Author’s Note: The present article is adapted from Ed Stetzer’s “Creating a Hospice Ministry for Churches,” which appeared on September 3, 2014 on Christianity Today‘s The Exchange website.
The death of a parish does not have to be the end of its ministry
Happily, many parishes in the Orthodox world are growing and new missions are being established every year. On the other hand, many more are not only declining but, really, dying. The Church founded by Jesus Christ can never die. Yet, the death of individual parishes is a fact of life. Unfortunately and most importantly, dying parishes are quite unprepared for this death.
Yet many things can be done to aid the dying parish. We call this a hospice ministry because the hospice movement is based on not only death, but a dignified death.
One aspect of this dignity would be to see that, in the end, the cause of Christ and His Church will advance—although the local parish will not. Unfortunately, the “cause of Christ and His Church” is a very hard concept for some who built some beautiful (and not so beautiful) buildings through much sacrifice, and whose hearts are breaking to see it all come to nothing.
Nevertheless this kind of transition, while painfully traumatic, needs to be compassionately communicated to the parish. The question for many bishops and dioceses is how to help declining churches make decisions while they still have some agency and an ability to shape their future.
This process is painful, but not nearly as painful as seeing the parish go down in an undignified death. It is better for church leaders to be prepared to respond to dying churches rather than to react to the despair of confused, churchless parishioners as churches move toward the almost inevitable closure. In the future, wise leaders must anticipate and prepare for the closure of churches. This will facilitate a dignified death for parishes which, for whatever reason, cannot long exist.
Given this, I agree with Mr. Stetzer that “churches should die well rather than live poorly…. [T]he dream of a church should be to ‘accept death’ and let the battle continue through the resources they supply for support for other churches.” This may seem an incredibly academic and cruel statement, but death in many churches is inevitable and has to be dealt with for the good of the many people present and in the future, for all people searching for an authentic Christian faith.
Recognize the signs
According to Stetzer, death is near when:
- There is “a lack of interest in leadership positions,” when a “parish has been demoralized to the point that there’s no one willing to lead the efforts to right the ship. Without a leader, a church will die.”
- The parish has no plan other than to try to ride it into the ground.
- People are remaining in the church out of obligation or out of family connection.
The loss of purpose
In other words, if the church has lost its purpose, the best thing may be for it to give up its facility and let somebody with a purpose use the space and resources for the glory of God in a new community.
Communicating the process
The problem is that declaring a church dead is just as demoralizing as clinging to life. Many are on life support. In some dying parishes, the financial drain is a terrible burden on mostly elderly church members who are left to pay the bills.
Some dying parishes, however, have large reserve funds that might be available for any good ministry of the Church. I recently went to a parish having a multi-parish Lenten service and had it catered. The pastor said, “Why not?”—they would never be able to use all the money in the reserve fund.
Beside the financial aspect, consider the anguish of pastors and church leaders involved in many funerals in aging parishes, when parishioners actually want them to concentrate their time and energy on funerals alone.
Stetzer calls for anticipating and preparing for church closures in a proactive way rather than reacting after the fact. There are so many immediate steps that a dying parish can do to help the transition.
The church as building
The biggest difficulty is for dying parishes to realize that the Church is not a building. All over the US there are incredibly beautiful and impressive buildings that are boarded up. Some of our parishes are stuck with huge ex-Protestant churches that they cannot maintain, nor can they afford to heat or even to tear down such well-built stone structures.
The Church is people who come together for worship. I have served the Liturgy on a Jeep in the desert and in the employees’ break room in a mental institution. I really enjoy good iconography and beautiful buildings, but these liturgies were living and beautiful and, no matter where we were, we were the Church.
The point is that houses of worship can enhance worship but do not constitute the Church by themselves.
Some churches have a “Legacy Church Project” which includes working with parishes in the process of closing. Dioceses ought to have a team to do just this. But no one is saying it is easy. Part of the transition team work will be “grief counseling”—it is, after all, a death.
Giving parishes a way to end well
In the interim, transition teams can help access the parish needs and help them to make decisions. A certain parish in an urban area—once a poor area but now “gentrified”— chose to sell the entire parish complex and use some of the money to acquire a small church that better fit their needs, and used their excess resources to help a mission parish.
Other details that follow a decision to close include the following: Setting up a legal entity to provide for the ongoing care of a cemetery; drawing up lists of items to donate; closing bank accounts; and transferring control of the building.
But more important than help with the paperwork are the conversations about the future.
If your parish closed today, how would it be remembered?
People really care about, “How will people remember us? Will we be known as the church that closed this year, or will our longer, larger story be told?”
Some churches may want to create a book or a video to memorialize their work. Others may want to donate their reserves toward a ministry that they have long funded. Still others may want to use proceeds from the sale of the building to seed a new church.
Legacy programs also work hard to make sure members of dying churches find a welcoming home in a new congregation. It feels like moving into someone else’s house and it is facilitated by a welcoming community.
All this doesn’t take away the grief many members feel. But the closure of parish may be seen as a type of resurrection. We can grieve for these parishes, but we can rejoice that the Church will live on.
Father Hal Gregory DuDash is a retired archpriest in the Albanian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church in America. He holds an MDiv from Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and an MA in Counseling from Boston University. He served for seventeen years as a chaplain in the United States Air Force and has worked as a mental health therapist and social worker.
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