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• Friday, February 17th, 2017

When Finishing with Grace: A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your Church was first published in 2011, we knew it was more leading edge than many in denominational leadership wanted to acknowledge. On one hand we received kudos for a well-written and thought-provoking book. But then we heard: “We have no problem of closings in our denomination. No way. No worries.”

That was then. This is now.
In June 2016,The Huffington Post reported that “Turnout in the United Church of Christ has dropped below a million; the Episcopal Church estimates its population at 1.8 million, down from three million in the 1960s; membership in the Presbyterian Church, USA, fell by 46 percent from 1965 to 2005 and the United Methodists have lost 4.5 million in their American churches since 1964. Recent surveys tell us that even in churches that are not closing, attendance is rapidly declining.”

Finishing with Grace is now more relevant than ever for congregations, lay leaders, clergy and judicatory personnel dealing with churches in transition.

Some decisions to close churches come from a church hierarchy, as in the many Roman Catholic churches closings in recent years. Other congregations find themselves running out of money, recovering from pastoral betrayal, or living in a rapidly aging, less-wealthy congregation.

Finishing With Grace does not advocate the closing of churches, but teaches congregations who are without other options how to move through this time faithfully. The book chronicles the process of making life-altering changes in your congregation and provides guidance for approaching the spiritual and emotional aspects of having to sell, merge or conclude your church‘s ministry. It offers practical help for dealing with your church’s building, staff, money and belongings. Vignettes highlighting specific events experienced by the authors are included as well.

Our book offers congregations a framework for the tasks before them, as well as the assurance that they are not alone.

Those in positions of leadership know better than anyone what a toll this is taking on faithful committed Christians who are desperately striving to keep their little church open and actively in service to the world.

The time for Finishing with Grace is now. Available from Amazon.com

Linda and Gretchen

 

 

 

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• Saturday, February 04th, 2017

Encore Blog: Author: Gretchen

I was in a day-long training session at a ministry program titled “Options for Struggling Congregations.” As usual, my presentation included a number of stories about my own experience in churches, as well as the stories you, our readers, and others share with us because of this blog. What I have learned is that people love stories. People love hearing narratives that draw them in on a personal level. They enjoy hearing about people just like them who are struggling with the exact same issues they are.

As my day progressed, I was struck anew by the power of sharing our own stories. Not just me telling them when I was speaking, but during our breaks, we all spent time just telling stories related to something that was being taught.

One woman was the pastor of a church that was having their final service the following Sunday. An interim colleague was frustrated in a congregation who won’ t consider the kind of changes that might keep their church alive. Another fellow told the story of his former church building being bought by MacDonalds. We could give context to our own similar experiences or find a new way to understand what we were going through by telling our stories. Each of us saw ourselves in these accounts. We could hear the pain of the storyteller and offer our support. Stories often speak to our greatest joy or our greatest fears. We like hearing how it ended for other people. We are comforted by hearing that it all worked out okay and we are strengthened by hearing about someone else’s strength when it didn’t.

It is very cool how the blogosphere invites us to share our stories. In our comments section, we often read the accounts of pastors and churches who have encountered the challenges we discuss here. More often, we will get an email from a congregation who is struggling and wishes to share their story and ask for guidance. These stories are often the beginning of building relationships.

Jesus was a storyteller extraordinaire. He taught with parables and drew people closer to him with storytelling. Likewise, you and I share our faith with the stories from our lives, and we grow in confidence by sharing those events with others. When a congregation is facing challenging times, that’s the time to get out the church histories and begin rediscovering the congregation’s stories. That is when people should come together to speak of their own very personal experience of faith and their relationship with their church. That is when we should become storytellers like Jesus, because our story is God’s story, and God’s story is ours.

 

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• Wednesday, January 04th, 2017

Encore blog by Gretchen

When is a church at its best?

Is it when we are gathered in worship on Sunday morning and we sing and pray together as the candles flicker and the organ booms? Is it when we collect mittens and hats and warm socks for a few Sundays in the fall and gift them to the poor for the winter? Some would say the church is at its best when it is social and amiable and fun. Others would claim that a terrific preacher makes us the best congregation in town.

 All of these answers are correct, I think, depending on what feeds your particular soul. However, I have recently been reminded in an unforgettable way that, for me, the church is at its best when it is acting in compassion, when we are praying for and pulling for each other as if our own lives depend upon it. Because they do.

 Just before Christmas, my son was taken ill unexpectedly. My husband and I had no idea how things were going to turn out. Neither one of us had never been so scared or prayed so earnestly in our lives. The speed and fervency with which our pastor and congregation responded to our situation was phenomenal. The feeling of prayer and support was palpable. I could literally “feel” the wonderful energy and heartfelt hopes for strength and healing that were being sent our way, and I am here to tell you that in all the churches of which I have been a part over the last 30 years, I have never had one that was so faithful and so consistent in their prayer life. The support we felt has kept us afloat when the worry threatened to undo us. We had emails everyday – not from people asking questions or giving advice, but just notes letting us know we were being held in prayer. My favorite went something like this. “Don’t know the specifics of what your son and your family are going through, but I want you to know I have just prayed for him as I have been every morning since I heard you needed prayer. May God grant you peace…” Such a simple message, a kind word. No concern to know the personal details of a very personal situation, but just sincere compassion and a wish for us to know we were held in her heart.

We received dozens of emails like that when the church first learned of our son’s illness, but even now that he is out of the hospital and back at school, and and weeks have passed,  I still receive calls or emails nearly everyday assuring us that we are held in prayer and we are not alone.

I can assure you that for an individual or a family in crisis, what we have been offered by our beloved congregation is utterly and completely THE CHURCH AT ITS VERY BEST!

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• Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

Encore

 

As one ages, it’s more difficult to find holiday spirit. Oh, it’s out there – just look at small child’s reaction to everything from being a wise man in the Christmas nativity to seeing Santa Claus at the local mall.

Alas – for us non-children, the holidays are more apt to be about dealing with not having enough money or time, facing stresses and pressures, negative dynamics and disappointments. The list of reasons for not having any holidays spirit could take up this entire blog; but let’s take another approach.

What feeds you during this season? As you rush through the week before Christmas – are there any quiet moments that give you an “ahhhh….” feeling?

Here’s my list – and if even one of them reminds you of what makes you feel good about this season, this blog has been a success.

• The aforementioned image of a small child in a wise man costume at a church nativity (ditto the excitement of seeing a child’s reaction to Santa).
• Certain Christmas music, especially singing In Excelsious Dios with the Gloria chorus. Add singing Silent Night (by candlelight) at a Christmas Eve service
• Some of the old Hollywood black and white movies from the 40s and 50s (like Christmas in Connecticut). And, yeah, the very funny The Christmas Story with Peter Billingsley.
• A well-performed version of the Christmas Carol by Dickens
• Light snow on Christmas eve (okay – that works in New England, maybe not where you live).
• The Sundays leading up to Christmas in which we are reminded of the Christmas story and sing Away in a Manger.
• Lighting the Advent Candle each week
• Preparing for and putting on the church’s Holiday Christmas Fair. People dynamics and fiefdoms not withstanding, what a great fellowship gathering.
• Teaching the Christmas story to children in Sunday School.
• Going caroling to the church shut-ins. (Okay I don’t do this one since I’m not a singer, but still…)
• Buying gifts for needy children and taking food to the local food pantry.
• Some holiday Christmas parties, but not all.
• Seeing my grandkids Christmas morning: the wonderment before the frenzied gift opening.
• A quiet moment on Christmas Eve when everyone else has gone to bed and I stop to ponder all that has happened to bring me joy (and spirit) in the past year.

Now, my friends- begin your lists and…Happy Holidays!

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• Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

Encore

By Gretchen

Every year we buy a real Christmas tree. We have our preferred tree lot and generally find our favorite tree at the very last moment the place is open – in the dark, extreme cold and preferably with intensely heavy snow or freezing rain falling. This year however, we went in the early evening. It was already dark, but there was nothing icky falling out of the sky and it was a balmy 45 degrees. Not only that, we fell in love with the very first tree we spotted! It was the right height, the correct width and beautifully shaped. We even got it home without it falling off the car. This was going to be a red-letter season!

Two days later, my husband and son brought the tree inside and secured it in a tree stand designated for the correct height of our Tannenbaum. I put the lights and garland on the tree, and the whole family had a grand time unwrapping ornaments and placing them care-fully on the tree. The end result was beautiful. It stood proud and gorgeous through our annual Christmas Party, and the next morning, it fell over.

The main concern when something like this happens is not the tree itself (it was born to endure the weather) and not the garland (it is soft and pliable), but the ornaments. I must admit we lost 2 or 3 glass ornaments that I can probably replace for next year. We also found items the kids had made when they were younger – broken, but glue-able. No one was hurt, not even the dogs, who still can’t figure out why there is a tree inside the house.

After the tree was upright again, my son spotted the remnants of a small glass nativity ornament in pieces. I looked and suddenly saw that the only piece that survived the crash intact was the baby Jesus. He had some rough edges and his manger was gone, but there he was.

There are myriad lessons we could extrapolate from this event, but the one that really hit me this year is that in church life, we have conflicts and disagreements.

We even outright fight with one another about the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary or the cut of the new drapes in the reception room/parlor. Not every moment of church life is peaceful and happy. In fact sometimes, it is anything but.

And sometimes, things come crashing down around us when something terrible happens in our church family – when we find out the pastor has been abusing women in the church, or the money runs out or someone is arrested for a terrible crime. The truth is that once in a while, the glorious edifice of the church, with its tall steeple and colorful windows and brilliant ornamentation, hides within it a congregation that is broken, whose life is crashing down around it.

One thing I know to be true, is that even when “the church” comes crashing down around us, Jesus always survives the destruction. Jesus exists beyond our mistakes and beyond other people’s mistakes.

Jesus is the thing that makes us who we are and Jesus is the one who will save us from everything that threatens us, even ourselves.

That is why we rejoice in this season and celebrate the birth and life of the one who loves us more than any other.

May your church’s Christmas and the New Year be filled with the Peace that comes from knowing Jesus survives, no matter what.

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• Tuesday, November 08th, 2016

For several years, the Finishing With Grace authors have been in touch with Bunker Hill Congregational UCC Waterbury as the congregation has worked its way through closure.   The following note is from the church’s moderator and the link is to a newspaper article about the closing.

Bunker Hill Congregational UCC Waterbury held its’ final worship Sunday November 6th. I wanted to thank you for your prayers, support and insight for the last few years. I believe that Bunker Hill has “Finished with Grace” and trust that God always had a plan for Bunker Hill and God’s people in the community.

 

www.rep-am.com/…ews-local/2016/11/06/church-changes

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• Saturday, October 08th, 2016

Encore Blog

By Gretchen Switzer

How many of us have said to our families:  “If we just had ‘this much more money,’ then we could do ‘that’ and we would be happy.”  How many of us have said similar things at church?  “Oh, if we only had enough money to pay for a really good music director!  If we had the money to repair this or add on to that, we’d be  okay!”

I guess it’s part of the human condition to feel that we never have quite enough, but it leaves us, at home and in church, feeling that we are without resources, that our hands are tied when it comes to providing for the future.  If we live with this mindset long enough we end up living out of what we perceive as poverty, rather than living with a sense of abundance.  It makes us negative and feeling  powerless.   We slash the vastness of our dreams because all we can see are the obstacles before us, the closed doors and dwindling dollars.  Our vision becomes tiny.  Then, we are failing to live in the grand vision of our God.

I used to believe that  not having enough money in the bank was the cause of the demise of many congregations.  Over the years, serving a variety of congregations, many of whom had limited financial resources, I have learned that it is not the dollars and cents that dictate a church’s potential, but the size of the congregation’s dreams.  This is where we get stuck — when we allow our visions and dreams to be limited by our own negativity and lack of faith.

I spent most of my pastoral career serving small to mid-size churches who were worshiping in modest buildings with minimal professional “staff”, but recently, I have had the experience of visiting several churches who worship in huge facilities and have the funds to do just about anything they might want to do.  Their presence in the world, however, is still dictated by the size and power of their dreams for the future.  Their future will be dictated by their ability to look out beyond themselves.  A congregation whose focus is only turned inward, and cares primarily about perpetuating itself, will eventually become a lifeless community, no matter how much money they have.  While a community of faith with wonderful, broad overarching dreams for their ministry will probably find a way to make those dreams come true whether they have a huge bank account or not.
I think it’s time we stop letting money get in our way. Don’t you?  We need to start creating outrageously profound visions based in our faith in God through whom “all things are possible.”
We must stop focusing only on maintaining the “institution” and move toward tapping into the divine “inspiration” which will allow us to fulfill even our largest, most outrageously abundant, dreams for our churches.

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• Monday, September 05th, 2016
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Encore

This blog is not directly related to churches in transition,. Although, perhaps it could be . . .

A while back, we had a concern at our church when an older member called to tell a church friend that she was having a health issue, that her son was taking her to a hospital and that she would likely have surgery. That was the extent of the conversation and no one at the church heard anymore for weeks. There was growing concern. We didn’t know how to reach the woman’s son (who lived in a distant town), we didn’t know what hospital was conducting the surgery, we had no way of finding out how she was doing, or – most important – there was no way we could reach out and help her as a church community. We were flummoxed on how to proceed. Fortunately, the story ended well. She had successful surgery and was back with us within a few months.

However, there was an important lesson learned. Most churches have their members’ addresses and phone numbers, but they don’t necessarily have a list of emergency contacts. It’s common sense, isn’t it? Whether you’re part of a religious community, an employee in a business or even a resident in your condo/apartment/neighborhood – it’s logical that others have a way to notify your family or a friend in a crisis.

Once my church recognized our information void, it was surprisingly easy to gather what we needed. Our Stewards took on the project and sent out a generic email to all members. It was a simple enough message: Please send us the name, address, email address, and phone number of your emergency contact(s). Of course there are non-tech members without email who require a phone call – or a letter. However, the list was assembled in no time – much to the relief of the church community.

Note: This list should have a level of privacy. Obviously your pastor(s) needs it and perhaps the senior deacon or Stewards. If the church secretary maintains the list, it probably shouldn’t be out on an desk for all to peruse.

But here’s another view on this emergency contact project – it’s a two-way street. Church members providing emergency information should also tell their contacts about their church affiliation. Then, that contact will know to keep church family informed of crisis events. Pastors cannot visit congregants in distress if they don’t know what’s happening or where they are. And contacts, who might be dealing with life and death issues, could appreciate knowing they have a church’s support or, at the very least, the kind attention of a religious professional.

So how can this tie in with a church in transition? Many of your members’ emergency contacts are probably family members, some of whom (siblings and children) might even have been associated with your church at one time. They may have gotten married, moved away, simply become unchurched. Having their names and addresses offers an opportunity for outreach. With the permission of the individual, you might want to add that address to a church newsletter or “Church in Transition” update list.

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• Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Author: Gretchen

Encore

I recently heard from the member of a church in transition, whose congregation had taken part in an assessment of their situation based on the following set of questions:

1) What is your church good at?
2) What is your church not good at?
3) If resources were not an issue what would you like your church to be good at?

These are questions that typically appear, in one form or another, in the discernment processes of congregations. In this case, church members did answer the questions. However, their answers were fairly “earthbound” and by and large, made no real connections with God. This, wisely, was of great concern to the church leader with whom I spoke.

As I looked over the questions, it became very clear to me why the answers had very little to do with God. Do you see it, too? Right! The questions have very little to do with God as well. If we expect the conclusions church members reach about the present and future to reflect God, then the questions we pose must reflect God in the first place. For example, the questions above may be transformed and enriched as follows:

1) When is your church best at glorifying God?
2) How do we fail at glorifying God?
3) If resources were not an issue, how do you envision your congregation
glorifying God more effectively?

I will admit that my version of these questions assumes a specific, clear cut theological understanding: that the purpose of the church is to glorify God in the world, but whether or not that is your congregation’s basic belief, the reframing of these queries in the language of faith, to involve God and get people to consider God in the process of discerning the church’s future, will result in responses that are faith-based and God-centered.

Truth be told, this is just one example of the ways in which the folks in our churches approach conversations about the future. We tend to get so mired in our very real and urgent concerns about the money and the building that we begin looking at the future from an almost completely human perspective. But the future of “The Church” and our own congregations are intimately connected with God and who we understand ourselves to be in relation to God. If we do not approach these very basic question about the church’s existence using a faith perspective, then nothing we do will reflect the guidance of God’s Spirit and our future will be built on a human foundation rather than on the cornerstone which is Jesus Christ.

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• Thursday, June 02nd, 2016
Encore Blog

Over the past few years, my church has become a lot more musical. It could be our minister or the make up of our congregation, it could be our worship space, or maybe this is happening all over the place.

The buoyant sounds of the new church music is fun – no complaint here. We sing more, we smile more, we praise God through joyous songs. Who wouldn’t love that? Okay – I acknowledge that some churches feel differently about sacred music and that’s fine.

I do have one problem with the music at my church – the hand clapping to the more upbeat music. Just to clarify – I love it when everyone is clapping – feeling it – going with the beat. And if they all sway to the music – more power to them.

But it’s MY clapping that concerns me. I have no natural rhythm – none. I’m even toe tapping challenged. So when everyone around me is clapping to a musical beat, I join in only when the whole room is involved – and I carefully watch my neighbors’ hands so that my clapping is in synch.

I’m not the only one. There are several of us who simply don’t have the ability to go with the sound, to clap to a beat. Hey, I’m a lousy dancer, too.

So this is a message to the clappers – and the non clappers – whether in church or or any public musical event.

Hey, clappers: More power to you. I love that the music moves you and that your joy is so infectious that it lights up the room.

You non-clappers: It’s okay. As long as you’re not standing their scowling, it’s fine to observe. Well, I wouldn’t stand there like a stone. Please try to be engaged. But if feeling the beat is not your thing, so be it.

But here’s the core thing: Just because I’m not clapping – and swaying and gyrating, that doesn’t mean I disapprove of those who are. I love being in a room that feels the spirit – a room that is rocking with good sounds. I’m not standing there being judgmental; being ole sober sides. I just simply can’t do it. I can fake it a little, but I’d be the one who’s clap is off by a nano second, or the one who sways to the sounds like a robot.

So clap on – lift the roof with joy. But please don’t think badly of me if I simply smile happily. And – okay – my toe might tap a little bit.