Laying My Church to Rest

How I learned to process the unique grief of closing a church.
Laying My Church to Rest
Image: Photo by Pearl / Lightstock

I held my brother’s ashes in my hand. The texture was finer and smoother than my sister’s ashes 18 years before. Hers had been more granulated, with a grayish tone. My brother’s were softer and pale white. Before I slowly circled the 90-year-old maple tree that stands outside my family home in Montgomery, Ohio, I held “him” in silence for a few moments. Then little by little, I spread “him” around the base of the tree.

I stood back and looked up to the top of the tree. I raised my arms, and from somewhere deep in my soul came a wail that had been held back for the year following his death. I let it go and wept, lowering my arms slowly. When the crying ceased minutes later, I felt an unexpected relief that I had finally done what I had been dreading: I had let go of him once more. Now it was clear he would not walk through the kitchen door later that morning. I turned around and hugged my sister-in-law and my deceased sister’s son. We shared a bit of closure for the loss of a brother, husband, and uncle.

Throughout the year and a half since my brother’s death, I have been attending a weekly bereavement group at the Family Centers, Center for Hope in Darien, Connecticut, which has guided me through different levels of the grief process. My participation in the group raised questions about other kinds of losses. What happens when we face a deep loss for which there is no closure, no spreading of ashes or burial of human remains? I’d experienced that kind of grief less than two years before, as the stated supply pastor to close a 122-year-old church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on Christmas Day 2016.

Pastoral Identity after a Church Closure

During the months following the church closing, when I discussed this experience with clergy colleagues, their facial expressions often had a puzzled, strained look, as if to say, “What on earth went wrong?” I reminded them that the best research on the matter suggests that 1 percent of American churches close each year. That’s better than most institutions, but it still means that on average more than 10 churches close their doors for good every day (and that doesn’t even include church plants that close within their first year).

As I considered my circumstances after just over six years in the pulpit of the church I helped close, I wrote to a colleague in our presbytery whose church closed after a much longer tenure. He wrote back telling of how his presbytery devoted significant time at its meeting to honor his church as it closed. His parishioners spoke about what they had gained from their church and what they would miss with its closing. They gave testimony and received witness to their experience. The ending of the church was documented for posterity like a memorial service after a death.

The memorial meant more to him than words could ever convey. He was speechless and seemed humbled by affirmations from the church and the presbytery. All experienced a sense of shared loss.

In contrast, my church experienced loss without quite sharing the experience. There were no closing rituals in the last services since they coincided with the traditional liturgy for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That was probably a mistake. Scholar and author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved GriefPauline Boss coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s in reference to families grieving for soldiers who went missing in action. She suggests that when participants can accept, grieve, and move toward integrating their loss in a healthy communal manner, they will eventually reconcile their loss within their life experience, as hard as it might be. The closing of our church remained unverified, unacknowledged, and thus ambiguous.

Ambiguous Loss

The First United Church of Christ in Bridgeport, Connecticut, founded in November 1894, was home to an extensive community of Hungarian congregants. Only a few decades before its closing, the church would hold two Sunday services, one in Hungarian and one in English. Hundreds of worshipers came regularly. Festivals were held annually, and the Hungarian culture thrived there as it did in other churches both Protestant and Catholic in western Bridgeport. This was a tight-knit group with a shared history. By the end of our six years together, they had invited me into their world through their stories and memories.

With our church closing, my pastoral identity could not help but be affected by the loss of these vital relationships. How could that loss be grieved? It was awkward to express how I really felt to colleagues or even to the parishioners.

Nine years before we closed in 2016, our church building was sold to a denomination that worshiped on Saturdays. The terms of the sale enabled our church to continue Sunday worship until we closed. Changes to the sanctuary were expected, and these came gradually. Movable chairs replaced the pews that our congregation had sat in for decades. An electric keyboard replaced the much-loved organ. The memory of the former sanctuary gave way to the recognition that the church was still open for worship, but it was changing and felt unfamiliar. It required acceptance of ambiguity.

The slow decline in the number of worshipers through illness, aging, and lifestyle changes prevented our church family from sustaining the spiritual life and practice of its parishioners. Eventually the energy of the once vibrant spiritual and cultural Hungarian community took the form of impending death.

One of my clergy colleagues spoke of my ministry as “hospice care to this church.” This was never more apparent than in the last months of its life when an average of 15 active congregants arrived to worship each Sunday. It wasn’t the number that was so troubling but the fact that they sat in the same seats, every week, at vast extremes from each other. They were isolated from one another in a large sanctuary designed for hundreds of people.

The congregants barely acknowledged one another and rarely, if at all, commented to me about the service as they left. The lack of energy was tangible and exhausting. Boss describes how “people are often ‘frozen’ in place in their reactions and unable to move forward in their lives.”

“Frozen in place” would also describe my own professional loneliness as their pastor during that last phase. Was I a pastor or a hospice chaplain? Both? Neither?

In Counting Our Losses, Darcy L. Harris and Eunice Gorman also use the term ambiguous loss to describe losses “that are often not recognized for their significance because they are either intangible or not caused by a physical death.” Like Boss, they believe “the validation of [the] loss experience” is key to working through that kind of loss. A pastor with a church about to close needs similar assurances as someone experiencing a miscarriage, a long-missing family member, or the loss of a loved one to dementia.

Boss agrees that these moments can be confusing and disturbing. “Religious rituals for mourning loss are reserved for the clearly dead,” she wrote. “There are few ceremonies to comfort us when our loved ones are only partially gone. Families are left on their own to figure out how to cope. In a culture that stresses problem solving, an impending death may be interpreted as failure.”

About a year and half after the organ was removed, our leadership gathered for the last time on November 27, 2016. Everyone who had helped to keep the church going during the last year was thanked. The Consistory’s choice of the last day as Christmas Day seemed especially complex given the traditional seasonal images of birth and renewal. Already in my mind at that last meeting, I knew I wanted to encourage our congregation to think of the shepherds who went to the crèche to worship the Holy Child and then out into the uncertainty of night to become missioners. After our two final services, we would no longer be in this building to share this story together, but with the shepherds leading us, we too would be sent out into the world to tell a story of a living faith.

There was a bittersweet feeling as we made the transition from a small congregation to a dispersed community. Were we like the first-century diaspora, the Israelites after Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple? In retrospect, perhaps we could have engaged in a closing ritual at that last Consistory meeting. Such a deliberate act would have acknowledged our life together as well as its imminent ending. It might have been my own denial that prevented me from doing this. Why did I think I needed to model an unquestioning acceptance of all this without expressing emotion?

Disenfranchised Grief

Soon after our church closed, I accepted a three-month position to provide supply preaching and pastoral care to a nearby congregation. It was suggested that I not speak to that congregation of my feelings or circumstances about the church closing. Elaborating on that event with them, it was explained, might create a lack of confidence in my leadership within the congregation while their senior pastor was away on study leave in Israel.

Initially, I was glad not to talk about it. Frankly, I didn’t want to share my initial sense of embarrassment and admission of failure with other clergy or this congregation. Les Kingdon wrote this about his own experience of closing a church: “I found it difficult to accept the fact that the church closing was not my fault. And having determined myself a failure, I naturally asked, ‘So what good am I to anyone? Who will want me?’”

Disenfranchised grief, according to professor of psychology and counseling Kenneth Doka, is “the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” One common example mentioned by Doka is the death of a pet, as friends or even the pet owners frequently dismiss or minimize bereavement.

Not long after our church closed, a former church family member called me from her mother’s bedside at the hospital and asked me to provide pastoral care for her mother. Because I was guest preaching for another church and helping them with their own pastoral care needs, I was unable to go to the hospital. My schedule was full. It created a dilemma for me when I advised her instead to contact the Protestant chaplain at the hospital. I felt guilty that I had to decline her request. Formerly, my pastoral role was identified with provision of compassion and care for my congregation. Now I could no longer be available for them. My caller responded with disappointment. She still perceived me as her pastor. The church lived on in her mind as if the relationship to neither the church nor the pastor had changed. In her eyes, I still pastored her church, and so she had called upon me.

Spiritual caregivers, then, have a dual responsibility to their care-receivers and themselves. Paul Valent writes, “Helpers need to accept death and destruction, and their own limits and vulnerabilities. … Helpers will ultimately also need to grieve the loss of their charges.” Not being able to fulfill the parishioner’s need exacerbated my feelings of failure. When a community of faith closes its doors, the ministry of pastoral care for that faith community usually ends as well. In addition to grieving the loss of the role of pastoral caregiver, we may be subject to the resentment of former congregants when a crisis arises and the pastor is no longer available to help them.

At the 2017 annual spring regional association meeting, appropriate recognition of this church’s closing finally took place. I made a focused effort in advance to secure space on the docket to memorialize the church. It was impressive to recount how this church had served the greater Bridgeport community in its 122-year life, how it had donated thousands of dollars of its Legacy Fund to help other new church developments, and how it had become a spiritual home to countless first- and second-generation Hungarian families. This memorializing offered me needed closure, like scattering some of my brother’s ashes. The church was enabled to receive deserved recognition, not only from the governing body, but also from fellow clergy and lay leaders with whom I had worked over the years.

During the last two years, the very depth of my identity has been slowly renewed through a combination of resources, including returning to seminary to audit a course on the Psalms. I have engaged in short-term pastorates and accepted supply preaching invitations. I have presented two workshops at presbytery meetings about what is needed to make a bridge between closing a church and next steps toward seeking a renewed sense of call. Having both formal and informal support from governing bodies and other clergy during the fallow time between calls certainly helps clergy find new ways to nurture their gifts for ministry and experience God’s continuing blessing.

As my colleague Paul Terry said, “The closing of a church merits as much care for the pastor and members as we give to persons approaching the end of their lives.” When a church closes, pastoral identity enters into a fallow time, a time of drought. Reinvigorating pastoral identity may require us, according to John Calvin, to become like the farmer awaiting a “heavenly blessing” for another season in which to grow and flourish.

Going Home as a Guest

A year after my brother’s death, I returned as a guest to our family home. I stayed in my childhood bedroom, but my relationship to this room and my old house had begun to change. From the bedroom window, I looked out over the front fields and gardens and realized that it was just a matter of time before the maintenance of this house and grounds would require too much expense and sheer physical labor for my sister-in-law to manage. Eventually she would be forced to sell it, probably to developers. We dreaded the idea that they would probably tear it down, divide up the land, and build houses one after another on this special spot. Now memories of growing up in this home feel more precious than ever, as I am conscious of how my separation from this family home has begun.

I also returned as a guest to another building: the church sanctuary in which I once served. Returning after eight months, I was still in a fallow time, waiting for a new season in which to balance my vocational gifts. Faith leaders from the past 15 years were invited to join together for community worship and thanksgiving. Their new pastor graciously invited me to speak at the service.

This was the first time I had returned to the pulpit since Christmas Day 2016. I felt close to tears as I looked out over a large gathering. As I spoke, I sensed that I was beginning to let go of a deep sense of loss of my role in this church. While my role had changed, my pastoral identity was still alive and strong. I remembered in those moments that pastoral identity was not limited to a role or roles in a church, but rather, it is a way of life, a way of thinking about life.

I felt as if I were standing with Moses before a burning bush, with my shoes off, when Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). God replied, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on the mountain” (v. 12). Moses was promised God’s presence through whatever trials he might encounter, but he was not exempt from the changes and separations that he would have to endure. Could I ask for more than Moses? After eight long months, it was time to put on my shoes again.

Susan M. Pfeil, LMFT, lives in New Canaan, Connecticut. She provides pulpit supply for churches and is a marriage and family therapist.

October

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