ways as Presbyterians, I think we are asking ourselves this very same question. In recent months, there has been much attention and discussion over the future of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination. Whether it is the group of pastors who signed the “deathly ill” letter or the group that planned the Next Church Conference, the questions at hand are “what is the future of our church?” and “what do we do about it?”

It seems to me that no matter whether you are hopeful or discouraged about the fate of the Presbyterian church, one topic of conversation that keeps cropping up whenever the future of the church is discussed is — what to do with all the “dying” congregations out there. Some believe that we should just suck it up and close them down, therefore using the assets to fund new church developments and other ministries. Some believe that it is a reality of our new future: smaller ministries and congregations — which is not necessarily a problem, but a need to recalibrate our focus.

For as long as I’ve been a member of the Presbytery of San Francisco (8 years) and actively involved in a committee that supported local congregations, we keep running into this question – how do you kill a dying church? Some of the many challenges we face are:

  1. How do you know if a church is dying? What are the determining factors: lack of membership, money, mission, and ministry? What if a church has 200+ members, but because of the population they serve, they don’t have the financial resources to survive? Are they dying? What about a 20 member church that has $600,000 in their endowment, but no pastor and no mission? Are they dying?
  2. How do you go about closing a church, especially when the presbytery is not in the habit of forcing action upon a congregation? Do you form a committee (like Presbyterians love to do)? Does the presbytery just make a blanket decision to close all congregations with membership less than 50?
  3. What is the transition process for members and the property?
  4. What should the assets and money be used for?

Especially after the recent downturn in the economy, many congregations both large and small were faced with assessing the health of their congregation. And not only congregations, but our presbytery as well. No longer did the Presbytery budget financially support racial ethnic congregations, start up new church developments, invest in redevelopment congregations or support mission activities. Instead, the Presbytery tasked the congregations to partner up. Easier said than done! Especially when more and more smaller congregations are needing financial assistance and more and more larger congregations are cutting their mission budget.

To put all of this into context, the Presbytery of San Francisco is divided into three areas: San Francisco, East Bay, and the Peninsula. I live and serve at a church in San Francisco. In this 7 mile by 7 mile city, we have 22 Presbyterian churches. 22! And by any measuring scale, only a handful are considered healthy and vibrant. The state of the congregations in San Francisco was low on the totem pole of issues to address for the Presbytery, especially when the Presbytery was already overwhelmed with balancing a deficit, redesigning the staff, congregations “graciously” departing for other denominations, and finding a new Executive Presbyter. So, I took to heart what the Presbytery always reminds us: WE are the Presbytery. Since I am a part of that WE, I decided to be a squeaky part. I approached our San Francisco pastors gathering about my concerns. I talked incessantly about it to the chairperson of Committee on Ministry (who happens to conveniently be my husband) as well as the Transitional Executive Presbyter. From these conversations, the San Francisco Urban Strategy Team was formed that consisted of San Francisco pastors. Our task was to figure out how to address the state of all the 22 congregations in our city. Like Jeremiah, this was no easy task. Because what we saw when we looked out over our city and through the eyes of our congregations was a lot of mistrust, misguided energy, feelings of isolation, and lack of empathy for one another. Especially for some of the smaller congregations, they did not trust any outside help for fear that they would be shut down. So getting connected to these congregations was not going to be easy.

When we looked at our task, what we realized is that the question we are asking is all wrong. The question shouldn’t be “how to kill a dying church?” or even “what constitutes a dying church?” The question for all the churches — big and small, healthy or not — should be “what legacy do we want to leave here in San Francisco?” — a question not to answer only as one congregation, but as a collective 22 — a question that helps us all reflect on how our congregations engage in ministry and mission in our community. On June 18, this is the question that all the San Francisco Presbyterian churches will be invited to answer. Using a similar process that I used at a recent leadership consultation, each congregation is required (with the support of Committee on Ministry and the Transitional Executive Presbyter) to have two people attend the gathering – whether it be one elder/one pastor or two elders (what we don’t want is two pastors). From 9am to 5pm, we will spend a lot of time getting to know one another and each other’s context and congregations as well as worshipping together. Mainly because, although we live in a geographically small city, we don’t know each other at all and building relationships is the key foundation to a healthy, vibrant ministry. The goal of the process is to level out the playing field so that small churches has as much impact and power as larger congregations, so that racial ethnic congregations have voice, and so that our diversity is not an issue but an asset. We will then spend the rest of time being in conversation and answering the question “what legacy do we want to leave here in San Francisco?” We will have a facilitator to guide the process as well as an artist whose task is to observe the spirit of the conversations and the content. The hope is that what will come out of this gathering is a document and a visual piece that states what the legacy of the collective San Francisco Presbyterian churches will be.

It is this document/visual piece that will be used for another team (people more experienced in assessment of churches) to assess and evaluate all the churches in San Francisco. Hopefully, since all the churches had an opportunity for input on the value all churches will be evaluated on, it will decrease the issues of  distrust and refusal to cooperate.

I share the journey of this process only because I have found it difficult to find any resources that address this matter — a matter that many congregations and presbyteries are facing. I have interviewed many executive presbyters and pastors about how they handle this issue and have found no luck in finding concrete processes. I am also tired of talking about the matter which in turn makes me feel frustrated and paralyzed to do anything about it. This is my attempt to try something and see if it works. I don’t know what the end result will be of this process, but I am hopeful that it at least invites everyone to the table of discernment and is a process that is not meant to be judgmental, but instead transformative.

I’d be interested to hear what processes you have been a part of that addressed this issue or any suggestions you have as we continue to discern the legacy we feel called to leave behind as well as live into.

Details of the process that was followed at the June 18 gathering can be found here.

30 thoughts on “How to Kill a Dying Church

  1. Thanks for this sensitive and heartfelt post. I am wondering about the “legacy” thing, though. It almost sounds like we’re resigned to evaporating and want to decide what people want to remember about us. In my view, the more basic question has to do with the quality and character of a church’s mission. I know churches with under 50 members who are excited about what they are doing and enthusiastic about ministry. And churches with 500 members just going through the motions of draining down their endowment while doing the same old thing. Lots of churches have hit the wall in this economic downturn and are faced with questions of viability and existence. Now is the time to turn our attention to following Jesus and not trying to be the institution we used to be. My wife’s tiny church hit this wall a couple of years ago. The 15 remaining members embarked upon a new way of doing church, based on a covenant of spiritual practices and the formation of mission groups rooted in what people felt called by the Spirit to do. It is still evolving, but the depression and talk of closing is over. Giving has increased (they still support a full-time pastor), worship is exciting and participatory, and the church’s sense of itself has done a 180. And, though it is scary for the minister to be so financially netless, the people are glorifying and enjoying God like never before.

    1. Paul,
      I am a “retired” minister who came out to work with a small church in a neighboring community – a church about to be closed. There had been some issues amongst the congregation members and consequently several left. The pastor left, but before doing so, began the “shut down” process by encouraging others to vote for closure. Someone I knew there called me and told me the story. I rayed about it, and then contacted the DS to let him know if there was a even a faint pulse I would go “pro bono” and work with the ones who wanted to stay. With three individuals and almost a year later, we are averaging in the mid 30s, we have money in the checking account and a savings account. I am still not being paid a salary (and that’s fine with me, my ministry is a calling and I’m good financially). I need to find a way to encourage others to tithe without being over bearing. To me, it’s not about the money – I don’t need it – but someday I will not be there and the next pastor might need the support. And, furthermore, the congregants need to be obedient to the Word; they need to be investing in their church, too. I don’t want to be there if it is only because I’m free. ANy suggestions?

      1. Wow. That was 5 years ago! Just an update from my post back then: the presbytery got wind of the innovation at my wife’s small church and immediately tried to shut them down. The only reason given was that the congregation lacked cash. I’m serious. So they had to waste a year and a half defending themselves against their own presbytery until the presbytery’s AC exonerated them. I don’t know that they will recover from this attack or that it is even over. … But in response to your post I will say that we have to broaden our understanding of ministry beyond the old model of one minister per church. Perhaps there are other nearby churches (even of other denominations) that could share a pastor. Perhaps ditch the building and turn into a house-church. And yet there is the issue of stewardship. I am finding that since the 2008 crash many middle-class Christians simply lack money (it having been systematically sucked up to the 1% for decades). In the end, the thing is a question of mission. What is Jesus calling us to be and do, and how do we follow in our own context?

  2. Paul, thank you for your response. Your example is exactly what I’m talking about in how it is not a black and white issue of what constitutes a dying church. Your question about the use of the word “legacy” is a good one. I use the term not as a term to think about how people will remember us, but to get us thinking about the church’s purpose in their given community . . . to get us to think more forwardly as the example you have given. . . to put more intention and purpose in how we “function” as a church community. I think many churches (big and small) cling to their past instead of looking at what God is calling them in the present and future.

  3. Here in NJ in the presbytery of New Brunswick we are talking about the same challenge and facing some of the same issues. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Though my wife and I live in San Mateo County, we have chosen to be members of a “dying” Presbyterian church in San Francisco. Our congregation is older, small and has limited funds but is still rich in faith and service. If an accountant were to check our books, they would probably not consider us “healthy”. Let me say now, I do not consider us as “dying” but we could be called the walking wounded.

    However, some churches are not dying, they are already dead and do not know it. Like a beloved family member, some congregations are keeping their church on life support until all funds and energy are exhausted and the plug is pulled and the patient is finally allowed to die, with whatever dignity it may or may not have left. I cannot say I find fault with their intent but when we hold on too long, with no hope of recovery, are we doing more harm than good? Is our grief for what has been lost or for ourselves?

    Bruce Reyes-Chow wrote a few words in his most recent blog on Referencing a book written by Bill Bishop, he refers to clustering or living in bubbles and then offers his own thoughts. I may not agree with his conclusion but it has value even if it just makes one think. Bruce talks about the various groups within our own church, including the non-group groupings, where being rich or poor, liberal or conservative, young or old, evangelical or fundamentalist, modern or traditional, often differentiates congregations and divides us as a whole. It is not just a Presbyterian tendency, as humans, we all tend to cluster, birds of a feather, as it were.

    In Matthew 18.20, Jesus says “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. To me that means it is a place of worship, and therefore it is the Lord’s house or church. Maybe our problem is that with so many groups and sub groups and other differentials, we are unable to make decisions. As Jesus said in Matthew 18.19, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in Heaven”. Perhaps we need to be mindful that even earlier, in verse 7, Jesus says, “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes”.

    So, what do we do? Do we continue as we have? Do we do as Bruce suggests and shutdown, reboot and pray that we power up again? Do we extend the powers of PCUSA or the Presbytery and allow them to decide who stays open and who closes? The Catholic Diocese of Oakland closed and sold off several churches, using the proceeds to build a huge centralized church. Why not us?

    If we did something similar, where do we put the new church, who would be the pastor and what of those pastors and staff who lost their churches in the process? I do not have an answer but as President Lincoln said in his speech to the Republican Convention (and paraphrasing Matthew 12.25), A house divided against itself cannot stand”. I suggest you read both in their entirety.

    My concern is that any idea, as they often do, goes into committee for consideration and discussion and should any action ever be taken, it will be long after I am dead and buried. Part one.

    1. Robert, I appreciate your time and energy in responding. I think you ask some good questions that a lot of us are asking. I am hoping that this initial gathering will be a well-concerted effort that gives everyone an opportunity for input, but I am confident that we are in a time of action. And I am hopeful that exciting things whatever they are will happen well before you depart this earth. 🙂

  5. Three Cups of Tea and Sones into Schools, books by and about Greg Mortenson and his travails in and around Afghanistan and Pakistan share one repeating concern. Westerners, when trying to help less fortunate countries in a relief effor, tend to do what they feel is best for those individuals and seemingly, never ask the people themselves what the need.

    Are we as Presbyterian, doing the same as we try to grow our congregations? Are we so sure of what people need that we push ahead with what we think best without asking the needs of those we ask to join us? When there is a sign that says so and so, Presbyterian church, would an unchurched person take that to mean it is exclusive, for Presbyterians only? Like a club with a secret handshake?

  6. I think we need to remove the element of shame and the language of failure. Explicitly or implicitly, this is the language we use to talk about or talk to churches that are dying. We imply that their situation is their “fault”: that they were simply not faithful enough or smart enough to stay vibrant and vital. I think the members of most “dying” congregations are no less faithful or intelligent than members of other congregations–they just got caught in rapid changes that overwhelmed their ability to cope–or there were some other forces at work that made them particularly vulnerable when their context shifted. Of course small, struggling congregations are going to resist any approach that feels condescending, shaming and scolding.

  7. I think you are right Karen when you point out that there is an element of shame/failure language when addressing “dying” churches, which is why I think the question is wrong in the first place. I think all churches needs to be forward looking and looking at ways to support one another. At least that is my hope with this June gathering. I’m looking forward to my congregation participating.

  8. I was on staff at a PCUSA congregation that officially closed down about two years ago. It was a sad, sad time and the former members of the congregation are still reeling from being displaced and essentially left homeless to fend for themselves. I’m impressed with what I heard in your post about how the San Francisco area churches are handling the issues facing them. My prayers go out to you all!

  9. Theresa ,You have really hit the head on the nail -how many Churches are dying every day.May the Lord help us to understand what God expects from us.Amen

  10. Theresa –what you have been saying is so true and my husband and I are both serving churches that could be considered dying at some level and alive in other ways. We talk about this constantly -if we will even have a job in a few years or if the profession of pastor as we know it is dying as well. How do we keep the heart of our passions for social justice and spiritual awakening, worship and a place for our children that works for future generations? As a 40-something, it is so challenging to be at the crossroads, but it is also exciting to see what the possibilities can be.

  11. Theresa, your idea of getting your group of churches together is brilliant. Struggling churches feel isolated and shamed, and the Church needs to start acting like the Church instead of a bunch of separate churches. Not every Presbytery/judicatory has churches that will agree to come together, but I have a feeling you have pushed them to make the effort. I will keep you in my prayers on the 18th! It’s true that the word legacy connotes something left after death. But I think asking the question collectively about what mark you want to continue to make on your city is much more helpful than asking what to do with each particular institution.

  12. I am the interim, and very part-time preacher/pastor of a former Presbyterian church in New York state. Basically, I am a hired preacher who only has time to prepare a sermon, preach, and attend the monthly session meeting. I took time off from work last month to preside at a funeral. The church was closed, the endowed taken, the church reclaimed by the congregation, and are still fighting in the courts for the return of the endowment. The building was not maintained by the Presbytery and the furnaces have failed, and the building is falling apart. RIght now the building is built in sinking sand as they try to regain a former glory. RIght now they are built on the sinking sand of hoping to rebuild the building. I pray, preach, and trust that God will guide us as we work to regain a sense of vision, purpose, and mission. I gave them homework at the last Session meeting to look at why they attend church, what is the role of the church of Christ, and do they believe their church is growing or dying. Needless to say, the last question brought the immediate cries of we are not dying. So, what do you do with a church that was killed but is now “revived?”

    1. It’s a great question. My first response is that this is a perfect opportunity to “start over.” I think the questions that you have them thinking about are great places to start. I would take the pressure off growing and look at ways they can be relevant in their community and let that shape the type of faith community they will be. Blessings to you as you guide them in the limited capacity in which you serve them.

  13. Dear Theresa. First, thanks for your leadership at the Annual Clerks’ Gathering. You might want to connect with either or both of John Wilkinson (Third, Rochester) or Judy Lee Hay (Calvary St. Andrews, Rochester). Almost 4 years ago, they met concerning how to develop collaborative ministry among the (at the time) 11 congregations in Rochester. (It’s now ten because a Federated Church became an American Baptist Congregation). Called “Urban Presbyterians Together” they have engaged around the issues you raised, and have worked collaboratively on their witness to this part of God’s world. Sounds a lot like what you’re working on in SF. The evaluative/diagnostic questions you ask are right on target. We always get stuck on the “epistemological question:” “How do you know?” Peace, Val Fowler (Honeoye Falls, NY)

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