Gail Cafferata: Closing a church does not mean failure

Unsplash / Pascal Debrunner

Closing a church can be terrifying, but you don’t have to do it alone, says a sociologist and pastor.

After the Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata closed a church in Northern California after nine years of service, she needed a break. The experience had been emotionally taxing. She leaned into rest and retirement and jumped at the chance to sail and race with friends in the San Francisco Bay during the summer.

“I didn’t go into my home office for a while,” she said. “It was too painful.”

Later that year, however, when she finally reached a point of sitting down to reflect on her experience closing a church, she wondered how other pastors had dealt with similar experiences.

Cafferata“I didn’t know anyone else at that point who had closed a church, because no one in our diocese had done it,” she said. “And then I thought, ‘I wonder if anybody’s ever done a study?’”

Having served as a sociologist at universities for two decades before becoming a pastor, Cafferata went back to school and conducted a survey of 132 pastors who had closed churches. The research led to her recent book, “The Last Pastor: Faithfully Steering a Closing Church.”

The Last PastorIn the book, Cafferata details the diverse experiences of the pastors, noting both their faith and the faith of their congregations. She argues against the notion that closing a church means failure and encourages pastors who close churches to seek help and community.

Cafferata spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the difficulty of closing churches and how the coronavirus pandemic might complicate matters even more. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Would you share your own story of closing a church?

Gail Cafferata: I went to a church in the Diocese of Northern California that was a mission. In the Episcopal Church, that means it’s completely accountable to the diocese and the diocese provides leadership. And so when I went there as their priest, there was an understanding that this was a church that was vulnerable financially, not fully sustainable at the time, had subsidies from the diocese, and that it needed a lot of work.

I thought that I could help. I was really excited. This was my first solo church appointment. I had a lot of high hopes and just wasn’t ready for the task ahead of me. We did some really amazing things. We helped co-found a food pantry in our community that still exists, even though the church closed. We did that with other churches and with the local Rotary and other volunteers from the city. We founded a community garden. We shared our building with a Latino church and an Orthodox church. We had numerous 12-step programs. We, for many years, had a shelter program for families one week a year, in collaboration with a homeless coalition in the county.

But the church just was not able to grow and attract new members, and it got smaller and smaller and less able to pay for our own property issues, such as a leaking roof. We needed a new roof, which was probably going to be $40,000, and this was a congregation of 40 with no money in the bank. It was a very sad thing when we simply ran out of money.

F&L: When was it on your mind that the church might be closing and you might be the person to lead it through that?

GC: It was always on my mind. It was on the minds of members of the congregation that this was something that we might have to do. But at the end, we didn’t really have a choice. The diocese decided to sell the building. It was a difficult decision to close.

The congregation did have to vote. As a mission, it had to vote to dissolve itself, and they did that. They did that very courageously. And they served to the end very courageously. No one left when they knew the church was going to close. We tried to move to another congregation to share a building with them, but that didn’t work out, because we didn’t have enough money to pay their rent and my salary at the same time.

F&L: What were some of your findings?

GC: I found that a lot of people close their churches better than I did. What I found was this huge diversity of ways in which to close a church. There’s no one best way to do it.

One of the questions I had in the questionnaire was, “If closing your church was like a liturgical season or day, then which one would it be?” And most people said it was Good Friday or Holy Saturday.

But some said it was Easter or Christmas or one of the festivals of the church year.

My interviews revealed a number of things that led to that, and above all, I think, would be the resurrection hope of the congregation and the pastor. It took the congregation’s lively faith, their mutually loving relationships, their curiosity about God, their willingness to take risks for the sake of the gospel even if it meant dying.

In most cases, the congregation had a lively faith and curiosity about God and a willingness to sacrifice for others. In most cases, it was courageous congregational leaders that actually closed the church. It wasn’t the pastor. It wasn’t the judicatory. It was courageous congregations, members and leaders, who came together and looked around and heard the call of God and said, “There’s something new going on here in this pilgrimage. We’re being called to end up at port and give this boat to someone else.”

F&L: As a sociologist who has studied churches closing, how do you think that the coronavirus pandemic might complicate the experience of pastors closing churches?

GC: The breadth and severity of this virus can have profound consequences for churches on the precipice, as well as for those who made a decision to close before the crisis.

At this time, already-difficult conversations about closing a church, allowing ample time and opportunity for personal expressions of grief and loss, even anger, will be complicated by the virus. Many small congregations are composed of members at high risk of the disease because of age or health who are unable or afraid to leave their homes. Using teleconferencing software like Zoom to make the most difficult decision a congregation is called to make will not work for people without access to technology or who simply prefer face-to-face meetings; this technology does not work easily for people who may be reluctant to jump into these conversations.

After a decision to close, the process of dispersing church property will be complicated for people who need to work side by side to conduct an inventory, transfer sacred objects to other churches, prepare the building and grounds or do the necessary financial or legal work.

A pastor might be disallowed by local health officials or reluctant to hold a closing service in the church building, or any in-person services beforehand. Healing prayers with anointing and the Eucharist are traditional parts of Episcopal liturgy, and in California, we can’t do either of these easily. Singing hymns may be considered risky, so even an outdoor closing worship service might not be all that the congregation or pastor would hope.

F&L: The metaphor for sailing runs throughout the book. Can you talk about what particular points of contact sailing and navigating had for closing a church for you?

GC: I was sailing the whole time I was closing my church, the whole time I was there. As you see in some of my journal entries in the book, I’m wondering, “Where’s the wind, God? I can’t find the wind.”

The image of the Holy Spirit being the wind just was so powerful for me, and also the appreciation of the church being a vessel and having its own strengths, which I would liken to a centerboard or a keel -- what keeps the boat stable. That’s the lively faith, the spiritual discipline that a congregation has, the loving relationships they have, the curiosity they have about God, wanting to go on a journey, a pilgrimage.

Also, I’m somebody who worked the tiller, steering the boat. And sometimes my tiller was in the water, and sometimes it wasn’t. My tiller was just like my faith in God and resurrection hope, my call to be on a journey with the congregation as it moves into a new future. That was sort of my rudder. And every time I went sailing, I’d think about how wondrous God is. Sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don’t. But it’s there, and it’s all about trust.

F&L: What are some common fears that pastors might have in closing a church, and how can they combat them?

GC: You have to talk about the pastor as a pastor and the pastor as the head of a congregation. They’re two different things. Vocationally, a pastor can fear not getting another job because closing a church looks like failure. At least one pastor in my study was told by the search committee, “Well, we don’t want to hire you, because you killed a church and you might kill ours.”

And then there are a pastor’s financial worries. Am I going to find another job soon enough to pay my expenses and keep my family fed and the insurance paid and the rent paid? Am I going to lose my health insurance? These are real concerns for pastors.

And then the congregation -- the pastor fears for the congregation. One of the fears I had for my congregation was that they would leave the church, the institutional church, because it was so hard. And there was nothing I could do except be with them, be their pastor, and let them know that God was in other church communities and God was with them on this journey and we don’t know why this is happening but we just have to be faithful and keep our spiritual discipline.

And then I think that the pastor has to be aware that there are two things going on -- there’s the pastor’s own grief and then there’s the grief of the congregation -- and to keep them separate and to deal with them separately and to get all the help they can.

I asked a retired bishop to be our chaplain when we were closing, because I knew that I needed somebody and that the congregation needed somebody. My book reflects the fact that there were a lot of people who didn’t have resources, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. I wanted people to have some idea about how God does provide for us in the middle of a crisis like closing a church.

F&L: Why is closing a church so terrifying?

GC: From a secular point of view, it looks like failure. And a pastor and a congregation are likely to think it’s their fault and they failed. And there’s a sense of shame. And then, on top of that, you have grief, because closing a congregation means that this community that has been with you on your journey will probably disperse and your role in that congregation is not going to be there anymore.

You were the person who brought the best cookies to every event, and you’re not going to be the person who brings the best cookies to that event anymore. Or let’s say you were the person who dressed the altar on Sundays, and that role might not be yours if you go to another church. And so it means a loss of roles, and it means a loss of companionship and friendship and relationships.

And it’s all about fear of the unknown. I love this quote attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas: “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.” Compassion for us and compassion for others and compassion for ourselves.

And there’s the fear of death. To use a metaphor, fear of death is a very powerful current underneath a boat, and it can take it away from its destination. It can take it and pull it away from where the Holy Spirit wants to move the church. Denial of death is very powerful, and that’s probably the biggest challenge in closing a church.