Death in Declining Congregations: A Case Study
More and more congregations within the United States are declining, and with that decline come church closures. In my dissertation research, I examined two small congregations. Fellowship United Methodist Church (which is a pseudonym, along with all other names used in this post) is a small congregation in a Midwestern city. As of 2010, there were 73 members on the rolls, and an average of 45 attenders on a given Sunday. As of this writing, Fellowship has not closed, but with a quarter-time pastor and declining attendance rates, the members share a sense of trepidation.
On this particular afternoon, the sanctuary was filled, mostly with friends and family of Lloyd, a long-time parishioner of Fellowship Church who recently died. Lloyd was one of the first people who talked to me when I first began attending – and regularly pulled me aside to ask about sports or news or my personal life. He was friendly, personable. He always took time to ask me how I was, what was new in my life. I found myself sitting in the sanctuary before the funeral, waiting for the service to begin, sad that I wouldn’t see his face in this place again, looking at the other members of the congregation, knowing that others were thinking the same thing.
Lloyd had gone in to the doctor for a regular check up. The doctor was concerned about blockages around his heart, saying that a bypass was necessary, and that they had caught it just in time. 24 hours later he was in surgery. Lloyd made it through surgery successfully and spent a week in the hospital. He had been home for two weeks – seemingly clear of the time for concern – when he went to bed one night and didn’t wake up. He was 76.
During the sermon at the funeral, Pastor Ken discussed the central role that Lloyd had played in the congregation. He had been the chair of the men’s group – the only active member of the men’s group, as far as I could tell. He never had a formal report for the administrative council, but he always had good ideas of what the church could do to reach out to the community and encourage new attenders. His heart was devoted to the church – he loved the people and wanted to spread that to the neighbors. He often had plans to try to include the neighborhood in the congregation. Pastor Ken recounted that Lloyd had pulled him aside with the idea of a raffle – something that is strictly against United Methodist anti-gambling policy – whereby people could buy in to the raffle for $5 for the chance at winning $500. Lloyd figured the drawing for the winner should take place at the end of worship, and you had to be present to win. Lloyd continued to ask about it until Pastor Ken presented an email from the district superintendent saying that it was not allowed, and even then Lloyd would say, “but wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do the raffle?” After considering other ideas, Lloyd pulled me aside one Sunday: he thought he could get donations for a rummage sale, but rather than selling the items, he would give them away for free. The catch was that people had to give their names and addresses – so we would have a list of people to contact about attending the church. I told him that it was an interesting idea, but worried about whether people would want to provide their real names and addresses. Pastor Ken and the administrative board, seemingly, were equally wary about this plan. Lloyd decided to just have a typical rummage sale to raise money for the children’s program, which includes four kids under the age of 15. Lloyd figured that if there was more money for the children, more children would attend.
Two weeks after Lloyd’s death, during an administrative council meeting, Pastor Ken reported that the children had asked for a ping-pong table. Ken had suggested that they use the funds raised from the rummage sale that Lloyd organized to buy one. Pastor Ken reported that the children decided that they wanted to dedicate room with the ping-pong table to Lloyd. I looked immediately at Lucy, Lloyd’s wife of 40 years, whose eyes turn glossy and wet with tears. After a second of silence, Patty, another long-term member who interjects during times of silence, stated, “Oh that would be great. Just great.” I look around the room; people are wiping away tears, avoiding eye contact. “I guess we don’t need to vote on this, we all agree,” Patrick, the administrative council chair, added. This is the first meeting after Lloyd had died – his name is still listed on the agenda next to the men’s committee he used to chair. In the time that I’d attended Fellowship, there have been plenty of funerals, but this was member who was actively central in the congregation to die.
Death is a concept that is very real to Fellowship United Methodist Church in a number of ways. The congregation is older – many people are in their sixties and seventies, and there are funerals every few months. Moreover, the shrinking size of the congregation makes the concept of organizational death even more clear. Clearly, these two concepts are related – an individual’s death, such as Lloyd’s, makes it clear that that is one fewer person to volunteer for events, read the scripture lesson, donate money, and participate in the community of the congregation. An individual’s death – particularly one as involved as Lloyd was – is a direct indicator of the mortality of the congregation. And when the position that person fills – in this case, the position of Chair of the Men’s group – goes unfilled, the gap in the community is felt even stronger.
What a congregation does in the face of these very real concerns — an aging population, a declining membership — is key to its “vitality.” Some churches make active changes, attempting to reach out to new groups of people, shifting their ministries to try to revitalize. Sometimes a new pastor is brought in to shift perspectives. Fellowship, however, doesn’t seem to care about the denomination’s view of “vitality.” They have a core set of members who are able to afford the cost of the aging building and the part-time minister. There are people willing to volunteer to sit on the required committees. And the congregation enjoys doing some outreach, in particular their yearly Fish Fries and regular donations to the neighborhood food pantry. They aren’t a large church, and they will likely never be a large church. But that doesn’t need to be every church’s goal. These parishioners are comfortable and happy in this congregation, and for the time being they are able to sustain it. Is there a place for these congregations in our religious landscape?