John Phipps: Hospice for Small Churches

07:00AM Nov 05, 2018
( )

It is problematic to think of groups like a single person. That said, after experiencing the death of individuals from various degrees of familiarity, I keep returning to startling similarities between the final days of a loved one and the final years of a church.

Our vast healthcare system with its constantly expanding technology coupled with almost limitless funding for the elderly can be fairly criticized as inefficient and even unhelpful at the end of life, but it is remarkably good at postponing that event, even though added days at the end may bring little added joy.  I wrote in 2015 about the need for better endings for our lives, and every Sunday I am struck by an analogous hope for my church.

Small churches like mine, a United Methodist congregation founded about 1900, reflect the communities they serve. Arguably for my town, its economic and cultural peak was around 1950-1970. I don’t have hard numbers to back this up, but population, school attendance, business numbers and activities suggest this was its heyday. The same with my UMC congregation.

As Hemingway wrote about going bankrupt—“Gradually, then suddenly”—committed congregants can hang on with a tenacity often celebrated as faith until confronted with an insurmountable hurdle. With terminal patients, medicine runs out of alternatives or pursues them until death interrupts. For churches, this obstacle usually is finances, but churches can be sustained by one devoted member with sufficient means. A sister congregation went for years with a literal handful of attendees and at least a half dozen nearby churches seldom reach double digits in the pews, but needed resources seem to appear.

Both final chapters could be better. My church deserves a more dignified and gracious (in every sense) ending than seems to be our destination. Perhaps using the similar approaches to hospice care would be a place to start. We cannot seem to find the right way to talk about how either lives or churches end. In both cases, even suggesting something other than greater striving adds a higher guilt load for caregivers

For example, we might ask members their greatest fear for the future of the church. Is it the very idea of being closed, or the building sitting empty, or the loss of fellowship, or what? What tradeoffs are they willing to make? Regardless of the answers, simply naming the unspoken dread can reduce its power to dominate our thinking.

The experiences of others who have participated in closing a church are invaluable, just as those who have lost loved ones can support caregivers in the final hours. Our congregation was twice energized with members from closed churches. The idea we in turn could be those welcome additions elsewhere needs time to sink in, so posing the possibility early could prompt quicker acceptance.

Instead of waiting until the pastor can’t be paid or the roof repaired, the same financial analysis should be done to see what is even faintly possible. My lifetime of experience leads me to believe the last church dollar will be spent on tuck-pointing or microphone replacement. It doesn’t take too many years on the trustees’ committee to recognize the building occupies a sanctified spot in our hearts, being a repository of memories and the setting of important life events. We forget the building merely houses the church, like the body houses the soul.

Like nuclear power plants, I think decommissioning costs—demolition of the building—should be discussed to avoid the pain of seeing a beloved structure abandoned. There are few abiding pains as sharp as seeing your former church derelict. The architectural corpse slows healing and adaptation to another place of worship.

This is all happening just as loyalty has become our highest virtue. Becoming welcome members of a different congregation could lift that group, but strikes too many as being unfaithful. More than a few older members simply hope the church will “see them out”. When Jan and I were updating our post-mortem information for our sons, it dawned on us we are now likely to have no church home for memorial services, something we could not have imagined even ten years ago.

Rural and small-town churches were some of the last social structures providing a basis for community. As they disappear, it will change both the image and reality of the farming lifestyle. Perversely, one the last great hopes for communal space could be taverns, but even those are now thinly disguised gambling centers with the spread of video gaming. This loss of a gathering place only adds to the pain of church closings.

Church closure is often seen as a personal failure, but it happens nine times every day in the US. Specifically, it faults our evangelical fervor. But churches reflect the people and community, and the tides of demographics and economics in rural America are irresistible. Our small towns are becoming smaller, older, and poorer as non-metro growth is almost exclusive to a few larger towns. James Fallows wrote wonderfully about this phenomenon. Those successful towns cannibalize the future of smaller surrounding municipalities until they are essentially low-cost housing for commuters. Nor is retail coming back to towns like mine. First malls, and now Amazon have seen to that. A “dollar store” has become the best outcome possible.


Importance of Religion by Age

Under those circumstances, a congregation which evolved among a thriving middle class often cannot change its culture, and deviate its heritage enough to relate to inhabitants with less education, no church history, and much lower interest in religion in general, especially among younger cohorts. Despite countless committees, outreach efforts and strategic plans, we are simply too old, too few, and too dissimilar from our community to be attractive to a disinterested populace. Meanwhile, the trends for white Christians especially seem to be inexorable.

Decline of White Christians

For me the evangelical embrace of politics from the pulpit has tested my faith, and forced me to draw some doctrinal lines. If this alliance is the future of worship in my type of location, I cannot fit in. For Methodists facing something like a schism in 2019, the most likely outcome – allowing individual congregations to decide matters of doctrine rather than The Book of Discipline (gay clergy/gay marriage, specifically) almost assures we will face a difficult choice.

Denominations could do worse than provide end-of-life support for congregations, despite the clear conflict of interest for church bureaucracies. Counseling, financial guidance for closure details, programs to guide members to new church homes, and above all, frequent words of compassion for the burdens of accountability members feel. Those of us still attending should begin to speak aloud what we whisper to ourselves. Above all, the guilt of failure should be exposed as a false self-accusation. Even if our shortcomings did bring about this ending, that sin too can be forgiven. The work of ending is hard, but is also our obligation to manage with respect and love.