The Closing of a Congregation: Thoughts and Reflections
Two Case Studies by: Neil R. Lindorff, Pastor
As a parish pastor I have been taught that evangelism is very important. I have been fed the idea that there is a burning need to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the sharing of that Gospel, I just assumed that one result will be an increase in the membership of the Body of Christ. I have been fed the idea that bigger is better in terms of membership and participation in our congregations. I have also grown up on the idea that an increase in membership is a sign of a successful ministry. All that and much more bring a conflicting maze of emotions when I have had to deal with the closing of two congregations. First we closed one in my parish, then one in the neighboring parish.
Case Study 1: Antelope Valley Lutheran Church
In October of 1991 1 started my call as pastor of the Grace and Sheyenne Lutheran Parishes, Sheyenne, North Dakota.
We had 5 churches; two in town and 3 in the country. One of my churches, Antelope Valley, had discussed closing before I came, but voted to stay open, even though they only had 24 members.
We talked openly of the fact that some day we would have to close Antelope Valley. We also worshipped, ministered to each other, and met our budget and benevolences. The people talked among themselves, and with me, wondering what was best for their future. By the fall of 1993 the leaders of the congregation felt that at the annual meeting, 11/20/93, we needed to take a vote on a motion to dissolve the congregation. Knowing that this was coming up for a vote, I was in contact with our Synod office (Eastern, North Dakota Synod) and we had studied the documents "Steps in the Dissolution of a Congregation" and "Policy on Disposition of Disbanded Congregation Records" which we received from the Synod office. The resolution to dissolve passed 13-1. We talked that we had not closed the congregation on that date, but had begun the process of dissolving.
We set a date of May 29 for a closing service, 2pm, to avoid conflicts with area worship services. This was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, intentionally picked so some family may already be home. The people asked for a "regular" Sunday worship service with Holy Communion with the Communion being distributed "the way we always do it." The women wanted to have no kitchen responsibilities in order to be part of the worship. We wanted a time of coffee and fellowship after the closing worship. The compromise on lunch became a Farmers Union Insurance serving coffee, cookies and doughnuts after the service. The congregation also voted to have no worship services from January 2, 1994 to the Sunday of the closing. I questioned this decision, but their idea was to get the members to start thinking about and looking for a congregation to join once Antelope Valley closed.
A committee was set up to work out all legal details and take care of anything between the January 2 service and the May 29 closing. During those 5 months I contacted every member of the congregation to talk, especially about where they would go to worship after the closing of Antelope Valley. As active Christians, we assumed that they would want to worship someplace. Some transferred to other congregations in the parish. Some transferred to other area congregations. To those transferring to other congregations I made a second visit with their new pastor.
A story about the closing and the congregation was run in the local paper with people being invited to attend. Members contacted friends and relatives not living in the area. It was hard to talk about the closing, but we talked about it.
The day of the closing several joined another congregation in the morning as Antelope Valley was closed in the afternoon. Several had joined other congregations before that time, and many since (as of this writing, only 3 have not joined other congregations). At the closing service we based our worship on Setting One in the LBW with the closing' based on '"Closing of a Congregation" in the Occasional Services book. We publicly gave the congregational records to the president of the parish as now the parish would be responsible for them. We announced that the mission goes on and named congregations that members had joined. We spoke of mission and ministry in these members, in lives of former pastors and interns, and in all that had been touched by the congregation in its 95 years of history.
Three former pastors were present, read lessons, shared prayers and memories. A son of the congregation who is an ELCA pastor, preached. I shared some thoughts. An Assistant to the Bishop assisted with Holy Communion and presided over the closing. We worshipped, communed, and closed the congregation. Then we shared in fellowship and coffee for a couple hours.
SOME OBSERVATIONS: The "steps in Dissolution of a Congregation" gives a lot of details to remember. It is a good guide for details. It does not give the personal touch that is needed. The personal touch we had to figure out for ourselves.
A big key for us was the openness of the people to talk about the closing. The visits to each member proved to be very valuable both for looking to the future and as a means of closure. The idea of not having worship for a couple of months before an actual closing service worked well and it did force some to look ahead to what church should they be joining in the future.
Another important factor for us was the fact that the people knew me, a trust level was already there. It was their decision to close, at their time. We tried to do it in such a manner that was as close as possible to meeting everyone's needs and wishes. It was a hard decision to decide to close a congregation, and to actually do it. We were able to work through this together, to grieve together, and to celebrate together.
Case Study 2: Our Savior's Lutheran Church
During the summer of 1994 1 was asked by the people of Our Savior's Lutheran Church, Harlow, North Dakota, to work with them and advise them on the closing of their congregation. At that time Our Savior's had just voted to close. They were without a pastor. I am the pastor of the neighboring parish (and they referred to me as an "experienced expert," having just worked through the closing of one of my congregations).
I met with the people of Our Savior's several times. Many of the legal details were a hassle for them due to their age and health. We got through the details with help from our Synod office (Eastern North Dakota) and using the "Steps in the Dissolution of a Congregation" as a guide.
For an actual closing they chose an afternoon service. They wanted little publicity, just to close quietly. At first fellowship and coffee after the closing service seemed impossible for these women, but the other churches in their parish gladly volunteered to serve. The closing was attended by members, former members, area people, and area clergy. It was led by the parish intern, the former bishop, and myself. We had a Service of Holy Communion using Setting One from the LBW and the "Closing of a Congregation" from the Occasional Services book. I presided in the service; the former bishop presided over the closing,
Much of the service was like the closing of Antelope Valley, but there was no time of sharing in the service or former pastors. There had been a lot less publicity.
This congregation never changed their worship schedule, they kept the regular worship schedule until the 10/2/94 closing date. These people always changed the subject when I brought up church membership and participation after the closing of Our Savior's. They had individually been visited by the intern encouraging them to attend worship elsewhere after the closing. They would talk about the closing, but never beyond the actual closing date, unless dealing with a property concern. As of this writing there are still no members who have transferred to other churches. They shared little of the emotions they were feeling.
SOME OBSERVATIONS. Closing a congregation is hard. It is even harder for a pastor when the members join no other churches. I had no track record with these people. I think that is part of why my encouraging them to look for other churches went unheeded. When there is no past, no built up trust, the advice of the clergy helping with the closing has little impact, and is taken to be not as important. When the people are unwilling, or unable, to deal with the grief of the closing of their congregation, I wonder if or when acceptance sets in. Maybe a period of denial continues until one can accept the reality of the situation.
VANG LUTHERAN CHURCH - FAIRDALE, NORTH DAKOTA
CLOSING SERVICE - MAY 28, 1995
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