That’s the question a colleague asked me this week. What are the factors that should be considered when a district is faced with the decision of whether or not to close a church. This was not a rhetorical question. As a district superintendent in The Wesleyan Church, first in Wisconsin and then in West Michigan, I worked through this with local leadership teams and district boards more than once.
I wrote these notes for him and will take some risks sharing them here for your feedback. The first risk is that I already know my list is not complete. There are likely other and better factors than I have offered. The second risk is that even some of the items I’ve listed here are wide open to interpretation and there will be plenty of territory for people of good will to disagree. I’d love to hear back from you and really want to learn how I can be more helpful in such a consequential decision.
I also have to acknowledge the real possibility that I played an official role in calling out the time of death when one more jolt of electricity might have revived what seemed to be a lifeless corpse. On the other hand, my experience has been that most churches have resisted intervention so long that they missed a window of opportunity when that same decision could have been made more redemptively, with less emotional and spiritual trauma.
One thing I concluded from my experience is this: districts don’t close churches. Churches close themselves. Churches close themselves not just in that final vote but in several years of decisions that turned the church more and more inwardly, away from the mission of God.
In such cases, the district leadership team is like the doctor in the ER who finally calls out the time of death to be written down in the medical records. But the patient is usually on the table for a long time with feverish effort from the attending staff before that final call is made.
And any such decision should be soaked in prayer, lots of prayer. Prayer by the congregation and their leaders. Prayer by the district team that is accountable for the final decision. PRAY!
Now, with that brief introduction to a very complicated discussion, allow me to offer these 10 points for consideration:
1) Is the Kingdom of God better advanced by this church remaining open even if attendance and financial solvency are at an all-time low? Are people still coming to Christ, being baptized and discipled, growing in their faith and service to God, even though the overall attendance and financial solvency are trending negatively?
2) Is the church bringing a reproach to the name of Christ? Are there spiritual, doctrinal, moral, financial or legal issues that are unresolved after multiple approaches? Are unreached/unchurched people in this community more or less likely to have confidence in and respect for the work of God if this church stays open?
3) As fewer people are left to carry the load, is the spiritual well-being of faithful members being drained by the spiritual, emotional and financial toll of trying to sustain this declining congregation?
4) Is the internal dynamic of the congregation toxic for pastors? Can I in good conscience appoint another pastor to serve this congregation? Would I appoint my brother or son to pastor here?
5) Are there external factors in the community (a rural community with declining population, etc.) that have disproportionately impacted this congregation and are not likely to change in the next few years?
6) Is this congregation diverting resources (time, money, energy) of the district away from serving congregations who are or could be generating a better return on those investments?
7) If we didn’t already have this congregation in this location, does the surrounding community have enough potential that we would be drawn to plant a new church here in the next few years? If not, what does that lack of potential, as we assess it, say about the likelihood that this congregation can be revitalized?
8) If this ministry wasn’t already here and we would likely plant a new church in this location, is this existing congregation blocking or fighting that possibility?
9) If we would plant a new church in this location, is the value of the property and land (for which we have to give an account as stewards) better leveraged to launch that new ministry than to preserve the existing one?
10) Are there other healthy evangelical churches in the vicinity that these members could attend, if this congregation was closed, or is this the only viable option for them to worship and serve?
These are some of the factors I’ve prayerfully considered when faced with this question. What considerations would you add?