Closing a church was my worst nightmare. I fought it with all my being. We hoped we might survive as a congregation, yet our church died. Through the process, we struggled with many forms of grief—anger, sadness, confusion. Darkness hovered, like Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Afterward, I wondered how other pastors and congregations who experienced the closing of a church felt and, particularly, how it affected pastors who, like me, had accepted their call with starry-eyed hopes for renewal.
I appreciate these opening words from author Gail Cafferata’s new book, The Last Pastor: Faithfully Steering a Closing Church (Westminster John Knox, 2020). I share her initial impulse to resist closure, and instead to work for revitalization and renewal. The last thing I would want to do as a pastor would be to close a church.
Yet just a few paragraphs later, Cafferata writes, “I would close another church in a heartbeat if that’s what I felt God was calling them to do.”
How did she go from thinking closing a church would be “a nightmare” to “I’d do it again in a heartbeat”? What did she discover from her study of over 130 pastors who had also closed their churches?
Three things stands out for me in the wealth of stories that Cafferata shares in her book.
1. Closing a church may be an act of faith, not failure.
Throughout her book, Cafferata likens pastoral leadership to steering a ship, expressed by the Greek word kubernesis. The New Revised Standard Version translates the word as “leadership” in 1 Corinthians 12:28, but the verb form literally means “to steer,” like holding the tiller of a boat. For pastors, Cafferata writes, “Minding the tiller means bearing hope when the journey seems hopeless.”
Closing a church requires faithful steering—guiding a church’s discernment process, embracing both gratitude and grief, recognizing both the losses and the opportunities, leaving a legacy of ministry and blessing others. All these are acts of faith, not failure.
2. It’s possible for a church to have a good death.
Some churches die by merging with another congregation. Some sell their property and donate the proceeds to food services, refugee support, or other community ministries. Others gift their furnishings, communion sets, or other items for use by other congregations. Closing services include both expressions of mourning and the assurance of resurrection hope, with storytelling, thanksgiving, and praise for all that God has done.
In these and other ways, the closing of a church may be marked by grace, dignity, and honour for the life of the church. As Cafferata writes,
Pastors strive to provide a “good enough” death for the sacred community—one that celebrates the church’s past and present ministries; thanks God and others; leaves a legacy; consoles people in a closing service honoring what they faithfully, courageously began and nurtured over the years; and encourages the people of God to be the church as they worship God in new spiritual communities.
3. Pastors can find consolation and hope even when closing a church.
Instead of the nightmare she expected, Cafferata and other clergy discovered unexpected blessings as they served churches that were closing. These blessings included turning to God in prayer, Bible study, memorizing Scripture, learning to let go, loving relationships with their congregation, support from other pastors. She writes:
Working in a church that closes can affirm God’s presence in times of trial and soul wrenching. But in the midst of troubled waters, God embraces clergy with faith’s gifts—spiritual disciplines such as prayer, sacraments, journal writing, walking in nature; an affirming claim on the authenticity and faithfulness of a pastor’s call to ministry; the promise of resurrection after death for the congregation and the pastor.
I’ve always felt sad at the closing of another church, but reading The Last Pastor made me realize that closing a church can also be a time of rich ministry. With its many examples of pastors and churches serving faithfully until the end, this book offers hope and a way forward. Far from being a nightmare, when a church needs to close, it can do so with dignity and in life-honouring and life-giving ways.
Disclosure: Thank you to Westminster John Knox for providing me with a complimentary review copy. As always, the choice to review and opinions expressed are my own.
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