I am currently serving two small rural churches in New Mexico. One of them is considerably smaller than the other, and when I was appointed here I was told that it was a Hospice church, that I was to walk them through to their death. The church is in a town of 72 that is decreasing in population. In recent years there have been talks of closing the post-office and also closing the school, so the church reflects what is going on around it.
Recently two of our oldest members decided it was time for them to move to an assisted living facility in the next major town which is an hour away. With their departure, which has not happened yet, we will drop down to four people, plus myself and the pianist, that I can count on being in worship each week, which had me begin to talk with them in much more detail about the future of the church and closing the church. The Cabinet (which for those non-United Methodists consists of area superintendents and the Bishop and they are the one who make pastoral appointments) based on the information I provided to them has said that they will not appoint anyone there starting in July.
That means that this little church is having to face some very difficult decisions in the very near future. We have already met and discussed it and obviously there is much sadness around this decision although they have recognized the situation they are in and are dealing well and asking the right questions and seeking answers.
But it's got me thinking a lot of the life of churches. For some reason we have come to the conclusion that churches are immortal and that they should live forever and if they don't that we have failed in some way. I certainly don't think that's the case, but sometimes I feel like I am in the decided minority in that belief. In my last conference, the Bishop there was so averse to closing churches that he would continually say "If there is a church with just two people who are full of the love of Jesus then I won't close them." As a result we were supporting lots of churches that probably should have been closed long ago. I think a lot of the Bishop's position was driven not be true concern for making disciple by more by the fact that if the Bishop is closing churches then he looks bad, he is not "succeeding". My response every time he said this was that, except for some extraordinary circumstances, if there were two people full of the love of Jesus then there wouldn't only be two people, but that's another issue.
But that leads me back to the question of whether closing is a failure of the church or instead we can see it as a success? I know that dealing with a rural church is different than one in a populated area, but why can't we celebrate the life that the church had, what it did and what it meant to people just as we would do in a funeral service? When someone dies at the age of 95 we don't say, "their life was a failure because they didn't keep living on," so why do we do that with churches?
My asking this question is not really dispassionate because what really has me thinking about this is that this is my first appointment in this conference, and although it was known this little church would close at some point I don't think anyone expected it this soon. Some of that has been because I pushed the issue. I could have kicked the can down the road for someone else to deal with, but that wouldn't have done anyone any favors, so now I will go down on record as the last pastor to serve this church. Will this later count against me, and will I be discussed for future appointments as the person who closed the church there, and therefore miss out on bigger churches?
No matter what happens, personally I view this as a success in my ministry. I am helping this congregation, this family, to deal with the death of an important part of their life, and am walking them through this process the same as I would do in other death situations, and more importantly I am helping them to remember that we are an Easter people that this is not the end, but how will this be viewed by those at the top? Will I be seen as a success because I accomplished this task and helped this little congregation or will I be viewed as a failure as well because I closed the church and therefore didn't "save" them?