Closing churches

Charles M. Olsen offers this week’s conversation starter from The Alban Institute: how do you close churches as painlessly as possible?

Parishioners realized that closing a church would call for a great deal of letting go. They were deeply attached to their building and its contents, for which they had given and worked across the years. Father Ted Szudera, who currently serves as priest to Holy Trinity parish, has listened to people converse about those former days of hard decision making. He says that they organize their stories around one word that always comes up—sacrifice. They knew the names of people who had given the pews, altar rails, statues, and specific fixtures. A favorite uncle may have created a handiwork that was important to all.

So how did these three faith communities come to eventually give up their preciously held identities and investments of time and money they had each made over the years? Sister Deanna points to three factors: (1) The people were down to earth and practical in nature. They did not try to put on airs to impress each other or the other churches. They were plainspoken folks who could discern the obvious, given their declining numbers. (2) The diocese had a shortage of priests, and the people’s needs were not adequately being met. (3) The process of considering their future was greatly enhanced by the presence of a retired priest, Father Martin Werner. Whereas Sister Deanna, who led the conversations, was considered an outsider, Father Werner was the consummate insider, and the bishop had requested that he sit in on the deliberations. Everyone knew him and loved him. He employed a charming sense of humor, which became a real gift when matters became tense. He blessed their explorations and eventual conclusions.

Almost every diocese I know of would benefit from closing numerous small, struggling parishes. What are the best ways to do that difficult job.

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