Written by Emily Schappacher
Research shows that nine churches close every day throughout the United States. To help guide congregations thought this often difficult process, the United Church of Christ has introduced a new resource for churches facing the prospect of closure. The new Living Legacy workbook, developed by UCC Local Church Ministries, United Church Funds, and the UCC Church Building and Loan Fund, is a discernment and decision-making resource that congregations can use to conclude their ministry and seed new ones.
"There often is a certain sense of failure and defeat without realizing that church closure and death happens every day," said the Rev. David Schoen, minister for UCC Congregational Assessment and Support. "Living Legacy not only provides helpful legal, financial and building advice to local congregations, pastors and leaders, but it also helps a congregation see that the still-speaking God is present even in the death of a congregation and can bring about new life and possibilities through a church's legacy."
Living Legacy is a mixture of narratives, guidelines, inventories and resources designed for use by leaders from all church settings who work with congregations considering their "capstone" ministry. Seven chapters address issues such as clarifying the concept of a legacy, the role of a legacy pastor, the stewarding of assets, and legal issues in church dissolution and merger.
"The phenomenon of churches closing is nothing new. Changing demographics, economies and communities have meant that some churches don't evolve or survive," said the Rev. Campbell Lovett, conference minister of the Michigan Conference of the UCC. "What is new is that the United Church of Christ has created a great resource to help congregations have informed 'crossroad conversations' about what's next in their lifecycle."
The Michigan Conference has so far used parts of the Living Legacy resource for some of their congregations facing the idea of closure. While it is rare that a church in Michigan will close, Lovett says there seems to be a number of churches in "hospice care" that may only need the wisdom of a chapter or two here and there. The resource helps church and conference leadership determine how and when to ask the difficult questions on "subject matters that are easy to avoid." The conference is also training three pastors in different regions of the state to serve as guides to help congregations best utilize the resource.
"In one case, we were left with a building and everything in it – choir robes, the hymnals were right were people had left them on Sunday – then we had to go in and deal with it. That's not honoring the legacy of that church," said Lovett. "This resource helps us to ask the difficult questions when there are still enough people left in the congregation to have input.
"Before we had this resource, we used to just cobble stuff together and had to figure things out as we go," Lovett adds. "It's helpful to have all of this information in one resource, rather than trying to respond in bits and pieces on our own."
In 2013, the UCC removed 64 congregations from its denominational records, and many of these congregations closed. In the next 10 years, the UCC, like all other denominations, will see more closures – Schoen estimates more than 500. The UCC hasn't published a resource for churches making decisions about closing since the 1970s, and Schoen said Living Legacy is a response to requests from churches seeking help with this complicated process.
"Just like the human lifecycle includes birth and death, so too does the church lifecycle," said Schoen. "Helping a congregation prepare to close with grace, dignity, and a remembrance of God's spirit and goodness that was experienced and shared throughout its years is an important gift to share with grieving church members."