When a Small Church Closes: From Death to Resurrection
by Mary Beth Coudal
Eight people gathered in the basement of the 115-year-old Myrtle Point United Methodist Church last summer. There was no electricity in the sanctuary. There was no pastor. The church bell was silent.
Twila Veysey, one of the handful assembled, asked what would happen to the cross made from the rare myrtlewood tree. Another church member worried about what would happen to the stained-glass windows. There were decisions to be made on the pew Bibles, the teddy bear quilt from the nursery, the dinnerware, the sound system, and the American flag.
"It was really sad. We made the decision to close around December and our last service was on Easter so that it could be a celebration," Veysey, a laymember, said.
What happens when a small church closes? If the church in Myrtle Point, Oregon, is any example, a lot of sadness is stirred up. There is not enough support. Yet eventually, possibly, resurrection happens.
Led by the Laypeople
An irony of a church closing is that church is the place where people go to understand and express their grief. When the church itself closes, the people are bereft. The loss of the church itself is that much more
"Pastors are itinerant. They don't realize what it means to be in one place for a century. Some pastors only last for a year or two. They don't get it. Nobody (from the annual conference) came to provide spiritual guidance. We did it ourselves. We pulled together a group of five or six," said Veysey who, at 49, was one of the youngest of the group.
How Many Close?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least one or two United Methodist churches in each of the 63 conferences close each year. The Rev. John Southwick of the Research Office at Global Ministries reported: "Of course, not all of them are closures. A few are mergers. In general, the total number of churches drops by a few hundred nationally. However, we are starting new ones at the same time to the tune of 70 to 100 a year. In general, that suggests we lose 100 to 150 in a typical year."
Veysey would like to see annual conference leaders mark church closings with more compassion and, perhaps, even ritual. Just as a divorce or a funeral marks an ending, so, too, does a church closing.
To provide closure, Ms. Veysey asked conference leaders to share the Myrtle Point United Methodist Church story at annual conference. She was given permission to speak for three minutes and told to speak from a microphone on the floor. However, she insisted on delivering her remarks from the front podium.
In front of hundreds, Veysey spoke. "As the details are worked out, we of the Myrtle Point United Methodist Church have closed its doors, but the church is not a building, and the legacy that we leave for our community is one of hope for the future." (Twila Veysey's complete statement at the 2007 Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference.)
Veysey received a standing ovation, which amazed her. "I was grateful that not one person questioned the decision to close the church. We have faced much criticism for closing from former church members, relatives of former church members, and from the community at large. It was comforting to know that the annual conference trusted my congregation to make a well-informed, thoughtful decision and to support that decision with their votes in favor of closing the church."
After the church closure was finalized at annual conference, Veysey and several other laypeople cleaned out the church buildings, giving away or selling all of the items.
In an email at that time, Veysey wrote, "We gave away every Bible. Our hymnals went south to Wilderville United Methodist Church. Our baptismal font went north to Dundee United Methodist Church. Even though the building is not clean—the weeds are overgrown and a few things are still left to dispose of—we have reached the point where we are totally detached and exhausted. After a dumpster arrives this week, we will fill it up and then walk away. Our grief is complete. It is time to heal."
What becomes of the spirit of a church when the church closes?
Just as the architecture of a church—be it a vaulted ceiling or a white spire—points to heaven, so, too, the spiritual architecture of a church can take the community of faith to a higher, better place.
Just as the soul of a person lives on after death, so too can the soul of a congregation. The Myrtle Point United Methodist Church community wanted to continue to serve God, even without a church building.
"We wanted to give back to the community. We didn't just fade away." The proceeds from the sale of the many church items provided money to begin the dream of addressing poverty in Myrtle Point. Former church members are considering several ideas, including a community garden, a free meal site, or a health care project. The physical church became a sanctuary for an Assembly of God congregation.
One community center that sprung from the ashes of a church closing is Grace Place in Golden Gate City, outside Naples, Florida. This thriving community center was once Golden Gate United Methodist Church, founded in the early 1960s.
After the Golden Gate UMC closed in 2004, a "legacy church," a mission church for the Hispanic/ Latino community, opened. Within a couple of years that new mission church membership also dwindled, yet the new community center flourished.
Members and pastors from five neighboring local United Methodist churches met and discussed the fate of the community center. "We came together to discern what God would have us do. We had a heart for caring for the community. But we had no church. That's when we founded Grace Place as a center outside the church," said Rev. Stephanie Munz Campbell, director of Grace Place for Children and Families.
Where Everyone Is Welcome
Keith and Loobert were two of the first children to come through the doors for tutoring at Grace Place in 2004. Two children are paired with one tutor.
"Keith was failing third grade. He constantly had his head down. The language and the poverty—it was too much. He was a defeated child. So was Loobert. He was in fourth grade—a struggling child. We have one adult volunteer for every two children. We motivate them. We let them know someone cares about them. Keith did fail," reported Rev. Campbell. Keith went to Grace Place's academic summer school. In the fall, he ran into Rev. Campbell's arms saying, "I'm in 4th grade. I'm not failing." Campbell reports that Keith is now in middle school, playing in the band, definite about his plans to go to college. "Keith's was a life turned around. Loobert was arrested for armed robbery at age 14. They are all precious children who deserve a second chance," Campbell said.
"We're called Grace Place because everyone is welcome. It doesn't matter what this or that faith, this or that race. Everyone has the God-given potential and worth. This center has gotten the ecumenical community involved. There are 19 church partners now," Campbell added. The church partners include Orthodox, Community, emerging, and house churches.
"We're all in this to find a way to be in ministry with our neighbor. We're not an us/them place. The moms, the kids, like Keith, have come back to volunteer," Campbell noted.
The Golden Gate/Grace Place sanctuary is still a reverent place, used during the week for Grace Place assemblies and celebrations. On Sundays, a new Haitian United Methodist Church Start, La Piscine, which means "The Well," has begun. On Saturdays, Seventh Day Adventists worship there.
"There are church members [of the original Golden Gate UMC] who, although they carry some hurts and grief, tell me, 'I'm so glad it is a place of community. It is witnessing to God. It feels good, that [Grace Place] is a place of God.'"
More than 400 people come through the doors of Grace Place every month for after-school tutoring, parenting classes, and literacy skills. Because of the economic downturn, Grace Place opened a food pantry, and every Friday, 80 to 90 families come for food.
One of the grants that helped create Grace Place four years ago was received from the Global Ministries office of Women, Children, and Families. Joanne Reich, an executive of that office and a child protection officer, calls Grace Place, "truly amazing."
Tough economic times have caused these church closures. In Golden Gate City, Florida, there has been a decline in the construction and tourism industries. In Myrtle Point, Oregon, the logging industry collapsed. Both neighborhoods struggle with issues of high unemployment, drugs, and poverty.
The two United Methodist churches in the midst of these struggling communities, Golden Gate and Myrtle Point, were not unlike the 63 percent of US churches that have fewer than 125 parishioners in worship on a Sunday morning. The church members hope and pray that these difficult closings spark new ministries and creative solutions for their communities.
Mary Beth Coudal attends a small church and is the staff writer for Global Ministries.
Date posted: Jan 05, 2009