I have come to realize that my job as related to spiritual care is to make sure our Chaplains can help decrease the amount of suffering people do as they die. That is it. It is palliative in nature. We don't heal. We don't cure. We offer support which will hopefully allow patients and their families grieve better, find meaning in the suffering and gain hope for the future (best case scenario). This is what I do on a daily basis.
However, on Wednesday night I realized I was playing the same role as one of our hospice chaplains once more. However, this time it was not with an individual patient or family. It was with a church. This church has been on the decline for a number of years. It was once a thriving part of a growing community, one that eventually began a slow decline towards crime, poverty, decay and "white flight." During the past decade or so, the neighborhood (which my family lives in) has slowly gentrified. It is now known for expensive 1920's bungalows, liberal politics, beautiful oak trees, along with crime, poverty and prostitution. In other words, it is a city neighborhood. And it needs palliative care as it dies.
As the neighborhood has regained its footing, the church has steadily declined. A church known for its progressive theology, social justice advocacy and community involvement has dwindled to 12- 15 active persons, most over the age of 60 or 70. The church houses a thriving day care and offers itself to multiple congregations and community groups (AA and such) weekly. The pastor also serves another church and the Parish Associate is a wonderfully spry retired octogenarian Presbyterian pastor. They are ready to move on and asked me to help.
Five years ago they voted to die. However, the church is in long term hospice care, needing to be given permission by its members to end, so something can rise in its place. Whereas some patients hang on for a long time because of unresolved issues, so do churches. I believe this church is waiting in some sort of limbo until its members know the future of the church in the community. While they are coming to the realization that their days are numbered and they will never regain glory, they are in need of people to assure them that death is not the end of church in the neighborhood and their years of work are not for naught.
That is where I, along with a few others, have come in. As a former pastor and church planter in the community, I wanted to encourage them that, while it may be the end for this particular branding of church, it did not need to be the end of a presence in the community. They could will their building to the denomination or another community of their choice. They could establish a church plant or revitalization effort with the denomination. They have many options. However, waiting is no longer one. To put it bluntly, life support needs to be removed after a will and future directives are established.
I hope we can help them in the writing of this will so the church can end its present life in the knowledge its resources and work are taken care of, confident in its place in the Kingdom of God. Yes, its members will grieve greatly, but it is a natural piece of the process. This church needs to be honored for its wisdom, grace and gift to the future.
Too often, other churches think that the Biblical concept that the church will prevail against the gates of Hell gives us some sort of Divine rite to continual existence. We think that church death is against the nature of our faith. We think that churches must continually grow. We do not understand that there are seasons for growth and death (another Biblical idea). There are natural life cycles, which not pumped up by endowments, should be allowed to happen. For a church to die and be reborn as another congregation is life affirming. To die with no future course of action is the sad thing. While some churches can live for centuries, some fulfill their purpose in decades, years of months. To see one die that has served its purpose well should be a time of celebration (like a wake), not just mourning.
Over my years of ministry I have told people each denomination that has a church planting or church growth department also needs a department of church death, so churches can die with dignity and grace, to be reborn when needed and to give their resources to other churches when they can not be reborn.
Right now I am calling it Hospice for Churches.