More Than Brick And Mortar And Country Club Houses

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Recently, I was informed by the current Interim Conference Minister of the South Central Conference, The United Church Of Christ, Rev. Dr. Don Longbottom that ten years from now (2026) that within the South Central Conference, we may lose half of our churches to closure — a reduction from 78 to 39 congregations.

I must admit, that I wasn’t surprised with this finding. Unfortunately, a lot of churches are struggling to survive, keep the doors open, pay the bills. There are the realities of dwindling membership and church attendance of people, especially with young people. Increasingly, church executive leaders are faced with the challenges of selling church properties and investing the monies in new church start initiatives. Like retail chain stores, there is a move to get out of the brick and mortar sanctuary and move worship into other locales, like a clubhouse where the atmosphere can be less formal and where there can possibly be a greater outreach to people.

What is challenging here is that I will hear people tell me “I don’t want to attend a church service at a school gymnasium. I don’t know if this congregation is going to make it. If I invest my money in something, I want it to last, I want the investment to be successful.”

Current statistics even bring the focus clearer regarding the future of pastoral leadership. Rev. Beth Lyon, Pastor of the Glenside United Church Of Christ, Glenside, Pa has written:

Referencing a 2016 Statistical Profile regarding The United Church Of Christ

According to the profile, of those currently serving churches, regarding clergy age, 47.2% are over 60. Nearly another 33% are between the ages of 50 and 59. The number of ordinations taking place each year has also decreased from an average of 180 in 2006–2010 to an average of 160 from 2011–2015. In just six years, only 1539 of our current clergy may be serving churches. We may add as many as 960 more through ordination, giving us just under 2500 clergy.

Between 2004 and 2014, congregations with 100 members or less, grew from 35% of all congregations to 43% of all congregations. It seems likely that the percentage of small churches will continue to increase over the next six years. If 53% of our churches remain full time and even a small number are multi-staff, there will be just about the right number of clergy for our full time openings. The question is, where will the other 47% of our congregations, those who cannot pay for a full time pastor, find leadership? That’s where the shortage will be, at least in the foreseeable future. In fact, in my Conference, that shortage is already here. Half our openings right now are for part time pastors, and those positions are hard to fill.

How will small congregations, 100 members or less, which make up at least 43 % of the United Church Of Christ continue to survive ? Do you encourage mergers with other churches, possible partnerships with other organizations, having two or more congregations use the same building for worship services and other programs ? All of these options could be possible viable possibilities.

There has also, traditionally, been the practice of “yoked” parishes, two or three congregations sharing one minister and retaining autonomy for their ministries and church buildings. Thirty-Seven years ago, I started my ministry pastoring a two-point charge at St. James United Church Of Christ Morrison, Mo and Zion-St. Peter United Church Of Christ Pershing, Mo. The model worked well. It was a lot of work for the pastor, at least two services every Sunday and all of the meetings and programs were doubled on the respective church calendars. Traditionally, this model are been more operative in rural areas, but it might be worthy to consider this model for small congregations serving an urban area.

Another potential model of shared ministry can be seen at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Or. This congregation has around thirty members with an average attendance of 15. They have partnered with a new Korean-American Presbyterian Church which worships in their building. They also offer a parish-community medical program which includes screening for diabetes, foot care, etc. They also utilize their space for Weight Watchers and other community organizations.

For congregations to survive and thrive in the future, it’s going to take a lot of strategic planning and creative thinking in order to best optimize outreach, evangelism and social service to the community. When you close a church, it’s far more than selling brick and mortar, it’s literally the deconstruction of church member’s lives. People who have spent thirty, forty, fifty years or more belonging to a church and then experience its closure are going to feel an immense loss and void. It’s not uncommon to witness divorces, hospitalizations, serious depression and even suicide attempts for members who are affected when their church anchor is uprooted. Church leaders need to be more sensitive to these conditions and develop a proactive plan to help members adjust and sponsor them to transition to new congregations with the least amount of distress and turbulence.

Church members need it, and their clergy also need vital support during this transitional period.

May it be so.

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