What Holy Week can teach Christians about closing a congregation.
I am closing a congregation. Helping close, that is, a congregation whose members voted to end the ministry as they have known it.
It's hard. I am watching people grieve, second guess themselves and wonder where they will go after their beloved building sells. I've never closed a congregation, nor have I ever participated in a congregation which closed, nor known one interested in closing. Most dying church institutions I’ve known have done everything possible not to close, so walking this path feels a little strange, if not lonely.
The predicament strikes me as ironic, especially during Holy Week. This week marks the culmination of a Lenten season in which we walk with Jesus through his passion to the cross, where Jesus will not try to keep doing things the way he’s always done them until he can no longer survive, but where Jesus will die, be buried and -- as we recite in the Creed -- descend to the dead. It is the salvation story into which we enter each year anew; the path we urge people to walk during the final week of Lent; the gospel truth about the mystery of our faith.
Yet when the possibility of death becomes more than just a story to us, when we must confront that this hard, concrete reality might be the most faithful response for some of our own Christian churches, we reel at the mere mention of it. Change? Close? Die? Never!
I’ve struggled with such responses, at times both negative and prideful, surrounding the closing of our own human-made structures. Perhaps I would feel different if it was my congregation or if I had more years in the ministry. But these reactions seem hypocritical. We urge people to walk the way of the cross during Holy Week. We reiterate, “There is no Easter without Good Friday,” that there is no resurrection without death. Yet when I look around North American churches, I see much that might need to die. Those of us proclaiming death and resurrection can simultaneously suffocate the life out of the little we do have left. If Christ, the Son of God could die for the sake of the world, then couldn’t we let a few of our own human-made church cultures, committees, and congregations go?
What might happen if we did?
The question is actually a frightening one if we take it seriously. The answer could be chaos and corruption, even lost faith. It reminds me of a wise critique my internship supervisor once made of me after a particularly difficult Bible study. I had tried to demythologize a few of the participants’ assumptions about Jesus in the Lazarus story. My supervisor told me that you should never take something away from someone if you don’t have a better replacement. I’ve never forgotten that. None of us after all (least of all, me!) can guarantee what kind of life will follow death. There is no human guarantee for that.
This congregation is willing to risk it. After long, agonizing years of trying to grow their ministry, this small group of people believed that more would come from their death than their current life. So they have decided to close.
But not without hope. This congregation has specified that after the tithes that come from their building’s proceeds are given, the remaining proceeds will go toward new mission in their county and the larger jurisdictional area. They wanted to leave with the hope that new life would come from their dying.
What will happen remains to be seen. There are still hurdles to jump, people to nurture and details, many, many details! Questions about the future continue. But we are not yet done with this process. God is not yet done with this congregation, nor is God done with us. God will have God’s church. When we put our trust in that truth, there is no telling what can happen.
Hope abounds. New life, promised. Good Friday will come, but on Easter we will rejoice!
Amy Thompson Sevimli is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and currently serves as Assistant to the Bishop in the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod.