Reflections while closing a church
In 1975, South Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Mich., had 1,000 members, 300 in church school, and about 400 people in two services every Sunday in a beautiful, well-maintained building.
Today, we have the same building but in very shabby shape; 180 members, more than half over age 75; 12 kids in our church school, and debts in excess of $150,000. We will be closing this summer.
Three core problems
How did we get to this place? There were three core problems: an unwillingness to engage with our neighborhood; an inability to disagree without fighting; unrealistic long-term financial planning.
*We probably took the first step to being in this place more than 25-30 years ago, when we ignored the cultural and demographic changes going on in our neighborhood. Then it was changing from being 100 percent white and middle-class to what is now a diverse middle-class mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics in a neighborhood that borders some of the poorest parts of Grand Rapids.
*We fought, between ourselves and with our pastors. With every fight, good people left our church and our will to serve diminished.
*Our financial planning was short-sighted. We never built an adequate endowment. We used scarce capital campaign funds to hire a full-time Christian education person. Disastrous problems with heating and roofing left us with a mortgage and, while the capital campaign paid the monthly payments, we faced a $125,000 balloon payment and could see no way to raise the funds.
The emergency problems and the associate’s salary used up the funds that should have been spent on renovating the building, launching local hands-on mission, and paying for advertising in the neighborhood.
Doing everything right
When I was caled here 19 months ago, the church appeared full of energy and ready to re-establish itself in its present location. The search committee believed it; the Area Minister believed it; I saw no reason to doubt it. Looking back now, we didn’t know how many people were planning to leave. We couldn’t admit the effects of our problems with fighting, with money, or with mission.
As I examined our life, I realized that we were doing everything church consultant Lyle Schaller ever suggested to welcome people on Sunday morning. We had good worship, excellent music, well-presented bulletins, friendly people at the door.
But our mission commitment was abysmal. We gave money, generously, but very few of our people were involved in hands-on outreach. We did not use our building as a mission resource for our neighborhood. I began to fear that there simply was no energy at South to build a future.
Once I understood our financial position, I supported the trustees in their decision to sell the building, probably to the independent, charismatic, conservative African-American congregation that has been renting from us for over a year. They will be doing something very different than we would have done, but their ministry is needed in our neighborhood.
This year, I tried out the idea of using the proceeds from the sale of our building to start a new church under the Association’s sponsorship. People immediately got excited; they wanted us to continue, but they knew they could not do the work. We are still developing the details, but it looks quite positive right now.
What role did I play?
Fortunately, I had time to get to know folks before this blew up. So I offer comfort to the grieving. I help envision a future—by encouraging the formation of ties with their “next” church, by forming a vision of a new church start, and by helping them understand what healthy, faithful churches and church members do. As we prepare to close, we are co-sponsoring a Habitat house here in Grand Rapids.
Finally, I keep proclaiming the Gospel. There is a word of comfort for our situation and a word of challenge for our future. I keep trying to put everything in a Gospel context and our people have been pretty explicit in saying how helpful that is.
The Rev. Virginia Child, pastor at South Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Mich., is seeking a new call.