Six months ago we took our Old Lady Cat to the vet for what they call a “quality of life check.” She had recently turned 20 and had been deaf for several years. She also had begun to show signs of kidney failure, specifically excessive thirst. Her hunt for water had escalated from seeking out my glass to demanding water from the sink with increasing frequency. Like the peeling paint on a clapboard church, the vague scent of mold on an upholstered preaching “throne” in a damp sanctuary, or the dust gathering on the silk flower arrangements held onto for the occasions when no one buys fresh, our Old Lady Cat had declined so slowly that the difference was difficult to see with a daily eye.
One of the first questions a vet asks about an aging pet is basic: Is the pet eating and drinking normally? In my work as an intentional interim minister—someone serving churches in transition—I register similar details. I look for the importance of the sacraments. Is the congregation enjoying its holy meal? It doesn’t matter whether Communion is served on polished silver trays or from a pottery chalice. If the deacons pull moldy pita from the freezer, there is a problem. If we stop passing the trays because it’s less trouble to pour one cup of juice than fill the tiny cups, there may be a malaise of the spirit. I look for the placement of the baptismal font and worry if it has been shunted to the side of the sanctuary due to disuse.
The vet also wondered about our kitty’s zest for life. Since she still chased off the younger cat in the house with zeal, we said, “Yes, she still seems to have some pep, but … ” Her query had a familiar ring. One of the first things I do in a church is look around at both the people and the building for signs of vim and vigor. I measure the mood in worship and in meetings, and I take a history to establish a baseline. Just as the vet assesses the cat’s capacity for self-grooming, I look to see if anyone is bothering to clean the church, or to supervise whomever they pay to do the job. I compare the stories of past joys and successes to the current level of energy being exhibited in programs or services.
We tried to read the vet’s face, asked for her wisdom. I’ve known these quiet conversations. They often begin when someone asks “How do you think the church is doing?” or directly states, “I don’t know how we can go on this way.” Typically, an accounting of escalating deaths, a dearth of worshipers, and an absence of volunteers for fellowship and mission programs follows. Parishioners recount the glory days and share the common complaints: “The younger generation should do more,” or “It all changed after the last male pastor left.”
It’s painful to imagine life without the church you’ve attended for 20 years, or 40 years, or more.
It was certainly hard to imagine life without Old Lady Cat. Her ferocious, possessive personality was familiar, and I wasn’t ready to part with her. Churches also tend to hang on to the same familiar personalities they established at the beginning—whether that was 60 years ago or 260. Friendly or insular, professional or working-class, fractious or passive, the institution’s approach to the world seldom shifts without a trauma or the kind of diligent approach to reorientation that is rare in human systems. Knowing this, I approach transitional ministry with equal measures of hope and pragmatism. People do remain entrenched in patterns of behavior, but no matter how people hold on or hold out, God is always doing a new thing.
Often the end comes for a church when energy and money run short at the same time. When a church suffers from declining energy, but still has the financial resources to continue, the leaders face a harder decision. It is possible for them to continue as they have done, pretending to themselves that tomorrow will be a better day.
In such situations, it can take both spiritual and social courage to state an unpopular opinion, as a leader in the church I serve did recently. Recalling a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein, he told me, “Doing things the same way and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.” Those who do dare to question the status quo may be encouraged by other churches doing brave things—like the 68-member Kirk of the Lakes Presbyterian Church in Mundelein, Illinois, which closed its doors last month after determining it could do more good by giving away $700,000 to organizations in its community and beyond than it could by remaining open.
At the church I serve, the congregation has conducted its own quality of life check and will make a decision soon about whether to close and give everything away, or use its resources to support a new ministry to the community. They have stopped holding onto what was and are exploring God’s possibilities.
The story of our faith includes death, but it also promises new life.