|When the sun is setting, the path lies in shadows|
Zion National Park, Utah
It is my belief that United Methodist churches sometimes are allowed, subtly encouraged even, to decline unto death.
When a church begins to decline numerically and financially, it looks for ways to trim the budget. Money for missions beyond apportionments probably dried up long ago. The first place the axe usually falls is the pastor’s compensation and/or apportionments. In the churches where I have been pastor, I have refused to allow payment of apportionments to get reduced, preferring instead to drain the church savings accounts. This has worked, barely, but seldom has made me popular.
As a church declines, the pastor’s compensation gets reduced – first, to minimum salary, then to half time, then to quarter time or less. Despite this, the system keeps sending pastors. Lots of churches are delighted to discover they can get a full-time pastor for a part-time salary. They become less agreeable when yoked to another church to become a two-point charge.
Interestingly, declining churches often are unwilling to cut staff salaries, viewing the secretary, choir director, musician, children’s minister, and so on, as “one of us,” I suppose, in way the pastor never will be. The church seldom realizes their apportionments are high because they’ve been forking out so much money in staff salaries. One church where I filled in as a short-term interim pastor had an average Sunday attendance of less than 25, a half-time pastor, a generous salary devoted to a surly secretary, and a salaried musician and custodian. They also had a cool quarter-million parked in a building fund despite congregational complaining about how they could not afford to pay their apportionments.
As members continue to die or move away, the declining church finds it must swing the axe in a widening circle.
Soon, an aging church building needs a big repair that is not covered by insurance – a new roof or furnace perhaps. In my experience, church Trustees cut corners over the years and bring down major building issues on themselves. At a previous church I served, the Trustees had decided long ago that paying for termite and pest control was too expensive. One fine day, after a portion of the sanctuary floor dropped several inches, the church discovered two girders under the building had been eaten clean away by termites.
In fact, severely declining churches often let the building fall down around them.
You want to know how bad it can get? One of the churches where I filled in as a short-term interim pastor had an average of 10 in worship (all members of one family), paid a total pastoral compensation of $300 a month, worshiped every other Sunday, hadn’t paid apportionments in years, and had such a dilapidated parsonage that no one could live in it. As I dug into their history, I discovered this church had drained its bank accounts in less than a decade.
Here’s the thing, though. I always have found that the declining churches I served, who really needed to close, were open to doing so. No, they don’t want some guru from Garner coming and telling them what to do. But they will listen to their pastor. They want and need some way of leaving a legacy, though, and the sale of the property would be a good way to do this, if only it were allowed. Maybe it is allowed in some cases.
There’s one more practical consideration. It costs serious money to get a property in shape to sell. In July, as part of the due diligence process, Aldersgate discovered a 12-foot buried fuel oil tank that probably had been leaking for many years (some long-ago trustees cut a corner by not draining the tank and filling it with sand). Guess who paid to have it drained, removed, and the several tons of contaminated soil removed and replaced? Why, the seller, that’s who.
When a church declines unto death, I imagine the conference is left with a ruin of a building that can’t be sold and that continues to sit and rot. Am I wrong?
P.S. We need to change the culture that acts as if a closed church is a failure for the church, the pastor, the D.S., and the conference. A good ending is not a failure,and God is a part of endings, too. Pastors need to be trained to help severely declining churches close gently and well. But until the culture changes, nothing else will.