It takes prayer, discernment, and a great deal of faithful courage to decide to close a church, rather than allow it to limp on.
As 2013 passed by, leaders of my church saw signs that pointed to a nearing end, but no one wanted to say it. It was too painful, and everyone was so emotionally invested in the congregation.
"No one wants to be the one or be on the leadership team who decides to close the church," said John Weymer, an elder and vice-president of our church's leadership board. "You fear killing the church, and you feel the weight of the congregation heavy upon you. There is a natural desire to survive, I think, and death feels like failure."
Over time, Weymer reconsidered the meaning of failure. Is there really failure within the Christian context? If RCP closes, and it's not failure, then what has happened? For him the question became one of stewardship: How should RCP best spend its resources?
"Once the decision was made, our call became to finish well," Weymer said. "Our leadership embraced helping the congregation to transition from old to new, and helping people to see that God's church is much bigger than our little building on Independence Parkway."
To this end my church's co-pastors preached on resurrection for their final sermon series. For a month they touched upon delicate issues with grace and compassion. Yes, we prayed and prayed for resurrection of this church, and God chose to answer us in a way we didn't expect. What new thing is God doing in our midst, within us, and beyond these church doors? Our church's death might be part of God's greater plan? That's a perspective most of us hadn't considered, one that needs follow-up prayer and meditation.
The congregation didn't know it, but our co-pastors were working together with God to pave the way that was yet before us, the way toward further service and greater growth in faith. What a gift to hear God speak much-needed words through these two servants.
Two weeks before our final Sunday the elders hosted a congregational meeting to discuss other churches near ours that might be a good fit for our church's members. They'd done their research, and they presented about 15 churches to us.
"We're not trying to tell you and your family which church to attend and join," an elder said as she wrapped up her comments. "We just want to you know that we're still here for you, and we want to do everything we can to ease your transition into a new church home. Any church will be blessed to have former RCP members join them, because all of you have a lot to give."
We may not have acknowledged it, but we were walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and God was with us each step, ministering to us through those dedicated church leaders, and caring for us in our darkest time. What a gift to be reminded that we never walk alone.
Our last Sunday together finally arrived, and about 100 people who had previously left came to honor the church that they once attended and still love. Some members who had faithfully been attending were angered. Where have these people been? Maybe if they hadn't left, we wouldn't be here closing this church today! This is a natural response, I think, when a community you love will die by afternoon's end.
We shared communion together one last time, and moved from fellowship hall, where we worshipped for two years, into the sanctuary. There, in that cross-adorned sacred space that dons a banner reading "Celebrate Life!" we spoke words of blessing, closure, and release of our pastors. We sang our last hymn together, "The Church's One Foundation," and stood in the sanctuary for what seemed like hours, not quite sure what to do next.