The Legacy Conversation: Helping a Congregation Die with Dignity

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

The numbers are simply against a good portion of our small North American congregations. North American Protestantism has always been a small-church experience. While most of the members in our mainline denominations are now in large congregations, with average worship attendance of 400 or more, most congregations are small, with average attendance of 100 people or less. In 2008, it was noted that in the United Methodist Church over 10,000 of the approximately 35,000 churches have average worship attendance of fewer than 35 people. That’s about 1 in 3. In one annual conference, 52 percent of the churches had an average worship attendance of fewer than 30 people. Eighty-one percent had 100 or fewer people in worship. Of course, the numbers change from conference to conference, from region to region, and from denomination to denomination; but while the numbers change, the pattern doesn’t.

Our small congregations are vulnerable. In a 2006 study on the sustainability of congregations, a review of the twenty-year period from 1984 to 2003 identified 2,384 United Methodist churches that had closed. This represented 7 percent of all congregations. Of the churches that closed, 81 percent had average worship attendance of 50 or fewer people. A full 96 percent of all churches closing had 100 or fewer people.

What to Do?

Perhaps the most natural instinct in this situation for conferences and congregations alike is to hold on tighter, become tenacious, and do everything possible to address survival. Denominations are reluctant to keep losing congregations and face further declining numbers. Members fear facing a significant loss if their congregation disappears. Our culture itself resists and avoids the reality of death of any kind. This natural instinct often leads to a stultifying seriousness and a search for control that hopes to steer a church away from its pending fate.

The real dilemma, however, is that the natural instinct of seriousness and control leaves no room for God. I often joke that a good number of congregations are dying of “terminal seriousness.” The leaders are holding on so tight, trying to control things, that they are strangling their church. They leave no room, no gaps, no airholes where the Spirit of God might move and surprise them.

What if we could change the conversation in congregations facing their end? A woman once put me on the spot in a large congregational meeting, asking if I thought her congregation was going to die. She was part of a team from her church working on planning. There were six other congregational teams present, which meant that there were about sixty people in the room. She said, “Gil, from all that you are saying, it sounds like you think our congregation is going to die. Do you?” I felt very uncomfortable, swallowed, and after a pause responded, “Well, I've seen the reports your team has been working on and, yes, I do think your church will die.” She looked at me for a moment and then said, “Thank God someone said it. Now maybe we can talk about what we really need to be talking about.” Can we move conversations from our fear for survival to conversations about our legacy for the future?

A legacy is a thing handed down by a predecessor. The word comes from the medieval Latin word legatus, meaning a “person designated.” What if our congregations learned how to designate who would carry their purpose—not their building, style of worship, or programs—into the future?

Holding the Church in Trust

We are “strangers and sojourners with God.” The book of Leviticus reports a conversation that God had with Moses on Mt Sinai. God was discussing the land that he had given to Israel and was giving instructions for managing that land that included the requirement of a “sabbatical.” The Israelites were to sow and reap from the land for six years, but in the seventh year “there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest.” The land was to be rested in that year. The year after seven cycles of the seventh year sabbatical (the fiftieth year) was to be a “Year of Jubilee.” All of the leases on the land expired and every one was to return to their ancestral estate. In our idiom it was a “start over.” God intended the land to be held in trust for God, who still owned it. It was not private property to be bought or sold by individuals. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are with me but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23).

Can we change our conversations so that we can see ourselves as strangers and sojourners instead of owners? As holding the church in trust for God? Can we change conversations so that our fear of losing what is past is replaced with the hope that always accompanies a legacy into the future? The hard part of a legacy is that the gift goes into the future without the giver.

Consider the story from a number of years ago of a small urban congregation where the average age of members was in the mid-seventies. The membership was shrinking as people died and moved away from the neighborhood that was filling up with new residents very different from the people in the church. At the point of receiving a new pastor, the members struck a legacy deal. The only responsibility that their new pastor was to have was to lead a worship service on Sunday morning and visit members when ill, hospitalized, or in a crisis. The pastor was not to attend any meetings and not to develop any new programs.

Instead, the pastor was to begin a new church among the different people who now surrounded the dwindling church. The new people were given access to the building for what they needed for worship, meeting, and program space. At no time were new people invited or expected to join committees or financially support the old church. The legacy members committed themselves to managing their own church, running meetings, continuing upkeep on their building, continuing their financial support, and taking on a ministry of prayer in support of their pastor and the new church they hoped to birth in their midst.

In his poem “A Vision,” Wendell Berry writes: “If we will have the wisdom to survive, / to stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place, / renewing, enriching it. . . . then a long time after we are dead / the lives our lives prepare will live here. . . .”

“The lives our lives prepare. . .” It was never really about us anyway.

Can we risk changing survival conversations into legacy conversations by using better questions? The who questions: Who will lease our lands next? Who will live our purpose next? The how questions: How will we give up control over what has been so important to us? How can we give what is so important to us to a new people without making them do things old ways?

Legacy congregations do the hard work of leaving the purpose of the church as a gift to a new people who, appropriately, have neither the spirit nor the capacity to do church in the old way.

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