Moved by a link shared by MaryAnn McKibben Dana *on FB yesterday, I was thinking about the process of dying as it relates to the church. All of us will die. And while The Church of Jesus Christ as a universal entity will not die – I believe – congregations die every day. Honestly, I observe dying congregations every day. At the risk of sounding like a total pessimist, most of them don’t know they are dying.
I buried both parents in my thirties. It was awful, and yet I agree that it would be harder to bury parents while in my 50s. Worse in my 60s. Unimaginable in my 70s. It’s sad to lose parents at a young age. But it’s harder for the parents as they slowly, slowly lose their capacities in their ninth and tenth decades. According to Michael Wolfe in “A Life Worth Ending” :
Seventy percent of those older than 80 have a chronic disability, according to one study; 53 percent in this group have at least one severe disability; and 36 percent have moderate to severe cognitive impairments; you definitely don’t want to know what’s considered to be a moderate impairment.
Wolfe also notes that the longer you live, the longer it will take to die. This seems true even in Church World.
Only 68% of new church plants survive into their fourth year. Presbyteries, Districts, Dioceses, and Associations (whatever the term of your denomination) might be quick to pull the plug if 1) they aren’t seeing “the results” they expected and/or 2) they are using dated metrics and don’t give a new missional community a fighting chance. This blog post by Cameron Trimble is required reading for all of us who work in the church in terms of how we should be measuring growth in the 21st Century Church.
I spend a lot of thought and prayer these days on what to do about the congregations I staff that struggle with limited capacity for the ministry they once enjoyed. Some are in a state of denial. Some have been neglected. Some dwell in what could be called “assisted living.” Some fall below a “quality of life baseline.” Some churches are “dwindlers;” they are slowly, slowly dying but no single precipitating factor will end their lives. And there are others who will not survive a crushing blow – the roof caves in, the pastor dies, the town dries up.
Sometimes is just time to die. And yet, our churches usually do not want to die.
We human beings prepare for death by signing advances directives or living wills and yet when we are staring death in the face, an energy kicks in and We Want to Live. Even Jesus had this moment.
How do we help congregations deal with the realities of lost capacities, the inability to rouse themselves, the increasing dependence upon others to do everything for them? Do we pull the plug? Do we abandon them? Do we let them continue to dwindle? After congregations celebrate their 75th, their 100th, their 175th anniversaries, it’s harder to close them – even if they are merely in palliative care.
Or we could let go and allow death, and then resurrection, to happen.
I don’t know where my parents are – in literal terms. But I trust that they are safe and at peace in the presence of God. I don’t know what will happen to our dying congregations, but I trust that something new and unimaginable is before us. Note: some of our “healthy” congregations are dying and I would love to give them a heads up so that they’ll make healthy choices for the future. Again, please read Cameron Trimble’s “new scorecard” here.
Do we spend our time and treasure trying to resuscitate congregations? Or do we let them go?
*And do yourselves a favor and pre-order MaryAnn’s new book Sabbath in the Suburbs due out in September. You will be so glad you did.