When A Church Dies

Casualties of this economy are everywhere. The obvious tell-tale signs of economic death are the hundreds of empty offices with brown paper on the windows and trash in the entry ways, malls where your voice echos in the emptiness, and drawn faces of men with dark circles under their eyes who answer, “How you doing man?”, with…”Well…you won’t believe this, but….” No I believe it. Every one of us pastors has dealt with more sorrow in ’08 & ’09 than anyone really knows. Our counseling appointments are up, what 50-75%? More?

One of my elders is responsible right now for shutting down a factory in his hometown. He used to work there, his father used to work there, and many of his friends still work there. He took the assignment because he felt that he could bring about this death more painlessly than any one else in his company. Economic death.

Death is a reality all pastors have to deal with. After a few years, we get used to dealing with the dying, the dead, and those left. But what about when a church dies? No one talked to us about that in seminary and while there is precedent for shutting down factories and warehouses and businesses, there isn’t much written about shutting down a church. I don’t think there was even a mere mention of it in “Theology of Ministry 101”. But it’s happening…churches are closing, and my friend had to do it.

Why in the world did his church close?

Call him Dirk (because I think it’s a manly name that Clive Custler uses in his novels, and all of us pastors are manly, right?...except for you wonderful ladies of course!). Dirk was an incredibly committed layman who felt called to the ministry and eventually took the leap into ordination and full time ministry, minus seminary, leaving a well paying job to do so. Most of the guys I know who leave one career and go into ministry seem to leave good jobs, not bad ones. Could Dirk have benefited from Hebrew and Greek exegesis? Sure. Would he have preached better if he had Communication I and II and taken labs with critical feedback at a good seminary? Without a doubt. Would a seminary education have enabled him to have kept his church alive? I’m not so sure.

When Dirk took this church, it was already on life support, having not really ever grown much over 100 people in its twenty plus year history. The congregation was in the early stages of a building program when Dirk became pastor. He jumped in with both feet, led the effort to build the building and got it done. Being the inspirational leader that he is, Dirk called the people to vision, to be generous and regular givers of their time, treasures and talents. He called them to join community groups, be evangelistic, serve others. We met periodically and I honestly don’t know what else he could have done. The church grew to around 130. But then the bottom dropped out of the economy, people moved, giving hit an all time low, bills couldn’t be paid and all the economics of the church went sideways. The bank finally couldn’t let it go on any more and said it was time to call it quits.

Why did the church close?

Many, many factors. I’m not smart enough and I was a bit too removed to really know all of them. I am sure that before my friend became the pastor this group of Believers was not well led and well taught in key areas like vision and stewardship. His was a case of too lateness. Some patients could be helped early on in the disease, but not in the final stage. What I do know is that Dirk feels the full weight of this “failure” when previous pastors ought to share some responsibility. But all of that doesn’t matter really. Dirk feels responsible. It’s all on his shoulders, this debacle, this death. Shame, angst, questions all dog him, daily. He’s grieving I know.

What do I do now? I’d like your help on this…what do I do now? Here’s my plan: I’m going to talk to him whenever I can. I’m going to listen to him and let him talk. I’m going to try and give him perspective on where he is. His next steps and vision need to be thought through, prayed through and held up to the light. Return to business? Go with his heart into another pastorate? I’m not the Holy Spirit, and I’ve been a pastor long enough to wish him no more pastoral pain than he’s had, but also know the highs of being used by the Lord Jesus to touch people for time and eternity. Dirk has to follow His Lord’s call, and he will.

Did I tell you this was the second church I know of in my area that closed its doors? I didn’t get to talk to that pastor, but I can guess, because of Dirk, what he felt.

Man, what’s going to happen to my church? Are we going to make it? What do I do if we have to shut the doors? What will that do to my reputation? My ego? Will it be my fault?

What I know and feel right now is that while churches close and die, THE CHURCH never dies. We’re a part of what will never be extinguished! I also know that it could happen to me and I could be the cause of church death,but I’m still loved by my Father. Truly the church is His church, not mine. So today, I’m glad I’m in the company of pastors like you guys, who understand His grace, try to stay out of the death grip of performance, and offer up yourselves every day to your Lord.

In losing our life, we find it.

Next time I’ll write with more humor. Today, I feel solemn joy.

Strength and Courage!

Pete