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What happens when a congregation dies?

4.2. 2018 Written By: Jeremy Yoder 2,499 Times read

What happens when a congregation dies? In many ways, the experience of closing a congregation is similar to hospice for a loved one during their final season of life. For many of us, a local congregation plays the central role of how we experience faith. A congregation is not just a building Christians visit each Sunday. What happens during worship or in fellowship with other believers profoundly impacts how we experience God. Churches embody the good news of Jesus Christ. Church is the space where we laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. For many of us, our experience and understanding of God is inseparable from our experiences in a congregation. When a congregation dies, it triggers for many individuals a profound sense of grief and loss.

Last fall, I led Rocky Ford (Colorado) Mennonite Church through a death process as I helped them close their congregation after almost 57 years of continuous ministry in southeastern Colorado. RFMC began on Jan. 1, 1961, as a church home for Mennonites who served at the Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Rocky Ford. This congregation’s formation was part of the Mennonite health-care ministry in Colorado as the Mennonite Board of Missions formed or administered hospitals in La Junta, Walsenburg, Glenwood Springs and Aspen, Colorado.

Like many of the congregations in these communities, RFMC relied on a pipeline of Mennonites who came from “back East” to as part of the Voluntary Service or 1-W military alternative service programs. These congregations provided a spiritual home away from home as many of these volunteers met their future spouses while on assignment. Some of the couples settled down in the area and started families.

By 1964, RFMC had 45 children in its Sunday school. Yet over the next several decades, the congregation declined as the medical ministry ended and the demographics changed in Rocky Ford and the Arkansas Valley. By 1985, pastor Jack Scandrett noted that the number of Sunday school attendees had dwindled down to 25. Due to economic decline and rural depopulation, most of those who grew up in Mennonite churches in southeastern Colorado built their lives elsewhere. While RFMC did reach out to racial-ethnic Mennonites, the congregation failed to adapt as the local population changed. While the congregation frequently asked about relevancy and how to serve the community, it also failed to understand the needs of the new demographics around them.

Many congregations, in my experience, struggle with the reality that what many of those already in the congregation need and expect from a church community is not the same as what the unchurched around them need. In my experience, people seek a familiar worship on Sunday morning that provides sanctuary from the challenges and difficulties of their regular lives; they find security in a common faith culture that affirms what they already believe; they sit in the same pews, sing the same hymns and make small talk over coffee with the same people each week. While a congregation may controversially tinker with the formula by installing a screen, turning down the lights and adding a rock band, the expectations of what church is like essentially stays the same.

The Apostle Paul refers to the community of believers as a body. His lengthiest exploration of this metaphor occurs in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, where he compares the body of Christ to a human body:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The church has understood Paul’s metaphor as a description of unity in the body of Christ. Yet while Paul’s metaphor vividly describes what church unity may look like, he also hints at a dynamic in the crisis of dying congregations. Institutions and organizations do not just function as bureaucracies that survive by the steady stream of paperwork its committees manufacture, they also bear similarities to biological organisms. As the Alban Institute notes, churches have life cycles and progress through life stages. New Zealand economist and activist Gareth Morgan argues that organizations are living systems that must adapt to their environments or die. The body of Christ does not just sit at rest with all its members; it actively feeds and exercises itself to remain strong.

In many respects, a church closure represents the failure of the organization to adapt to its changing contexts. It also represents the death of a community whose participants and members poured into it their time and energy. At the time of RFMC’s closure, a group of about 20 committed members still met each Sunday morning in the building’s fellowship hall. Even as the congregation aged (the average age was 83) and attendance dwindled, RFMC still formed the foundation of their spiritual lives and identity. The experience of closing the building and disbanding RFMC as an organization was similar to the death of a body.

In what do we root our faith identity? Does our primary identity lie in Christ or in an organization, a community or a denomination? We are at a moment when institutions no longer provide the certainty and stability they used to. Does our faith depend on organizational survival, or do we root ourselves in following Christ? Jesus famously told his disciples to pick up their cross and follow him. When we live fully in Christ, part of the risk is that we will experience death. We will lose the things that give us life and safety. But in those death experiences is also the hope of new life. We believe death does not have the final answer because of Jesus Christ.

A few weeks after Rocky Ford’s closing, a remnant of Rocky Ford gathered in one of the elder’s kitchens and shared a potluck. Between mouthfuls of chili and cornbread, I asked, “How are you doing?” I heard a sense of displacement and unease. One person remarked that it felt weird not go to the church on Sunday morning. Another remarked how strange it felt not to plan Advent or Christmas services this year. The group still felt loss and strangeness in this unfamiliar landscape. Yet as I left, I also sensed joy and life in the room. Somebody got ready to play dominoes. Someone else asked when they might meet again. Death does not have the final answer. RFMC as an organization is over. RFMC as a community still exists. Death sometimes transforms.

Jeremy Yoder is former interim pastor of Rocky Ford (Colorado) Mennonite Church. Prior to that he was pastor at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, La Junta, Colorado.

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8 Responses to “What happens when a congregation dies?”

  1. Lisa (Sommerfeld) Zuercher says:

    Thanks for the words of hope despite the sadness. I am one of those who grew up at RFMC as a result of the “pipeline of Mennonites” serving in VS. I will always appreciate the foundation RFMC gave me for my faith. As Christ was raised from the dead, may God raise new life and new vision in that corner of the Arkansas Valley.

  2. Michelle E. Armster says:

    Jeremy,

    Being a hospice pastor is a unique gift of being a transitional pastor. Not all can do it well.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. David L. Myers says:

    Pastor Yoder describes some of the social/cultural/economic dynamics of a dying church. His sensitive ministry of accompanying the process is commendable. It seems there’s a missing piece of analysis — why the demise of voluntary service and 1-W programs? Perhaps the reason for the decline in the number of volunteers in the “back east” pipeline is a Mennonite theological ethic dynamic that bears exploration.

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      David, many thanks for your comment. I agree with you that questions about the demise of VS are an important part of the conversation (the demise of I-W is simpler – the US military hasn’t had a civilian draft since the Vietnam War). Unfortunately, I only had a 1,000 words for this piece and couldn’t write about everything that I’d like to.

      In regards to VS, I observed a similar dynamic when I was part of North Baltimore Mennonite Church. When I was a member there, the local VS unit played a critical role in bringing ethnic Mennonites to Baltimore and to the congregation. So as a part of the conversation, I’d add questions about the roles that Mennonite churches play in non-Mennonite dominant areas. Is the primary role of these congregations to serve Mennonites who live in the “diaspora?” Is it the role of these congregations to serve a pipeline? I think in the past, these churches often had that purpose. I’m not sure that works anymore.

  4. Gerald Shenk says:

    Thank you, Pastor Jeremy, for these cogent reflections on the experience of closing a congregation’s organizational and physical presence. Churches as communities of faith clearly benefit from visible and tangible places to focus our energies, but the concept of being church and doing church in the way of Jesus does not actually require such location or structure. May the good folk at Rocky Ford find new stepping stones to negotiate life’s challenges together.

  5. Donald Bacher says:

    It saddens me to hear of RFMCs closing. I grew up in Rocky Ford and attended the Methodist church in town. As a high schooler, I worked at the RF hospital and became acquainted with the Mennonites through the hospital administration and the VSers and 1-W guys that worked there. Eventually I started attending RFMC and dating an occasional VSer. Eventually one of those VSers became my wife of almost 53 years this November. In fact, we had the first wedding in the new Rocky Ford sanctuary. We moved away during the summer of 1966 when I attended Goshen College and have only returned over the years to visit family that still lives in the area. I’m sure that some of those remaining members were part of my history in that congregation. Those first beginnings as a Mennonite and as part of the Rocky Ford Mennonite community remain as good memories.

  6. Roger Farmer says:

    Thanks to Jeremy Yoder for an excellent article describing an all too familiar congregational dynamic. I hope this article and the dynamics it describes receive wider study.

    This article also raises a number of questions that are not often addressed. For example, when a congregation “fails to understand the needs of the new demographics around them,” what can/should the congregation do to address that situation? Are there any practical and effective courses of action?

    Also, it makes sense to me that “what many of those already in the congregation need and expect from a church community is not the same as what the unchurched around them need.” How can this situation be addressed?

    Finally, is it really possible to have an authentic Anabaptist congregation in the midst of an unchurched population that may be quite unfamiliar with the theological and practical differences between Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, and other groups?

    Thanks, again, Jeremy, and I hope that further study of these questions will be initiated.

  7. Craig Anderson says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. Though the author seems extremely thoughtful, I am a bit perplexed and wonder the extent to which some of his analysis may unwittingly accept elements of the individualism that is so rampant in our culture and affects the very ways we think. When he asks the questions, “Does our primary identity lie in Christ or in . . . a community . . . ? . . . Does our faith depend on organizational survival, or do we root ourselves in following Christ?” it seems that he is accepting “identity in Christ” and “following Christ” as largely decisions and actions of an individual. I question whether that is true or biblical. The first question directly contrasts “Christ” and “community” in a way that I don’t think is in keeping with much of the NT, including the passage from the apostle Paul that he cites. I’d be interested in what others think.

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