Death of the dream: when you have to close your church

How does it feel and what is involved when a church has to close?

We all enter a new pastorate with dreams and visions of growth and health for the church. No one comes to a congregation with the intention of closing it down.

What happens, then, when the dream fades, the vision dies, and it becomes obvious that the church will close? I know, because it happened to me.

Many issues surround the closing of a ministry, but none touch us more closely than what happens to the individuals and families of the congregation, and to us and our own family, as the church closes.

The act of closing a church, even under the best of circumstances, will always be painful. And when the pain arrives and the troubles come, the congregation will likely look to its pastor for care. However, if the pastor doesn't care for himself, he or she cannot properly care for others. This article is about caring for one's pastoral self in times of crisis in our congregations. And we may need this care not only when churches have to close but in the midst of all kinds of crisis times.

Look to God. These three words may seem trite, but they are profound. The heavier our crises, the truer are these words.

Having said that we need to care for our selves, we must admit that we cannot adequately meet our needs ourselves. We lack the needed wisdom and objectivity.

Our first resort must be our God: "The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe" (Prov. 18:10, NIV).* Unless we draw strength and wisdom from God Himself, we will not come through well. There is no better help available to us than the God whose we are, whom we serve, and who called us into His ministry and to the church in which the crisis faces us.

Pray. Through prayer we access the wisdom, the strength, the grace, and the peace of God. Through prayer we withstand the assaults of the crisis, which are also the assaults of the evil one. Through prayer we seek the blessings of God for ourselves, our families, and the people we serve.

While as pastors we feel we know all about prayer, we are often not that likely to pray as we have the privilege to pray and as we need to pray in the midst of our greatest tests. Pray for yourself and your family. Pray for the peo ple you serve. Pray about the decisions to be made, the things to be done, the details to be taken care of, and the form of the final service.

You and I cannot pray too much.

Maintain personal spiritual disciplines. A key part of the successful closing of a church (or of any other dilemma) is the necessity for the pastor to maintain his or her own spiritual health. Central to this are the disciplines.

There are the usual disciplines and then there are others not mentioned or entered into that often: prayer, fasting, reading, studying, and meditating on the Scriptures.

There must also be worship and regular confession of sin to God. By seeing to our own spiritual well-being, we are able to assist others as well. Even amid the activity and struggles of the actual church closing process, it is necessary to reserve time for our own spiritual life.

The reality of the truths we have preached will be demonstrated in tough times like this. Maintaining spiritual health is also necessary to combating the spiritual attacks that will inevitably come. For in the end, "we wrestle not against flesh and blood..."

Care for yourself. We've been saying this all along, but we need to be more specific.

It is very spiritual for us to enjoin fasting, praying, reading your Bible, meditating. But we were not created only as spiritual beings.

We have been designed with mental, emotional, and physical components, which also need to be cared for. A run-down body will result in a run-down spirit and a run-down mind. We all need to sleep well, eat well, and play well.

"Get away from it all" with your family from time to time for your refreshment and encouragement even if you can afford only the simplest retreat. Such retreats can be easily as important as maintaining the spiritual disciplines.

After all, spiritual attacks may come in the form of depression and discouragement. The sense of failure is real even if you have not failed.

I found it difficult to accept the fact that the church closing was not my fault. And having determined myself a failure, I naturally asked, "So what good am I to anyone? Who will want me?" And the evil one excels in his ability to exploit our doubts and fears to his advantage and our harm, especially our self-doubt and the fears we have about our future.

Can you be a good pastor if your church closes? Yes! Christ was a good shepherd even though one of His followers betrayed Him, one denied Him, and all deserted Him. What could have looked more like failure than did the Cross?

Get counsel. Find those you respect and trust and ask their advice. They may see some of the issues with greater clarity and objectivity than you can.

If your denomination makes counseling available to you, take advantage of it. More than one person involved in a church closure has had to deal with depression and related issues.

Some of the greatest encouragement came to me came from fellow pastors. There is a need to move beyond the feelings of failure and "what will people think of me?" It is these concerns that prevent us from getting the help others can give us and therefore lock us up in our crisis.

Care for your family. Your spouse and family have been your ministry partners through the good times. They will continue to be a part of your ministry now. Sheltering them from the difficulties of the situation may not always be possible. And as they see you struggle with situations and people, they will hurt with you and for you.

While it may seem that the needs of the congregation are more pressing now, your family needs you too. Beware not to fall into the "I'll-make-it-up-to-them-later" syndrome. They need to be cared for now.

Keep them informed of developments, consult them on decisions especially when things clearly concern them. If you have no immediate employment prospects, it can be a time of uncertainty and anxiety.

Your confidence in the Lord's leading and provision can be a source of stability for them.

Consider your future. OK, so the church is closing. Now what do I do? There are many options, but all need to be explored prayerfully and in consultation with your family and any trusted counselor(s) you may have chosen.

The closure of the church may mean the end of your ministry in that place, but it certainly does not have to mean the end of vocational ministry for you, even though it may seem so. The question of remaining in pastoral ministry needs to be addressed not merely on the basis of feeling or even of "fact" but through the direction of the Holy Spirit.

This may be the time to be looking for a new pastoral position. But perhaps it is the time to get some further education or to pursue a career change. While it's not the easiest thing to hear the voice of the Spirit, this is the time to search the heart of God, seeking His special guidance.

Do not lay blame. Who is to blame for the closing of the church? Attempting to lay blame on others will not be productive. It will inevitably lead to the following response: "Yes, but if you had been a better pastor..."

The question that needs to be honestly answered is "Am I to blame for this church closing?" And an honest answer can be "No, it's not my fault."

As a colleague said to me, "Aren't we being a little arrogant if we think the church stands or falls because of us?"

We need to ask ourselves if the circumstances that led to closing began before or after your arrival. Do those circumstances relate directly to your ministry? Have you been guilty of gross sin, serious errors, or negligence in your ministry? If yes, then we must deal with our faults. But it's not likely that the church closed only because of you, regardless of the mistakes you might have made.

As I went through our church closing, more than one church member comforted me with the assurance that I was not responsible. You will ask the question repeatedly, "Would the church have come to this place if I had been a better pastor?"

This is worthy of some reflection, but we must avoid prolonged, morbid introspection. Ask the question. Answer it honestly, and then move on.

We accept the pastorate of a church with dreams and hopes. But sometimes the dream dies. And for us, by the grace of God, life and ministry goes on.

I think the hardest part is for the keeper of the dream to lay the dream down before the feet of his or her Master and say, "I tried, Lord. I'm sorry, but now I must give this dream back to you." For the Giver of the dream is the ultimate Owner of the dream, not we. He knows what purposes He sought to fulfill through the dream in us and in others. We seek the glory of the dream fulfilled, while He seeks the working of the dream as it changes and fashions our hearts and our lives into new and more purified persons.

He is the One who is able to heal our hurts and our hearts, and to renew our broken spirits through His Holy Spirit.

* All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society.

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July 2004

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