Post Author: Chelsey D. Hillyer
Would we close? Or could we keep going?
It was the question that occupied my mind as I drove to meet with a denominational leader about my congregation. And it was the question that came at me from every side as I began my ministry as a solo pastor of an urban congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, just a month after my graduation from seminary. Though I had led a congregation to a merger as a student pastor, I still wasn’t equipped to answer this question. Nobody had mentioned the financial strain, the community members’ fatigue, and the denominational push-pull the congregation had been through for the years preceding my arrival.
It had taken months for me to land this face-to-face meeting with the one person in my denominational structure with the authority to decide my congregation’s fate.
Would we close? Or could we keep going?
I had my own thoughts: a read on the congregational energy, a sense of the neighborhood and potentials of new ministry, and of my own desire to shape church in new ways. But so did the denominational leader.
“Put on your big girl pants,” he told me. “This church has been struggling for a while. You’ll need to shut them down, and then we’ll see what can come next.”
I cried on the drive back to church. And I cried when I told my spouse about the meeting. In a few short months, I’d grown to love the people I served. And I knew that bringing the ministry of this community to a close wasn’t a matter of putting on more adult undergarments. It was a matter of leading an entire community to end. And my job—my call—was to point toward the promise of life nestled even within death.
At the time, I didn’t know anyone else who was leading a church to closure. And so I did the best I could to listen to the whisper of the Spirit in my midst.
It would be years before I met others like me—young clergywomen who felt called to conclude our churches’ ministries with dignity, honor, integrity, and faith. We guided our communities through legal and denominational processes, through grief, and through rituals of closure. We relied on the resources of Christian tradition to understand congregational endings not as failures, but as faithful endings.
A May 2021 article published by the Religion News Service reported that in the United States in 2019, over 4,500 churches (representing 34 Protestant denominations) closed. This reflects a closure rate of 1.4% for Protestant churches alone. By the end of 2020, 75 to 100 houses of worship closed per week, on average. The article noted that those numbers are projected to double or triple in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the fact that church closures continue to become increasingly common, pastors like Good Friday Collaborative founders Rev. Sara Nave Fisher, Rev. Chelsey Hillyer, Rev. Diane Kenaston, and Rev. Lorrin Radzik struggled to find resources and support for church closure. Aside from procedural and legal support, we founders had to locate or invent our own resources and networks for closure expertise, spiritual support, clear discernment processes, and practical ministry resources for congregational closure.
In recent decades, church decline has been treated as an equation to be balanced: make sure that the number of congregations being planted (or grown) outpaces the closure rate. Many leaders with decision-making power within institutional or judicatory systems have taken this overly-simplistic approach, dedicating significant resources of time, energy, and funding to resourcing church planting efforts, while offering little to no resources to those who lead congregational endings. More than once, the founders heard their ministries referred to as “failures.”
But God’s grace is not an equation to be balanced by human efforts. And endings, though painful, have always been valued in the continuing story of God’s relationship with humanity. Through our experiences, we founders discovered how congregational endings could be understood as a faithful act. Congregational death could be understood as an integral part of the lives of faith communities, not as an aberration.
As the Good Friday Collaborative officially launched on Good Friday in 2022, we have begun the work of changing the conversation around congregational endings and offering resources for good and faithful closures. Rooted in the Christian story, we believe that death is not the end. And when attended to with dignity and honor, congregational endings can bear new life to ministries and communities of the future.
Through individual and group coaching, consultation services, retreat facilitation and design, and theological reflection, the Good Friday Collaborative has become the source of support and resources that each of its founders longed for as they walked with congregations to closure. You do not have to do it alone. As gifted leaders who have cultivated our skills for institutional discernment, grief support, navigating dissolution of non-profit entities, sale of property, and developing meaningful rituals of ending, we are here to help.
As our connections to others who have led or are presently leading ministries toward an ending, we have noticed that these leaders often hold marginalized identities. Early career female leaders and LGBTQ+ leaders (out or hidden faithful) are those who most often connect with us, lamenting male or straight colleagues landing positions at congregations with greater longevity and more robust ministries.
In a recent conversation with Rev. Blair Boyd Zant, Director of Congregational Excellence for the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, she noted that in her context most clergy closing congregations are either early- or late-career pastors, many of whom end their ministry careers shortly after closing a congregation. “We are finding that these clergy feel vocationally insignificant,” Rev. Zant said. “As if closing a congregation feels like a failure.”
We are curious about whether this phenomena might be a symptom of a greater systemic issue or a product of historically heteronormative patriarchal church systems, as well as more recent agist developments emerge from youth-obsessed church planting culture. While we do not yet have answers to these questions and research on clergy resilience following congregational closure is limited, we can offer support. And more than that, we can offer resources of faith to denominations, congregations, and leaders moving through closure.
We believe that Jesus died. And that congregations do as well. What matters is that we attend to the work that God and the Spirit can do through those deaths. Only then, are we able to truly experience Resurrection.
If you’d like to learn more about the Good Friday Collaborative, its founders, or the work they are doing, visit their website at www.goodfridaycollaborative.com, or follow us on Facebook. There, you can find resources and information on how to schedule a free consultation with the founders. Or visit the founders’ personal websites:
Rev. Sara Nave Fisher: https://saranavefisher.com/
Rev. Chelsey D. Hillyer: https://www.amateurefforts.com/
Rev. Diane Kenaston: https://www.dianekenaston.com/
Rev. Lorrin Radzik: https://revlorrinradzik.weebly.com
Rev. Chelsey D. Hillyer serves as a writer, coach, spiritual director, and facilitator with the Center for Courage and Renewal. An alum of Eden Theological Seminary, they are an Ordained Elder in the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church. They live in Jefferson City, Missouri with their spouse and child. Learn more about Chelsey and their work at www.amateurefforts.com.
Image by: Rev. Sara Nave Fisher
Used with permission