The death of a local congregation is usually sad, but as Andy Peck discovers, you can close a church down in a positive way that helps all concerned face a brighter future.
Attending a funeral is rarely enjoyable, but when it’s a church you are saying good-bye to, it’s especially hard. Closing a church means the end for a community of believers, which had stretched back decades, even centuries. When the front door is locked and the lights are turned off for the last time, it can feel as if God himself is being ushered out.
This week the key has been turned in the lock for the last time in five UK churches, a rate that is set to rise over the next decade as ageing and declining congregations conclude that they cannot continue. According to Trevor Copper of the Ecclesiological Society, there are 12,000 listed Anglican churches, which need £50m of funding a year to help keep them going. These tend to be looked after by small congregations often in rural areas who struggle to raise sufficient funds for expensive repairs to the ancient fabric of the buildings. In 2006, chances are a congregation will close not far from where you worship and of course you may be considering it yourself - that would be a New Year’s resolution with a difference... In last month’s issue of Christianity we looked at eight questions church leaders need to ask before deciding whether to close down a church, as we acknowledged that there are times when closure is the most God honouring option. This month we look at how to finish well – how to close a church in such a way that church members are likely to flourish rather than flounder, in what God is calling them to next. Even if church closure is not on the horizon for you, there may be people in your church, or coming to your church, for whom it is. So keep reading!
Understandably there are few, if any, ministries especially designed to help people close their church and anyone with the gift of ‘church closure’ usually keeps quiet about it. So believers facing church closure can feel especially lonely. Just as people are nervous about talking about a failed marriage, participants in a church closure are discrete about what they say lest their take on proceedings offends those involved, or reflects too much their own take on what really happened. But some are prepared to talk, and this is what they advised.
1. Celebrate the past
Just as a funeral can celebrate the life of the person who has died, a closure can include a celebratory service, thanking God for the lives touched by the ministry of the church. Former ministers/pastors return, while church attenders and office holders reappear for a final reunion. A church with a significant heritage might produce a special pamphlet outlining the history – though whatever you do, keep any oral contributions on church history short! This celebration does two things: it takes proper note that the present congregation stands in a long line of faithful witness, but it also allows people to recognise that church is partly about missional community, and that the mission at this time has been come to an end (for whatever reason).
Former pastor Don Masters told Christianity about the final service of a church he had served in a village in Surrey: “It was somewhat ironic to see the church bursting at the seams for the last meeting, including many from the local community, when the previous six months we had worked hard to increase numbers! But it did mean we finished well which aided the grieving process for those who were sad that the church was closing.”
2. Learn from mistakes
In some cases it will be necessary to reassure church members that they shouldn’t take the blame for the church closure; they just happen to be the ones needing to take the decision, perhaps the ones with the courage to take a decision that should have been taken years ago. But there will be times when closure does represent a failure of sorts. The risen Christ in Revelation has harsh words for many of the churches he addresses. His future blessing was conditional on the church repenting. Some churches will have closed precisely because they failed to listen to the Lord, and this fact may be heightened when it is apparent that a closure decision needs to be made. It may require a wise counsellor such as a denominational leader or someone with prophetic insight to discern what has happened, but there may be little doubt what has gone wrong, and repentance which owns up to mistakes is a healthy step to take.
Reflecting on a church split in the south of England, one church member told me: “Looking back the spilt was as much about personalities as about charismatic issues. There were faults on both sides. The split decimated the church, leaving a group of older people. In five years, there was little left to salvage. Looking back we should have done things differently.”
Sometimes forgiveness needs to be sought. In one southern city, a home group split from the main church without the blessing of the parent church, only to conclude that ‘it wasn’t working’ after a few years. The parent church were amenable to the return and the fellowship has ‘returned’ home while retaining an interest in the area where they had sort to plant.
Church closures are often emotionally charged and it is a wise church that calls for outside help so that a church leadership or congregation can work through the disappointment and ask the questions, which only an outsider would have the freedom to ask. Within denominations this may happen naturally, but even there, calling on someone totally independent can assist the healing process.
This helps in the whole important matter of the language used to describe what happened. There are those who see closure as ‘the judgment of God’ regardless of other reasons, others assume that the leadership must be at fault, some blame the last salaried servant of the church. Others pick up the burden themselves and carry a self-inflicted curse that inhibits their future walk with God. “Never again”, they say, when actually God wants to heal, renew and sanctify their experience so that they can contribute to his work elsewhere. Clear fact-based assessment can ensure that a godly outlook is reached, which even if not unanimous, is at least fair and reasonable.
3. Maximise resources
Last month we noted the way in which the decision regarding what is done with church assets is one of the most crucial, and this is typically the question of what happens to church property.
The first step will be to get specialist advice regarding the terms of the Trust deed which controls what is done with assets including the building, and how the proceeds from any sale are used. Some Trusts are more restrictive than others, and may be hard to enforce, for example, ‘the proceeds must be given to a Baptist church within three miles’. According to Giles Arnold, Property Services Manager for Stewardship, whose expertise includes advising churches on these matters, “Trusts may be restrictive, but the Charity Commission may conclude that ‘the trust has failed’ and so may agree that the funds be used in a different way.”
Many churches assume that they have to sell the property to the highest bidder, unaware that there may be other options.
“We are involved with a church building in Brighton that needs considerable work to repair,” says Arnold. “We have made a planning application for a change of use, and will then sell part of the land for residential building, agreeing with the developer to put up a new church building.”
Stewardship has been involved with church fellowships to enable buildings to remain as places of worship: Giles Arnold recalls a church in Forest Gate, London, which closed “very graciously and allowed a new church to take on the building. Another in Wickford, Essex, with a congregation of just four, closed. Stewardship were able to let it to a growing church who had been paying commercial rates for another building.
In Gillingham a Brethren assembly gave up and joined with another assembly in the town. Stewardship are spending £60,000 on dry rot and other works on the building they have left and in God's timing a new growing church is now ready to take on the building.”
Another option identified by Arnold is “to work with developers to fund the planning application through an option agreement. So even if the church has no money to pay for development, it can draw up agreements with developers which are suitable to all parties.”
Rev Jez Brown, the Baptist Union regional minister for Resourcing and Mission, in south west England has given thought to the matter of utilising resources. “When a church closes many people assume that the building is ‘a problem’ rather than seeing the opportunity to unlock the resource. The Trust Corporation (such as a body like the Baptist Union) are prohibited under charity law from ‘speculating’ with the property and have to sell the property to the highest bidder, often irrespective of the wishes of the local community. So we have set up a company: Kingdom Developments Limited, which helps to utilise church property for kingdom ends. This gives trustees the option of developing church property themselves, rather than having whatever they are offered by a developer.”
Brown spoke of one chapel which closed in mid-Devon that has planning permission to develop a mezzanine floor to become a small dwelling and the church hall to be converted into a studio. “We hope our approach can be further developed, not just among Baptists but in other denominations as they become more aware of the potential of the sale or development of redundant church property.,”
Such work can ensure that the legacy of a church closure does not leave a ‘bad taste’ in the mouth when the land is finally sold, or the building redeveloped.
4. Link with other congregations
If the root problem with the Fellowship is that their operation has become very narrow, then suggesting they link with other churches will probably be ruled out. But for those churches who have a broader outlook, there is no reason why a closure may not be preceded with overtures to other fellowships. The healthy church is informed of the impending closure, the reasons, and the possible transfer of members. It can help anchor people who might otherwise drift and ensure that individuals and families can share the joys and struggles of resettling together.
Barry Axel told Christianity about a church that was forced to close near Heathrow, west of London. “We had just 12 members and after much soul searching concluded that the church was not economically viable. We realised it was not honouring to God to continue and so joined with a congregation who met just 500 yards away. They were very welcoming and I am glad to say that everyone fitted in to the new church.”
Linking up with another church is not always smooth. James Hepworth, a pastor of a church in south London, who has close friends involved in church closures says: “If a family is very drained and despondent following the decision to close, they need support that will most naturally come from the new church family. That church may well be oblivious of the very painful nature of what has just happened to the newcomers in its midst. Those who are making the move may need to ask for pastoral care.”
5. Tell the community
It is a rule of PR that if you get your message out before anyone else, you are more likely to dictate how a situation is perceived. This can be used by the unscrupulous to ‘spin’ a story away from unpalatable truth, but this approach can also be used well and is a lesson that churches could do well to learn.
The local community, if it knows the church is there at all, can be informed about the closure, including the reasons and steps that may be taken. This helps in a number of ways: it may stop any unhealthy rumours, and helps the community feel valued, especially if they feel an emotional attachment to the building from attending weddings and funerals. The media used will depend on the church setting. Many local papers are only too pleased to run copy, local radio stations might also be keen. Open days where past photos and artefacts are exhibited can enable locals to pay their personal respects and the final celebration, if well publicised, might even have evangelistic potential.
6. Look to God
The decision to close will have been soaked in prayer, but ongoing prayer for the situation is also important. There will be emotions to work through and a sense of loss to come to terms with. Those who have laboured hard and long, while feeling relief, may also feel empty. In short, the feelings of grief that accompany the loss of a loved one, will be there.
As Hepworth says: “the church needs to be able to say with a degree of collective, prayerful certainty: ‘we believe that closing is what God wants us to do’. Submission to the sovereign will of God is a soft pillow for sad times. And when the Lord restructures His organisation, He does it for greater efficiency, and does so without redundancies - just relocations!”
There are many occasions where church closure led to subsequent growth. The congregation of Bishop Edward King (an Anglican Church) in Grimsby, comprised 16 old ladies, and was served by a part-time vicar, and Captain Paul Jones, part of Church Army’s West Grimsby team. An influx of young people into the church was not seen as a blessing on account of the noise they were making, so when the vicar was on maternity leave and Captain Jones on holiday, the PCC promptly closed the church! But this worked out well. Jones explains, “Some of those young people went on to help me do up a double decker bus with multi-media equipment, which visits four estates in Grimsby and functions as a mobile church for young people. The church which closed is used as a community centre, and still holds occasional services. One of the ladies now runs a dinnertime club and sees many from the community attending. More people within the community benefit from the church than when it ‘functioned’ as a church. Instead of a half hour on a Sunday, the young people get two hours quality input on a Saturday night at the bus.”
For many the church building is a symbol of God in the heart of the community, and for them church closure is especially hard – as if God is being ushered out. But God is always on the move. The people of Israel were in tents before they were in a temple and moved when God moved. If the gathered church has concluded that it’s time to close, you can be sure that there’s a pillar of cloud and fire to guide individuals and groups to the next step. Closure can be the start of an exciting adventure.
Giles Arnold, Stewardship email: giles.Arnold@stewardship.org.uk Tel: 0208 5028589
Rev Jez Brown, Kingdom Developments Ltd (South West Baptist Association), Tel: 01392 433533
Andy Peck is the deputy editor of Christianity magazine.