A Check List for Pulling the Plug?

pulling_the_plugI wrote last month about our little churches and the paradigm shift needed for those congregations to have a thriving future.  My denomination is not governed by a single bishop who makes decisions – as our sisters and brothers in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and United Methodist have.   My denomination is governed by “corporate bishops” sort of like the U.S. Senate, which begs the popular retort:  “For God so loved the world, God did not send a committee.

Decisions are made s-l-o-w-l-y

Sometimes – honestly –  I’d like to be the bishop, solely because I could move things along a bit faster.

I feel an urgency about ministry.  The world is craving hospitality, healing, forgiveness, and spiritual peace.  We don’t have time to waste.

So here we are with many tiny churches – under 50 members – and some (all?) of these churches need to close.  But we in the Presbyterian tradition do not close churches in a vacuum.  We might advise churches, coach them, and try to equip them for redevelopment.  But we are unlikely to close a church without that church’s members agreeing that this is the healthiest choice.

Nevertheless, I’m being asked more and more to come up with A Check List for Pulling the Plug.  In other words, there is a movement towards pushing our very small congregations to take a hard look at their ministry together and discern if their ministry is about God and expanding God’s kingdom – or something else.

If you were creating such a check list, what would you put on it?  I have some ideas but would love to hear from you too.

Jan’s Check List for Congregation Viability and Effectiveness:

(Please check all that apply to your church community.)

___  Our congregation meets regularly for worship, the celebration of the sacraments, study, and fellowship together.

___  We have at least four different leaders who serve as the worship/music leader, the treasurer/financial secretary, the clerk/secretary, and the pastor.

___  We have the capacity to cover all monthly financial expenses including utilities, insurance, salaries and benefits, supplies, etc.

___  We make a difference in our neighborhood by: _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

___  We make a difference in the lives of our members by: _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

___  At least ten members can articulate why our church exists.

___  Our neighborhood would notice if we were gone.


I would hope that a viable church could check off at least six of these items.

Again, what would you add to the list?  


24 responses to “A Check List for Pulling the Plug?

  1. When I was an assoc. exec in Chicago Presbytery, we developed a list of 6 or 9 such questions. We used it effectively in (secretly) triaging the churches in the presbytery. At one time we had requests for help from 70 congregations. Applying the questions we could fairly easily identify the few that might thrive with additional resources and help, usually because they had good leadership. Mostly, these efforts came to naught. O, the effort and money poured into Naperville River Glen, the Hispanic church that was on S. Halsted near Bridgeport, Hope, and several Korean congregations. I think the results have been mixed, and still didn’t come close to meeting the challenges of changing demographics and other factors.

  2. I would add this: “We are able to make decisions by consensus, without one individual or family dominating the decision-making process.”

  3. I would add: “We offer an alternative which is not otherwise available to the people in our community.” I’ve know places where a small Presbyterian congregation was the only church not opposed to human equality, the only church which allowed people to approach scripture other than literally and the only church which stood for proclaiming and promoting God’s Kingdom coming in rather than only guiding people toward a far away Heaven..

  4. * “high expectation” for church membership
    * all members are tithers
    Other notes: for around six decades, Church of the Savior (in Washington, D.C.) has engendered more and more mission groups, with small numbers of highly committed members.
    Also, something circa 30 – 59 C.E. about the number twelve.
    * The congregation is supporting “mission” (and initiating), not receiving “help” (financial) – such behavior seems “enabling” – as in addiction(s). Just one opinion.

  5. I left full time called ministry some 12 years ago and since then have been working with churches that will most likely never have a called pastor again.
    One of the first churches with which I worked told a horror story from the time when their last called pastor left. Presbytery sent two “tall steeple” people up to meet with the Session. After a meeting that lasted a couple of hours, the men gathered up their papers and one of them said to the assembly, “Why don’t you just close up and join a real church. With only twenty five members you are a drag on the Presbytery and certainly on our time.” A great deal of my ministry with them was getting them to be willing to reconnect with Presbytery and the National Church.
    There is no need to ever “pull the plug” on a Presbyterian church. There is a need to help small congregations understand the will of God and be able to see that the same God who called their church into being may be now calling it into closure. There are thousands of small (under 35 at worshp) churches that are filled with good Christians who are eager and willing to do the work that God puts in front of them. What they need is help and understanding, and a willingness of Presbytery to work with them, not against them. No they aren’t a good source of operating funds, but they are the “two or three gathered together” of Biblical fame. They are the ones who will show through their daily life and their devotion to God the way to faith that this country needs. They aren’t in service on Sunday to see and be seen, or to soak in the enormity of the physical plant and the soul rousing sound of the massed choir and multi-ranked organ. They are there because they want to be, and because they could be nowhere else. I’m currently working with one church of 7, one of 14, one of 27 and one of 35 and I wouldn’t trade any of them for a full time call at any church at any package in the country.

    • I’m with you, Lanny. A church of two or three committed disciples of Jesus is a beautiful thing indeed. I am eager to connect with other PC(USA) small church pastors who see the wonders that God can do in a covenant community of just a few people who seek his will. Check out Steve Willis’ new book Imagining the Small Church (Alban) and come visit with me over at the Mustard Seed Journal. I just got back from an uplifting retreat with small church leaders in the Presbytery of Sheppards & Lapsley.

  6. Reblogged this on katyandtheword and commented:
    Thinking about Closing churches

  7. I would add ___If our church closed, possible alternatives for this ministry to continue include…(what if in death we also signaled our belief in resurrection) I would include things such as a. joining other churches b. meeting somewhere unstructured (coffeeshop, house etc), c. doing something else with the building etc.

  8. Sarah Bardwell

    I was part of a congregation that closed our church after 129 years of service. We were down to 25 members in a plant with with over 30,000 square feet. We realistically looked at our finances: – (1) member contributions not covering the budget; (2) having a rather size-able trust fund that we were drawing from annually just to meet expenses; (3) not gaining new members and losing members due to death; our session decided it was in the best interest for our church to close her doors. There were other church communities in the area where we could worship and the funds that were left to us in trust were originally designated for Mission/Ministry, not day to day operating expenses.

    Often, trust in God takes one down a very hard path. This was the right decision for us. But, as we ended our church relationship, we became even closer as a family of God.

  9. It’s amazing how difficult “pulling the plug” can be… even for communities that deliberately work to be more aware and intentional about promoting the kingdom of God. While a checklist is certainly a wonderful tool, sometimes those pesky emotions draw out the process longer than is necessary 😉

  10. We warmly welcome people who don’t look, act, or dress exactly like we do.

  11. As I now serve a church with usually 3 (not a typo, 3) members in worship, I’ve come to change my mind on pulling the plug. When I began preaching there, I met with the COM to discuss how to go about closing them down. These three members have no real alternative in their tiny (1300) village for worship that is Reformed and theology that is middle of the road. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered, I am there.”

    I don’t think it’s ever realistic for someone from the outside to tell a church to close. The realization that death is here must come from the dying, not from someone trying to make efficient use of resources.

    • agree. The church is not called to be efficient but to be faithful.

    • Thanks for your comment. This isn’t about efficiency or telling others what to do as much as it’s about stewardship (Are we paying for a too-big building or for a pastor for 3 people when those resources could be used to start something that will grow the kingdom? Could the 3-4 people continue to be the church in a living room or diner together?) All of us need a church community. But do we do this at the expense of the broken people out there who could be served but aren’t being served now?)

    • Maggie, see Lanny’s reply above. I’m so glad you pointed out that in many places a tiny Presbyterian church offers the only alternative way of understanding and proclaiming the gospel in a sea of other expressions of Christianity. And I also think about remote, sparsely populated areas. These people also need the Lord and the body of Christ, but there’s no way to be, or to form, a conventional programmatic church. I do think it’s possible to be a faithful tiny church. Every church of every size needs to be seeking to follow the call of God. I sometimes wonder whether there are large churches that ought to close because they aren’t discerning and following a call from God. We don’t exist as a church to perpetuate an organization known as “church.” We exist to follow Jesus.

  12. I like the idea but my experiences tell me people would lie (or greatly exaggerate) when responding. Answers like “They would miss our building” or “People are comforted by our mere presence” aren’t the kind of answers you’re looking to hear. I would also refine the cover all monthly expense and add “with member contributions” So many congregations augment their ability to cover expenses with outside income/rentals/interest income, etc… They may not see the difference. So who would evaluate the answers? Good start.

    • When a congregation reaches the point where they have to start asking questions like that it’s easy for them to slip into a death spiral, which they’ll fight with every ounce of energy. Often that involves the rejection of new ideas and a closing off to new people. It becomes all about them rather than all about their mission. I would imagine it takes a great deal of energy to pull a congregation out of that mode, and I’m not sure that denominational leadership, also with dwindling resources, has the vision or dedication to help that happen. It’s much more exciting to plant new churches–not to say that’s bad, but just an observation.

    • Good church people totally lie/exaggerate.

      We’ve told churches they can’t call a Temporary Pastor until they have the $ to pay her/him, and they lie about having that money – which, of course puts the pastor in a difficult situation come payday.

      Struggling congregations (and maybe all congregations) give us inflated numbers about participation, leadership, and Sunday School attendance.

      We are in denial, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It isn’t about “losing” a battle with COM or failing at ministry as much as it’s about needing to make shifts for a changing culture. If we are unwilling to make the shifts, our ministry will suffer.

  13. In the Lutheran church (at least the ELCA) the bishop/synod really doesn’t have much control over individual congregations. The synod can make recommendations to the congregation, but if they want to stay open beyond the point of viability, that is their prerogative.

    The interesting thing I have seen, however, is that there are quite a few congregations that are thinking about what to do when they start to hit the point of diminished viability. My mom’s congregation, when they were down to less than 25 in worship with another Lutheran church two miles away, gave their building over to a new Asian immigrant community (I honestly can’t remember what group now…). One congregation that was located in a really desirable area for development but that had shrunk dramatically sold their property and set up a foundation that provides grants for new ministries. Another donated their property to a camp with the intent of seeing it turned into a retreat center. Still another decided to remain open, embrace the change in their community, and start a Spanish language community within their congregation.

    The death spiral that Craig mentions doesn’t have to happen if we remember why we exist as churches in the first place.

    • Exactly, Sheryl. It doesn’t have to happen, but too often it does because an individual or family within the congregation cling to the past. If a dwindling congregation is open, really open to all possibilities for ministry, interesting things can happen.

  14. When speaking of stewardship, it is also important to think about what happens after a church closes. Sometimes a church community will hold on until it has exhausted every resource, let the building fall into disrepair, and even enter into some debt (or get behind in bills due) before it decides to close. When it does close, at least in the Presbyterian church, the presbytery ends up shouldering the load of repair and maintenance of these buildings that have been left behind even while trying to sell them. It is a shame to see monies that could be devoted to mission or renewal at the presbytery level going to upkeep on empty houses of worship.

  15. The relationship of “bricks” to stewardship is an issue not confined to a building that has fallen into disrepair. If we want to be consistent, the ministry of “bricks” (building) also pertains to “rich” congregations that have plenty of money from current contributions / tithing. The underlying question has to do with what do buildings (and money, for that matter) have to do with mission and ministry? If we want to engage seriously regarding stewardship, then lets go to the book “The Fear of Beggars” where the author points out that the church is called to BE the poor, not to “help” the poor. .”This money could have been better used for …” is the accusation hurled at the woman anointing Jesus’s feet (for his burial). Maybe finding itself at the “end of its rope” better equips a congregation to trust in and rely on God fully.

    • Interesting point, Bob, but also remember that Judas’ accusation is cynical, not sincere. He wasn’t interested in mission.

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