Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sliced Bread and Old Yeller at Unco

Last week I drove across the border, through the Adirondack Mountains and down the Hudson River Valley to Stony Point NY and Unco13. This is my third year attending the Unconference, which has now spawned eastern and western versions so this was Unco13 East. It is an Open Space concept, as was used at The United Church of Canada's 41st General Council in a setting with many more participants, with the conference's agenda crowdsourced from the participants. While many of those attending are clergy and lay leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there were folks from other American denominations, and me and a friend who is a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada making it international. Here is one attendee's perspective on this year's Unco East.

With the closing service for, and move out of, the Newington United Church building just finished, closing a church was on my mind. I wrote "closing a church building" on the brainstorming whiteboard, and others began writing other topics and ideas around my words - my favourite was "when does a church become Old Yeller?" As a child I was an avid watcher of Wonderful World of Disney on TV, but I don't think I have ever seen Old Yeller. However, I suspect that the dog has to be put out of his misery at some point.

I ended up as the discussion leader on closing a church, with our conversation being livestreamed so folks outside Stony Point could see and listen. We talked over a range of issues, and soon turned from the process of managing the closure itself to assessing when to close. One participant likened a dying congregation to a patient with a Do Not Recussitate (DNR) order, which made me think of a recent case at a local hospital in which a family fought over declaring such a status - just as some congregants will clearly perceive that their church needs to be a DNR and others will fiercely resist. Another spoke of setting financial markers in advance and not discussing dying until that point is reached. This is an attempt to free a congregation from the inability to decide that usually accompanies fear of death.

This conversation was, I think, helpful to all who participated, and we agreed to set up some kind of blog to which we could contribute stories of churches that have closed and then been resurrected in some other form - the building may have been taken over by another congregation or ministry or otherwise repurposed.

I am grateful that Carol Howard Merritt writes about our discussion in her Tribal Church blog for Christian Century. She makes a great point about reluctance by pastors to preside over a church closing:

Closing a church is like eating the last slice of bread—somehow if you eat the last slice, you’re responsible for consuming it all (never mind that someone else ate the last 27 slices). A church can be declining for forty years, but if a pastor comes in and starts to talk about closing a congregation, then she closed the church. Many people don’t want to be that pastor.

I have learned a lot from that conversation and many others at Unco, and from the entire Newington closing experience. I am certain that this learning will be called upon again: given that even in the "golden age" of church growth in the 1950s and 60s there were at least seven church closures in this township alone, this is unlikely to be the last time that as a pastor I am called upon to eat the last slice.