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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hospicing Churches: A Rant


Over the last few years I've heard a lot about dying churches. I've been pastoring a very small church with an aging congregation, so my vocational life has revolved around the question, "Can these bones live?"

At every gathering of pastors and church folk I've been to, there has been a discussion of whether small churches are dying. More than that, there has been an insistence that small churches should die--that at a certain point small churches suck the life out of the broader church, using up resources that could be "better" used to start new church developments and outreach programs. This conversation appears on twitter with startling regularity.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to the idea of "hospice." As in, "We need to train pastors to be hospice chaplains to help these churches die." There are even folks thinking the entire PC (USA) denomination is on its last legs, and that it needs to die to make room for something new.

I have a few problems with this manner of speaking (along with the habit of suggesting that "old" pastors need to retire to make room for the ones coming up behind them).

1. Corporations are not people. The hospice analogy can only stretch so far. But ok. Let's run with it. Corporations are made up of people, and there are often signs of distress that suggest a corporation will go bankrupt or be forced to sell itself off. The people in the corporation need help recognizing those symptoms so they can try to fix the situation. When it is no longer fixable, the people in the corporation may need help realizing this, and that is where a "hospice" trained pastor might come in handy.

2. In medical situations, however, it is not the hospice chaplain diagnosing terminal illness. Relatives don't offer diagnoses either, although plenty of opinions in a family. It is the doctor who certifies a patient for hospice, and the patient who chooses to accept hospice care in lieu of other interventions. Everyone else? Loving support. 

3. The folks calling for smaller, aging congregations to die in order to make their resources available for new ministries, etc. are NOT hospice chaplains. They are more like cousin Joe who suspects he is in the will and suggests that you pull the plug to get the ordeal over sooner. Y'all are giving hospice a bad name, and it's not helping those of us who are trying to help churches evaluate their situations.

4. If you haven't worked in one of these small churches, I believe you are severely underestimating the stubbornness of a tiny, aging congregation. They may just live to spite you, especially if they know you are impatiently waiting for them to die off.

5. People put their time, talent, and service into building up these churches. Some of my folks literally stacked the bricks of our building. If you think for a second it is helpful to hear, "Curse God and die already," then I think you should return for another round of CPE. 

</end rant>


  1. Katie, Don't end your rant, please! I too serve a small church and an even smaller chapel. When I was ordained, our exec, thinking to compliment the many new pastors that day (all of whom were going to serve small churches), said that he was wrong, quality pastors actually will serve the small church - to this day, I doubt he understands the hurt those remarks caused the members of those small churches in proud attendance. There is vibrancy in small towns and small churches as well as in large cities and mega churches. There is God work and God wonder there too. Thanks for the reminder that the dying analogy sounds a bit like the anxious relative a little too eager to 'pull the plug'. I couldn't quite put words to it before. Peace, joy and all good things in your ministry from another small church minister (teaching elder?) fan, Beth

  2. Well how about I end the rant for the day? It's been a long Sunday, I gotta say :-)

  3. Katie, I feel your sentiment. Rant away! We are working hard in San Francisco and it isn't about killing churches as much as collectively working together to live out God's call. We are working intentionally to gather to 1) get to know each other; 2) educate ourselves about urban ministry and speak the same vocabulary; 3) partner and celebrate each other's ministries; and 4) address the challenges each church struggles with. This of course takes time and energy.

    I'm always surprised how people easily say, kill the dying churches to begin new ones as if it is that easy. new church developments need just as much if not more resources . . . resources that weren't available for current struggling congregations.

    okay, i should stop before i go on ranting.

  4. As an interim pastor, I totally agree that it should be a church's decision about whether to close. But a pastor is not a chaplain alone - it is incumbent on us to also help a congregation see the different choices in front of them so realities can be seen in order to make a fully informed choice. I've seen small congregations that I've served decide to go with part-time clergy and do ok.

    The whole thing about starting new churches - well, if I thought the Presbyterian Church had a clue about how to do this well, I might be more positive - but I do think nesting different congregations at one site can be a very good decision.

  5. We have an older base of my congregation that planted the church 50 years ago, and this morning these sweet old ladies (at least 3 are british) who have a knitting ministry had their annual sale today. It was AWESOME and they raised tons of money for outreach. Still goin strong. We have so much to learn from this older crew.

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  7. As a young person (22), I have to say that I LOVE tiny churches. I'm not particularly religious now, but for many years my family attended a small Episcopalian church in our little town. On holidays, we'd go to much larger churches with my grandparents, but those always felt (to me) as if they were far less personal, and that worship was intended to be grand and not as much for the common folk. The congregations didn't know each other as well, and if your normal pew was full you were frowned at if you squished in with people you didn't know.

    Mind, there are some beautiful big churches out there, and I'm sure that many of them do manage to do what lots of colleges claim with the small liberal arts feeling within a big research university. Outreach programs, youth ministry, etc. help with that.

    But I'll never lose my love for tiny churches and the love that they have for each other and their communities. I don't know anything about the politics of religion, or funding, etc., but I think it's a right shame that people want to see an end to any of them.

  8. It is because corporations are not people that telling ineffective churches to close because their existence is poor stewardship becomes the right thing to do.

    I agree that the hospice analogy is a poor one. Congregations don't die. They close.

    Then the people reconfigure themselves by going to other congregations (or not) ... just as my congregation reconfigures itself every week because new people come and others may leave. My congregation is new every week, even if the charter is 151 years old.

    The closing of a congregation is a realignment, not a death. I'm really fond of my local Starbucks, but if it closed I would quickly find a new place to buy coffee. And I wouldn't say it died.

    Am I trying to push your buttons? Absolutely. Because being the church is being about glorifying God, proclaiming Jesus, and bringing Good News to others, not what we like, want, or feel comfortable with.

    BTW, I also don't believe in "helping congregations die." I believe in helping congregations thrive. And when it becomes clear that it cannot thrive, close it. Helping a congregation die serves no useful purpose. It merely prolongs the inevitable.

  9. Richard, you haven't pushed my buttons. Agreed on all points.

  10. Katie, thank you for this salient post. In addition to serving a small, vibrant congregation here in Iowa, I teach a course on small-church vitality for the Center for Progressive Renewal (among other places). May I use this in my course? Naturally, I would link to your website and give you attribution.

  11. Please feel free to share any of my blog posts. This space is open to the world.

  12. at a certain point small churches suck the life out of the broader church, using up resources that could be "better" used to start new church developments and outreach programs.

    And therefore whether they should close is a question for the denomination, not just for their members. I have no disagreements with Richard. However, small congregations can carry out the mission of the church just as well as midsize and large ones. They can thrive, and they are often the only outpost of the church in a rural area or small town. At least, that is the case with my tradition (Unitarian Universalist), and I assume it's the case with yours.

    And UU is congregational, so no one outside the church can compel it to close, but even so we can make the decision to put all our resources into larger churches, effectively starving the small ones. This is what I fear will happen if we assume that "small" means "unhealthy" or "unwilling to reach out to new people."


  13. What is most helpful to me from Richard's remarks is the reframing of the question from "Can these bones live?" to "How can I help this congregation thrive?"

    I will take that into my next call, and thank you for it.

  14. Every 'great' church started out as a small church. A gathering of people in the parlor, the barn, even the saloon. Churches can not forget their roots or they will be destined to die. Each small church is a great church. Each waiting for the people to come to it. Each reaching out to their respective communities. For hat is a church but a community. - Whenever two or more are gathered together in my name, I am there.

    And as an aside, while agnostic I do see the usefulness and even need for churches. Just don't look for me in the pews. My god spends more time in the trees, in the river, and inside the common man on the street.

  15. I think it has less to do with size, although it's easier to see ailments (I initially used "diseased," which is too strong in general but appropriate in some cases) when the congregation is smaller.

    That it was clear I would never be accepted in the church communities in my part of Pennsylvania, an area with a heavily graying population, until I was at least middle-age definitely had an impact on me. This was not exclusive to smaller churches there, although larger ones often had enough younger people for sub-communities to form (still not healthy or thriving, IMHO.)

    FWIW, this was the root cause of why my relationship with religion, which is to say, I no longer have any place in my life for any form of religion or spirituality, has taken the path it has.

  16. My first church position at the age of 19 was as choir director of a church clearly in decline but still very much alive. When I left 10 years later, I thought that UMC congregation wouldn't be around much longer, but it was a remarkable place that taught me many valuable things about ministry.

    I'm 51 years old now, and that little church is still kicking, having reconfigured itself many times. Their average Sunday morning attendance is smaller than my entire adult choir there in 1979.

    I have no grand conclusions to draw from this particular experience, but I do know that each church/congregation is unique and that size and health do not always correspond. It is not an easy thing to assess the value of ANY single church to the Body of Christ.

    In my observation, hospice care isn't always well understood, especially by those who have limited experience with it, so hospice doesn't strike me as a very good analogy for much of anything, if for no other reason than the potential for misunderstanding.

    I too have observed, however, among some (usually younger) church pastors, a palpable impatience with older, declining congregations. Conversely, there may be particular resistance to change in older congregations/pastors. Such sweeping generalizations are always a bit dangerous, of course, and certainly there will be exceptions, but sadly it's true that a, "Hurry up and die" sentiment is not that hard to find among outsiders to a struggling congregation, which may still be glorifying God while meeting important needs for its members.

    I'm not sure what to do with any of that, but I do believe compassion and empathy should play a role in deciding the fate of congregations. How does one determine precisely when a church has become "ineffective" or that its very "existence is poor stewardship"? I don't know the answer to that, but surely respect for the complexity of even the smallest of churches--some of which have been many sizes over the years--is important.

    There is a reason people tend to refer to "dying" churches and not just "closing" churches. Most church members have a far more intimate relationship with their church than with their local Starbucks. When a local Presbyterian church closed its doors about 3 year ago, some of its former members joined the church I was serving at the time. Furnishings, paraments, instruments, etc. were divided between our church and another local PCUSA congregation. There is a very real and deep grieving process which takes place in that circumstance. I know from talking to many people who have been through it that finding (or starting) a new church after closing one is very different than, say, looking for a new church due to a move. Technically, the church may only be closing, but in some ways it is effectively dying, and there will be end-of-life decisions to make.

    So I guess it's not surprising that the idea of having people who specialize in helping a church through that emotionally difficult process/transition would come up. Certainly such a role is incompatible with cousin Joe waiting eagerly on the sidelines for the will to be read so he can get his cut.

    I love the concept of helping churches of any size to thrive, and it makes sense to me that a church not close unless and until it becomes clear that it cannot (or will not) thrive. But I have a sense that clarity about that crucial issue sounds easier to determine than it often is--especially since the Holy Spirit has been known to move in rather mysterious ways.

    Off hand, I can think of two churches which seemed headed for closure only a few years ago that now, with some new and well-chosen leadership, have made impressive turn-arounds and are both thriving. How sad it would have been if they had instead been assigned to "hospice care" prematurely.

  17. All I can think to say is 'bravo', and yet it doesn't fit! I work in social services with a guy who also pastors a small aging church, and i listen as he is told this same thing regularly. Or I listen as he shares his frustration when his younger board members leave almost like they are angry because he refuses to just quit, and so they up and move onto the bigger satelite church... still angry. Weird how they are angry that he won't quit.

  18. Great conversation and you've challenged my use of the word hospice. I think you're right in that I've used it more as a way of saying - "hey all young and energetic pastors who think you can step in with programs and ideas and ignore the people in the pew (and the fact that they laid the bricks of this church), might I remind us of the need for pastoral care. So instead of using the word hospice, I might want to start saying - we need to train pastors better in pastoral care. Does that make sense then?

    If pastors knew that they're primary responsibility is to love the people in front of them (inside and outside their church), wouldn't we be better equipped to discern, encourage and lead our congregations to the next season of life?

  19. I really like Richard's "Starbucks" analogy. When a new Starbucks location goes up, do people really think they have created a totally NEW base of coffee drinkers? More likely, the customers they draw have been sipping the beverage for years and have simply come from another coffee shop. Likewise, do NCD really believe they've created a new base of Christians? More likely, their new "customers" have been "sipping the Christian beverage" for years and simply come from another "shop".

    There is a certain arrogance in NCD or new church plants thinking that THEIR "coffee" is SO much better than what is currently being served in the community. Just because the community is not drinking your "brand" (denomination/style) does not mean they are somehow lacking. Just because an older church serves "stale Bunn-o-matic coffee", it doesn't mean the community is any less served.

  20. Katie I would also be interested in hearing what you think of various denominational leaders who also tell graduating seminarians that they should just expect to be bi-vocational pastors. Perhaps it could be another rant - I know it would be for me. Just curious...

    Oh and there's also something to be said about the percent of women in ministry who end up serving these small "dying" congregations because some larger congregations are not "ready" (or so they say) to have a woman serve as their pastor. Again - perhaps another rant :-)

    Thanks for the great conversation! :-) Keep it going!

  21. I really enjoyed this rant. I have been part of some very vibrant and lively small churches. There is a need to train some leadership to be the doctors, though, within my denomination (ABC-USA). I have had the opportunity to know some talented pastors, as well as some not so talented ones, who are in small churches that cannot afford medical insurance or even a livable wage for their pastor. In my mind, that is when denominational leadership should step in and realize that the church cannot afford a full time pastor, needs to develop a lay pastoring program, or needs to bring in a hospice chaplain.

  22. I pastor a small church AND work in Hospice ... you are correct on all counts!


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