Death of a ParishPosted: June 17, 2012
I spent the afternoon of Father’s Day at a service that marked the closing of a local parish, Trinity Church, Weymouth (this may or may not have been more painful than the kids making me breakfast in bed — though I wouldn’t know since I always leave for the early service before they’re awake).
I’d never been to such a liturgy but they’re becoming more common as parishes close all over the country. I won’t comment on the liturgy itself — it was presided over by Bishop Bud Cederholm who did an admirable job striking a tone of hope in the midst of difficult circumstances. But what struck me more than anything was the emotion displayed by some of the long-time parishioners. There were tears and there was tangible grief. In this sense it felt like a wake, albeit with the whole church building serving as a wide-open casket.
It’s hard to know why a particular parish suddenly becomes unsustainable. A lack of money and dwindling attendance are the “presenting issues” (to use a therapeutic term), but what is it that brings a parish that has held on for so long to its ultimate demise? I’m not thinking specifically of Trinity (I’m not familiar enough with the situation) when I say it’s usually a lack of creative, energetic, entrepreneurial-based, and Spirit-inspired leadership.
While we talk about the “community of the baptized” and the “priesthood of all believers,” I still don’t think a parish can thrive without strong clergy leadership. Yes, it takes an entire congregation working together with a common mission for sustainable, long-term growth and vitality but a lack of clergy leadership can do irreparable damage to a congregation. Some priests are natural leaders but I think leadership skills can also be learned and if we’re not focusing on leadership skills in the training of clergy we’re failing the people of God.
It’s not enough of a mission to proclaim “Services at 8 & 10 am” and “All are welcome.” Yet that’s precisely what so many of our parishes do. In this spiritual environment, opening the doors a couple times a week isn’t a compelling reason for people to enter — and they won’t. A passive approach to church growth that expects people to come in and stay because “we’re friendly” is no longer viable. It’s one thing to open the front doors and wait for people to show up. It’s quite another to fling the doors open wide in welcome and actively invite people into vibrant community. Congregations that don’t actively seek to share the Good News of the Gospel with others will eventually whither away. Even the True Vine needs some occasional pruning.
Thus, while no one wants to see a church close, I also don’t have a problem with it. Not because it isn’t painful and emotionally gut-wrenching for those involved but because I believe in Resurrection. Sometimes death must occur in order for Resurrection to take root — and that’s the truth at the heart of the Christian faith.
Okay, I’ll say one thing about the liturgy; I can’t help myself. I won’t go into details since I don’t really get it but a thing (spool?) of yarn was involved. It started at the front of the congregation and then wound around to every person before returning to the front. Then we sang “The Tie that Binds.” Interconnectedness? Knitting a scarf? I’m not sure.
I do wish the best for the few remaining parishioners at Trinity, Weymouth. I pray they will eventually feel the power of the Resurrection through this experience of congregational death. And that they will soon find a parish out of which they can continue to live out their baptismal vows.