Post Author: Elizabeth Lerohl Hiller
During divinity school, I encountered the late medieval ars moriendi, handbooks on dying with grace. The entire concept of dying well seemed incredibly, uncomfortably foreign to my 22 year-old spirit: dying from the bubonic plague sounded, well, awful, and it was hard for me to imagine any grace in such a death. Staring at death and acknowledging that all things shall pass away seemed ghoulish or un-holy, contrary to the Easter God of life. Then, I served for five-and-a-half years in an urban parish that faced both the physical deaths of many parishioners and neighborhood youth, and battled against the death of its beloved Christian day school. We stared at the death of a ministry while trusting in the resurrection of the dead.
My experience at this faithful and brave church convinced me of the need for resources for our institutional life on how to die with grace and faith. The Rev. Anna B. Olson’s book, Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church: Freedom beyond Survival, is one of these resources.
Olson’s book includes both practical wisdom on the death of a church’s ministries and its preparations for new life and a bold theology of trust in the resurrection. In nine concise, readable chapters, the Rev. Olson describes how she and her congregation, St. Mary’s Mariposa in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, have practiced dying with grace. Olson shares how deaths of ministries have opened the way for the resurrection and for new life.
With candor, Olson reflects on the end of an era in church economics: an era of one paid pastor, one parish per facility, professionalized clergy, and a staffed office. Rev. Olson names small, urban churches (and I would add small, rural churches) as canaries in the coal mine indicating significant changes on the horizon for churches in North America. While acknowledging that death is coming in many congregations, this book is not a doomsday prognostication. Olson does not shame the mainline church for its sins and inequities over the past sixty years. She does not regurgitate Pew studies on declining worship attendance or make conjectures about what makes millennials feel lukewarm about the whole church thing. Equally important, she does not heap blame on her local congregation for its decline. She has true respect and gratefulness for her congregation’s history and the gifts which past generations shared.
Instead of believing that the power of death ends life for congregations, Olson describes our current time as a moment when God is making all things new. In every chapter, Olson proclaims and shares stories of God bringing new life out of death. Claiming Resurrection is a deeply theological account that follows multiple themes in Scripture that lead from death to resurrection. Olson particularly identifies with the Exodus and the belief that when we are following God, we are always a people on the move, constantly following God in new ways. She does not share easy answers or even a step by step game plan for dying, but a series of best practices that have opened the way for resurrection in her church. From sharing space with other organizations that bring life to her neighborhood to installing the patron saint of neighboring Oaxacans’ in their prayer garden, we get a glimpse of the imagination and openness necessary to signal to the Holy Spirit that we are ready for resurrection.
Olson is honest about the challenge of practicing dying well. She regularly notes how little control we have in the face of institutional death, and how little control we have over the new life that God might bring. Chapters on offering the gifts that God has given our churches in the past–“Turn Out Your Pockets,” and “Expect Trespasses”–candidly relay the vulnerability inherent in dying and in rising to new life.
My hope is that Olson continues writing and sharing best practices and her experiences of the church’s death and rising to new life. In my ministry in an urban church, death lurked nearby in the forms of gun violence, late paychecks, and diminishing options, and death stunk. I often wished for a guide and additional wisdom to traverse the significant physical, practical, and spiritual dimensions that arise when we walk toward the death of ministries in a church. After reading Claiming Resurrection, I want to hear more of Olson’s experience of the struggles, both practical and spiritual, and I want to know more of how God leads her as her church dies and rises. I want to know more of what sustains her ministry. This current volume offers any pastor a schema for welcoming the Holy Spirit to bring new life. It will also be a strong and useful resource for ordained and lay church leadership to confront change and the death of ministries in a congregation.
My instinct at 22 was that death is contrary to the God of life. Yet we do not know the true life of the resurrection without death. An important gift that this book offers is an example of what it looks like to trust that God is working even in death, trust that to be Easter people, we have to experience death. The Rev. Olson’s trust that God is leading her and her congregation is a great gift to those of us who struggle with trust and hearing God’s voice. When you are facing the death of any ministry, this book will be a steady and true companion.
Elizabeth Lerohl Hiller serves as associate pastor at Dilworth Lutheran Church, Dilworth, Minnesota. She delights in confirmation ministry, preaching, and Christian formation that empowers people to share the difference that Christ makes in their lives. She is married and parents three wild children.
Image by: Lee Russell
Used with permission