Closing a church

In the ninth season of the ABC show Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Mark Sloan is on life support due to injuries sustained in a plane crash. Just before the deadline arrives to remove his life support, Dr. Sloan wakes, sits up in bed and starts cracking jokes. His superior, Dr. Webber, identifies his sudden good health as “the surge.” Dr. Webber says, “In many terminally ill patients, they have a final surge of energy; they get better before they get worse.” His energy and good humor are real, but he is still dying. Despite their medical training, Dr. Sloan’s friends also hold on to hope that he’s on the road to recovery. And they continue to enjoy his jokes and his smiles. It doesn’t take long to discover, however, that Dr. Webber was right about the surge.

Hospice teaches us that “the surge” can be a real thing. A few days or a few hours before death, a dying person may become alert, ask to eat their favorite foods and enjoy conversation with loved ones, even when they’ve been unresponsive before. The surge can allow for spiritual preparation. Those accompanying their loved one should cherish the time of the surge. The surge is precious, indeed.

Nearly a year ago, I was called upon to partner with a congregation who had experienced a precious surge in their common life. James Lees Memorial Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has had a long and faithful ministry. Known as a social justice congregation, over the years they have provided a place for broad spiritual exploration, bilingual worship and creative projects. They have had a vibrant life serving God.

Like all churches, their ministry has ebbed and flowed. And like so many other congregations, they have faced much greater challenges of late. I believe their surge took place in recent years with the creation of a collaborative organization in their building. The collaborative included community groups that shared the church’s space to house low-cost counseling, a theater company, sustainability organizations, an art studio and many others. Another progressive Presbyterian congregation and a Latino ministry also participated in the shared space and mission of the collaborative. So much good and many changed lives came out of the innovative work housed inside James Lees Memorial Church.

But eventually, church business got messy. Communication became unclear. Wires were crossed about responsibilities and mission. Worries about money began to dominate. The surge and its burst of energy began to wane.

This was the time when a few members of presbytery and I were elected to offer support. When called upon to moderate the session, I had no idea where we were headed or what the journey would look like. We felt our way through. We made decisions and then later, changed our minds. After each meeting of session, it became increasingly clear that the ministry of James Lees was slowly coming to an end. But for those who loved the church as their home, this was difficult to accept. Any church closing is painful. The surge complicates emotions even further. It can make us think that everything is going to be ok; life is going to return to “normal.” The remaining church members especially hoped for such an outcome. They poured their hearts into planning new outreach, creating fresh programming and seeking out additional members. They were faithful and hopeful. And when I didn’t feel so hopeful, I often felt guilty – as though I wasn’t seeking resurrection when I should have been.

Amidst everyone’s feelings of faith, worry, hope, guilt and frustration, we tried to be realistic, too. We looked honestly at the financial picture. We wondered whether the church was still being called to a particular mission. We recognized that there were now only five active members and less than ten folks in worship. That sounds dismal. But truly, worship remained vibrant! Led by lay members of the congregation and teaching elders who attended the church, people sang with gusto, preached with integrity and prayed passionately. Intimate but meaningful worship was another experience that made it hard to come to terms with the other facts, which pointed toward the reality that the church was going to close.

Like accompanying a dying family member, it is hard to accept that death is coming even when there are many signs. Even once the surge has passed, that memory of life and energy lingers. At times, the memory can confuse our discernment. But in the long run, it is good news. As we passed the motion to begin the process of dissolving the congregation, everyone needed those memories of vitality – the ones from long ago and the ones from recent years. The reminder of a life well lived allows us to die in peace. The promise of resurrection allows us laugh through our tears. When James Lees dissolved as a congregation in January, I wished that the process of getting to that point had been more direct and a lot less messy. But more so, I gave thanks for each moment of excitement and energy that moved people to serve God and their community. Together we said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. May you rest in the peace of Christ.”

Emma Nickel headshot

EMMA NICKEL serves as stated supply pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, Kentucky.  She is passionate about small church ministry, cooking and playing with her cat, Scout.