What Happens to the Pastor After a Church Closes?

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There’s something I’ve kept hidden from many on social media over the last few months. Something that I’ve not wanted to share. The church where I served for three-and-a-half years closed. It no longer is. And that’s hard. It’s hard for the parishioners who lost a church home which they loved and now must go hither and yon to find a new place, a place where they can call home, a place where they once again find their part in the family of God. But what about the pastor? What happens to them?

It's been a sorted journey to be honest. It’s been one filled with angst, anger, depression, and tears. On our church’s last Sunday worship, a parishioner, with tears in her eyes, told me over and over it wasn’t my fault that the church closed. The church was gone. As one friend told me it’s like if a spouse has died. In CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, he mentions that he never knew that grief could feel so much like fear. That grief-fear is what I’ve been feeling over the last number of months. It’s always around, like an itch on the middle of your back that you just can’t reach. It’s there and won’t leave sometimes. Some days are fine, others are a struggle.

Many times I’ve been asked by well-meaning people if I’ve gotten a call yet. I’ve been asked if I have any leads. To be honest, no, I don’t. I want to say more. I want to grab them by the shirt collar in tears and tell them how we’ve had to apply for Medicaid and food stamps because I can’t find work. I want to tell them of the struggles and long list of rejections and “no’s” I’ve received over the last number of months. I want to tell them how my self-esteem has bottomed out and gone deeper than I thought it could. I want to tell them I might have to take my kids out of Christian education, out of the school they love because I can’t find another call or even a well-paying job. But I don’t. I smile. I cover my tears with a joke and move on.

It’s tough, to be honest. It’s hard to be part of the search process. I even had one search committee tell me that they had no confidence in my leadership because my congregation closed its doors. And try as I might, that still haunts me with every “no” I receive or lack of response all together.

No pastor wants to have been the one who closed a church. They want that turnaround story you read about in The Banner or in Christianity Today. They want to say that they did great things for the kingdom, to help rebirth and renewal. They don't want to tend hospice with a funeral later. No. No they don’t. But it still happens. More churches in this nation are closing. It’s a sad fact. Bless the Christian Reformed Church, they are trying and doing renewal. Many congregations are going through The Renewal Lab at Calvin Seminary and are succeeding. We tried. We did not.

So what can you do to help when a pastor closes a church?

  • As a search committee, don’t look at a pastor who’s closed a church in judgment. It takes strong leadership skills to walk a congregation through such a process.
  • Find ways to offer grief support to the pastor that encourages.
  • It’s okay to not say anything at all. We don’t always want to talk about it.
  • Encourage the pastor in seeking counseling. This has been greatly helpful for me.
  • Allow time for the pastor to heal.
  • Most of all, pray for the pastor in this time.

Grief is an interesting creature. It takes many forms and is found in the oddest of places. This grief is found in the closing of a church—for the parishioners and for the pastor. Allow space for grief, allow space for loss, and allow freedom to let the pastor move forward in serving God’s kingdom.

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Admin

Thank you for writing this. Your transparency opens the door for powerful conversation. I will be praying for peace in the middle of the unknowns. May God be with you. 

Thanks much for sharing.  I get some of Joshua's pain.  We served a church for 13 years which decided to disband at the end of 2016.   That brought grief on multiple levels, even on the question of where we could worship with shalom after the final worship service.    I do think the CRC needs to face the reality that more churches are closing.  And lumping everything under an article 17 does not help the Pastor.  When my article 17 was announced in the online Banner and explained as as a pastor being separated from his ministry, a friend contacted me right away in support because he had assumed something else.

Community Builder

Josh, thanks for sharing your deepest thoughts and experience of closing a church. I know your experience is real and honest! Thank you! 

Hi Josh, The loss of your congregation and church is a very real loss.  I was a part of the closing of a small Christian school.  It was very painful and I too experienced grief in that loss.  When I was passed up for teaching position after teaching position I was certain God had just forgotten about me.  Very dejected and depressed.  I will be praying for you in the challenges you are faced with and for God's presence and guidance to be real to you.

I'll pray with you!

We are facing with the same difficulties here in Hungary - I want to be your brother in your distress! May Our Lord keep you and your family!

Participant

Thanks for your honesty here, Josh. The fear is real for many of us in low-membership congregations as well, and this sheds light on a topic that many, I believe, are afraid to look at. May God bless you as you continue as a Minister of the Word.

Josh - As one who walks the road less traveled, let me first say Thank you!   Those of us who have led a church through the process of closing have much more to offer than many realize.  Sadly, there is great fear that somehow those who have participated in the closing of a church are now tainted.  The place God has called us to and we willingly walked into is a place that only those who have been there can begin to understand.  After Parchment CRC completed its ministry it took me nearly 4 years to receive a call.  I gave up counting rejections... some were honest enough to say my participation in the death of a church was the deciding factor.  

To those of you who carry this grief, who walk with this fear and wrestle with all that closing the doors of a church entails - the PEACE of Christ to you!  

To those of you who know the pain that comes when a church has completed its ministry - Your grief is legitimate, the pain is real, and there is grace sufficient for it even when it doesn't feel like it. My prayer for you is that the God of all comfort will reveal Himself to you in the midst of your grief and give you the hope you need for each moment as you continue to Love God, Love Others, and Build His Kingdom.  Thank you for being willing to follow God's call into the most difficult place - the valley of the shadow of death.  The awesome thing about our God is that He really does make dry bones come alive.  Be still.  Wait. Hold one another as the waves of grief ebb and flow... and trust... that the One who called you to this place is faithful.  He will make a way where it seems there is no way. It's what He's best at. (-:  

Know that prayers are paving the way! 

I appreciate you sharing this. A smaller church needs a pastor to love them. A church that is dying still needs a shepherd. It takes someone of courage and great leadership skills to take a call to such a church for the glory of God. I would hope that churches looking for a pastor would see the amazing leadership and pastoral skills needed to be a pastor of such churches. We have to stop making things so "man-centered." I fear some search committees are about glory be to man.

Can one can do all right leadership stuff and the church can still close?

--the pastor can preach the Gospel every Sunday

--the pastor can show how the Gospel every week changes your life and addresses what you are going through

--the pastor can make changes at the council level so the council actually talks about ministry rather than status quo.

--the church can do Gospel-centered outreach in the community

--the church can do music with quality

--you can do your best to contextualize the Gospel like explained in Center Church by Tim Keller

I am convinced the church can STILL close down. We can't always blame the culture, but the culture is hostile. Read the book How (Not) to be Secular by James Smith. The deck is stacked against the church, and our culture's worldview is more at odds with a biblical worldview than ever. 

Maybe the church has shot itself in the foot over and over again—it would be extremely hard for even the most gifted of pastors entering into that situation. 

Its not the pastor’s fault or simply lack of leadership skills. Its not even the quality of the preaching all the time. 

I hope pastors stop guilting themselves and find the their righteousness is in Christ. What those pastors did for Christ will last for all eternity.

Joshua, thank you for sharing this part of your life. My experience was a "near death" situation. I did not do the last service but I probably would be the last full time pastor unless the Lord does a miracle. At some point, the journey felt like being led to the cross to be crucified. Though surrounded by some who cared for me, it felt very lonely.  I found comfort in the word of the Lord to the people of Israel "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand" (Isaiah 41:10). May you be comforted too.

 

Admin

Josh - Yours may not be the turnaround story you mentioned, but in many ways it is a more important story to tell. And it certainly takes more courage to write! To be faithful, we must remove the stigma associated with closing a church. If not, we'll have churches hanging on past when they should, and that prevents us from responding to how God is calling us next. Thank you for sharing this. Your honesty and wisdom in this reflection is the kind of leadership we need from pastors, and from all of us. Judging from the pageviews and the comments here, your words have struck a chord and have already had a significant impact.

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