Mind the Tiller: Leading a Church to Closure

By The Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata, Visiting Researcher at the Center for Practical Theology and Priest Associate, The Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata
Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata

I’m a fairly decent sailor so I gladly signed up for our sailing club’s cruise up San Rafael Creek. With 8 knot winds, the tide in our favor, and warm sun it was a wondrous morning. I was the skipper of our 14’ Vagabond dinghy while my husband Bob managed the jib. We enjoyed a gentle run up the creek and lunch together at a dockside restaurant before heading back to San Pablo Bay with five other boats. Tack after endless tack we struggled against the westerly wind to get back to the bay. Suddenly I realized we were the last boat in the creek. My husband began to shout we were heading portside into a pier, and I knew it, but I was powerless to stop it. We hit a tire. I shoved the boom and shouted, “Throw your weight to the other side!”

We managed to get back in the channel, only to find ourselves being blown by the wind backwards, now into leeward rocks. I was frightened we’d never make it back to the boat ramp or, worse yet, damage the hull. When we got back in the channel a second time, the boat again listed to port where my husband was sitting and we did a 360°. I handed him the rudder, took out the oar and began paddling.

Fortunately, friends in a powerboat who had volunteered to accompany our club’s cruise (a “crash boat”) came by and offered a tow. “YES!” I shouted, and yelled out epithets about the wind and the tide. As they tossed us a line, I looked to the rear of the boat, and saw the rudder had kicked up. It wasn’t in the water. No wonder we had no control!

When I think about how I led my church into its last day of worship in May 2012, it felt very much like that afternoon in the creek. I had no control and we had crashed into the leeward shore. My rudder was in the water well enough for us to celebrate the wondrous ministry we had shared for nine years, to grieve together, and to say good-bye to the little patch of the kingdom of God we had nurtured. But was my rudder in the water before then? What is the rudder a pastor is called to put in the water? To keep in the water?

One word St. Paul uses for leadership in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is kybernesis, literally, holding the rudder.[1] The bishop who had appointed me to the congregation had such faith I could revitalize the congregation. What kind of pastor was I that this should happen on my watch? That soul-searching question led me to wonder about the experiences of other pastors who had closed their churches. Was it as difficult for them as for me? How had other pastors led their congregations to closure?

During the past four years as a Visiting Researcher at Boston University’s Center for Practical Theology, I’ve had the privilege of asking pastors in five mainline Protestant denominations about their experiences in closing a church http://louisville-institute.org/awards/project-grant-for-researchers/12196/. What did they strive for? Where was God for them? What might denominations and judicatories do better? I was a sociologist and quality improvement consultant in health care before I entered ministry. I’ve come to trust that God has called me to put my two “lives” together and conduct research on pastoral leadership in this rough patch of water, to become a practical theologian.

Pastors I’ve interviewed have taught me that a congregation needs a rudder, a guiding tool, to put in the water. A congregation will spin helplessly without it, creating anxiety (and perhaps a lot of shouting!) for pastor and members of the congregation. A judicatory executive or commission, a pastor, a lay leader, or an inspired member of the congregation can keep her or his hand on the tiller on different watches, but whomever holds it, the rudder has to be strong and it has to be in the water so that the ship moves steadily forward.

So, what’s the rudder? One pastor who closed a small, rural congregation said:

I just think closing churches is a big part of this revolution of the church in the United States. It’s so feared. If there’s a way to help bring the other side of the story, you know, this is our faith story. Death and resurrection. Trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit that is going to bring order out of chaos or bring chaos out of order. I don’t know which. What looks like disaster for the church right now. It can’t be. That can’t be the end of the story. We know that. Right now, I think people see closing churches with fear.  Because it’s associated with shame. They don’t even want to talk about it. A way to put it into a Biblical context and realize in our weakness, that’s when the Lord is strong. What we have to submit to is this talent that is much bigger than us. The church is not dying.

The rudder of a closing church is resurrection faith that new life will rise from the death of a congregation. It is faith that the church is not a building but the people of God. It is faith that God is present in the midst of grief. It is faith that God calls us to be good stewards of our blessings. It is faith that gratitude for ministry we’ve shared brings us closer to one another and to the heart of God.

The pastor isn’t the only one to embody the grace of faith. A matriarch, a Treasurer, a leadership team, a prayer group, an entire congregation, a consultant, a District Superintendent or a Bishop may be the one to guide the ship safely back to port, just as the powerboat that towed us back into the bay that sunny, summer afternoon, with the rudder finally in place.

America is facing a flood of church closings in the coming years. In some denominations more than four times as many churches are closing as opening. God is with us in this storm. How can we discern what God is calling us in the church to do and to be? Pastors who have navigated through these perilous times have much to teach us. If you know someone who has closed a church, call and listen to them, thank them, and bless all whose churches are vulnerable and discerning whether to die.

Other blogs on this topic:

Cafferata, G. L. (2014b, September 11). The last pastor: No one should have to do this alone. Blog entry from http://carducc.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/no-one-should-have-to-do-this-alone/.

Cafferata, G. L. (2015, March 30), Dignity for pastors who close churches. Blog entry from https://carducc.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/dignity-for-pastors-who-close-churches/.

Cafferata, G.L. (2016, April 26), Singing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land: Pastors’ Journeys Through the Closing of their Churches. Blog entry from  https://carducc.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/singing-the-lords-song/

Frank, T. E. (2006). Leadership and administration: an emerging field in practical theology. International Journal of Practical Theology, 10(1), 113-136.

[1] (Frank, 2006)

By The Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata, Visiting Researcher at the Center for Practical Theology and Priest Associate, The Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

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