First Christian Church of Rome, Georgia (Disciples of Christ), was a great partner in ministry with the church I pastored for twenty-one years. Our congregations shared common commitments to feed the hungry and care for the poor in our community. For more than a decade we provided the majority of volunteers, while First Christian provided the location for Meals and More, the only take-out feeding ministry in Rome that was directed toward the working poor.
In 2018, I was greatly saddened to hear the remaining members of First Christian had decided to sell their property and disband. I had retired from the pastorate and was serving as the Executive Director on our local community foundation. In that role I approached some members of First Christian about a way for their congregation to have a lasting impact even though they may no longer be a functional church.
Over a period of months, a dozen faithful members determined their values and commitments, explored the effectiveness of local faith-based ministries, and decided on a list of priorities. After receiving the proceeds of the sale of their property, they distributed contributions throughout our county.
Believing their location had long been a place of spiritual influence, they made a contribution to the Spanish-speaking church which purchased their sanctuary. They made sizable distributions to organizations that addressed homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addiction, and abuse. “We closed our doors, but other organizations will flourish from our contributions,” said Jane Slickman, a long-term member.
But the members of First Christian Church were not finished. Those who oversaw the end of the church also initiated the First Christian Church Heritage Fund at our foundation. Each year, the foundation’s grant process will distribute a portion of this endowed fund to a faith-based ministry that enriches the spiritual lives of participants, supports diversity and inclusiveness, and furthers social justice. “It’s a reflection of the resurrection,” Slickman told us. “Our ministry will go on in a new way.”
Statistics vary, but church leaders predict between twenty and thirty percent of churches open today will close in the next ten years. The impact of COVID-19 may increase these numbers. In the vast majority of cases, the members of these congregations will feel as if they failed, or the closing was forced upon them as victims of circumstances. Their experience will be drastically different from the members of First Christian Church, who saw their experience as a reflection of the resurrection. Never before in its history had the congregation at First Christian been able to give with the impact they had in their final days of their traditional form. I could not help but to think of Paul’s words to the Philippians, “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain…” (1:12).
If you lead a church in a similar situation, is it possible for God to turn what feels like defeat into a significant victory? Could your congregation have a lasting impact – in another form? Here are some steps you can take in order to consider a path similar to First Christian Church.
- Determine your core values. Ask: if we had the resources, what would we want to see happen for Christ and his kingdom? What change would we be a part of in our community and the world?
- Assess your potential impact. Ask: What is our best opportunity to have an effect on the causes we value most? Is it now, with our current resources, will there be more effective opportunity later? If later, what must happen in order to have more impact than today?
- Reframe the conversation. Someone must change the language from talk of failure to the vocabulary of opportunity. The image of resurrection is powerful and, if we are genuine believers, we know it is true. In John 12, Jesus tells the disciples, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Ask: how can our congregation bear the most fruit?
- Use participatory decision making. Should your congregation decide to follow a path similar to First Christian Church, all of the remaining members need to have the opportunity to participate in the discussions. Each person’s desire may not be fulfilled, but they should be heard and given consideration.
- Get expert advice. Be sure to understand your state’s laws for disbanding and dispersing assets. This step is critical to avoid unnecessary complications.
- Research options for endowed gifts. If you disband and choose to endow specific charities or causes, you have options. Denominational foundations likely do best for the support of their own causes. Local community foundations likely do best to keep the congregation’s name and mission alive in community, faith-based initiatives. (That’s strictly my opinion. Please take it as such.) Be sure to inquire about fees and performance of any organization you consider to manage your endowment.
- Celebrate new life. If your congregation disbands and you choose to contribute your assets to other Christian causes, celebrate your impact. Gather together and remember the best of your life together. Invite those who will benefit from your giving to share dreams about the life that will be possible because of your congregation’s generosity.
And remember, resurrection is possible. In I Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul speaks about the mystery of the resurrected body, which we do not yet know. You may not be able to see now what impact your impact might be in another form, but just because we cannot see it today does not mean it is not possible. If we believe Paul’s blessing to the Ephesians: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,” who knows what glory there might be in the church… throughout all generations…” (3:20-21).