Gathering Wisdom Beyond Friends
In January 2022, a small international group of Friends gathered on Zoom to hear from Marilyn Fiddmont (Christian Church Foundation, Disciples of Christ) and David Schoen (United Church of Christ). These individuals both have decades of experience supporting congregations through closure. Marilyn and David talked about their call to this ministry, the joys they find in doing it, the challenges, and the practical lessons learned. Afterward, the group reflected together on what had been heard.
Here are some highlights of the ecumenical conversation:
Data shows that the normal life span of a congregation could be analogous to the life span of a human being. This isn’t something we say often. The expectation is that meetings normally last for three hundred years or perhaps last forever.
Our visitors talked about how important relationship-building is to the process. Even while a community is in a state of dissolution, relationships can continue to be built with the people involved even as the institution is coming to its conclusion.
Let’s think more broadly about the possibilities: not just a meeting being laid down or continuing as-is, but what are the options in between?
Friends are going to have to look at supporting online congregations because that’s the direction some groups are going. It may be what groups do now instead of ending their meetings entirely. It is even possible that the brick and mortar model will change so much that it disappears in all cases except a few.
Meetings have sacred stories that shouldn’t be lost. The closure of a church or meeting is not the end of its vision/calling. That can be carried on in another way in the community, monetarily and/or spiritually.
We all need to get up our courage and have some tough conversations: where will our meetings be in five years? We don’t have a hierarchical construct, so how will we do that? What about groups that are totally independent, unaffiliated with any yearly meeting or other group larger than themselves? Who will help them and bear witness to their stories?
Urban churches are failing faster than rural ones in some denominations. Is that true for us?
Let’s remember also to pay attention to places where there is room for new spaces and things opening up.
In other denominations, the congregational closure ministry is connected with the financial institutions; the people who do this work also work with endowments, insurance, pastor retirement plans, and so forth. Is that the right place for this work in our institutions? Why or why not?
Many meetings don’t feel a close connection to yearly meetings. There’s a lack of relationship and even sometimes enmity with the large organization and/or nearby local meetings. There are meetings that are quite happy to flourish or struggle without asking for help or relationship.
There is probably room for intentionally growing relationships between meetings that are geographically near one another, regardless of whether they are technically connected by an institutional structure: what are your needs, and what is your vision? That may be a good conversation to start.
Marilyn told us that a meetinghouse is a “third space” for a community. It can be a safe space. Even if a meeting is very small, if it is open for other groups to use, it may become seen as a safe space for groups to meet. Wonder how prevalent it is that people would see a church or Friends’ meeting as a neutral and safe place for community to gather? Consider the neighborhood impact as part of the ministry of the meeting.
Remember the spiritual aspects: don’t strand Friends, care for them, make sure they have a place to worship.
We have so much to learn from other traditions…and probably wisdom that we could share with them, as well. How do we connect more frequently like this?