These are sad days in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Congregations are in decline and sadly some are closing and others should be considering the need to close….or change–radically change. In my journey in ministry congregational closure has touched me now five times.
The first was a struggling new church plant, that seemed to have nothing but setbacks. I was a student in that congregation for a summer and no matter how hard we worked there was just another blow around the corner. Hardworking people would become discouraged and exhausted. Eventually, they made the decision to quit struggling.
The second was when I was the moderator of the Presbytery of Central Alberta. On a regular basis their minister would call and say that he had not been paid because there was no money. I, or someone else, would visit with the treasurer sort the situation out, and hope that it was the end of it…. it wasn’t, the financial problems persisted and the treasurer finally admitted that there was no way to keep on paying a minister. We sent a committee, who recommended closure…. the congregation and especially the treasurer were very angry with the Presbytery and especially with me. So be it.
The third congregation was was another kind of story altogether. When I came to be their minister they had embarked on a radical new ministry initiative, which in part attracted me to want to work with them. What I quickly discovered was that this initiative was causing more people to leave than to come. But they would not or could not change course. The matter was even more complicated when you added in the consideration that they were one of three Presbyterian churches within eyesight of one another, and also in eyesight was a United Church and an Anglican Church…. and this was in a town of 10.000 or so people. Finances became an issue, Presbytery closed them. Again lots of anger.
The fourth congregation I personally have seen closed was also one in which I was a minister. They had a small building, in a rural location. They were warm and loving people. They were multi-generational, but we didn’t often see the young families, who farmed but both husband and wife also worked in regular jobs to support the farming. With that and children’s activities they were frequently too busy and too overwhelmed to provide time and energy to leadership. The senior generation became older, frailer and moved into the city when they could no longer stay on their farms. The commuted back for worship, but the travel, especially in bad weather took its toll. What I am so proud of is that they started seriously discussing a plan for closure, seeking to faithful to the leading of God and asking the question, “did there really need to be a Presbyterian Church in the middle of an area whose original population was disappearing and what was appearing was a golfing community. Some discussion ensued on how to reach out to the golfing community, how to be another kind of congregation, but as one person put it, “We might be starting on this pathway 20 years too late.” Over the process of two years they planned for closure and asked the Presbytery to assist in the process. There was joy in that final year mingled with the tears, but it was a much easier closure than the last two had been and the healing of the Holy Spirit was clearly present.
The other point in that two point charge remained open, and I have been working with them half-time for the past year. In that year they have explored other ministry options, and have come to the sad conclusion that it is time to close and quit the struggle to keep the church alive for them. That is not an easy decision to make, and I hope that now that the congregation has made it, that we will be able to have a tearful, yet joyful few months in which we celebrate what God has accomplished through the people here. May that same healing of the Holy Spirit be present for them.
A friend of mine has been ranting about congregations that cling to life hoping that the church will be there as long as they themselves are on earth. It is not a faithful approach to faith and witness and I am pleased that these last two congregations, whom I have loved these last 7 years have grown beyond that desire.
This same friend has a vision for congregations that are vital and alive and who are eager to embrace what the Holy Spirit is asking of them…. and I agree with her.
That is part of the reason why I started this blog. I wanted to deepen my own prayer life, but also I was frustrated that the congregations I served (those same faithful people mentioned above, whom I love) were not able to grasp my passion for being a church that prayed and walked in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Individuals certainly did and do, but not so much the congregation as a whole. And it is whole congregations that need to arise with bold new decisions and embrace the path that God is clearing for them.
I know that fear holds congregations back. But what also holds them back is a memory of what they used to be like….with a full Sunday School, and an overflowing nursery. Memories of the days when they were younger and physically able to carry on the work of the church in a variety of ways. What is worse, is that the dream of recapturing those days also holds them back from embracing the future.
We can’t go back to the good old days. And I believe that if we could, there are a lot of things in these modern days that we would not be willing to give up.
seat warmers in cars
frost free fridges and freezers
air conditioners in cars and homes
We have grown accustomed to the good life we know now. We can’t have that and the overflowing congregations of the past, if we keep wanting to be the church exactly as it was in the past.
I have become firmly convinced that we need to become and be another kind of church altogether. I also believe that we need to look to the book of Acts to learn what that church looks like.
In the past I have tried to prioritize ministry by what the congregation needed: worship, seniors in home or the nursing homes, the groups that are still active, the emergencies that needed tending. It was a faithful model of ministry, one that most congregations want and that most ministers attempt to practice.
These last few years I have been wanting more.
More vision. More dreams. More passion. More fire.
My daily reading, reflection and prayer have led me to the place where earlier this month I outlined for myself new priorities for ministry and I believe that these need to be the priorities in the next congregation that I will serve.
worship that honors God and is focused on his word
fellowship and hospitality that is well done
a focus on prayer and the other spiritual disciplines
all of these things done under the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit
I believe that these faithful actions are the backbone of all ministry and that if we let any of them slip we are in danger of not being faithful to God’s calling on our lives as individuals and as congregations. But for me the MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL is to be open to the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This is what I believe I am called to, and I can do no other.