A friend sent me an article in the Boston Globe that has an interesting comparison that I hadn’t thought much about:
At a time when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and other Catholic dioceses around the nation have been closing parishes that attract as many as several hundred worshipers a week, Protestant denominations are supporting congregations a fraction of that size. Although both Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations face falling attendance at worship, these different branches of the Christian family are taking radically different approaches to determining whether a congregation is viable, and who should decide what to do about a failing church.
Catholic dioceses, with power strongly concentrated in the hands of bishops and a theology that says only priests can celebrate Mass, are citing declining numbers of worshipers, dollars, and clergy in moving aggressively to consolidate churches. The Archdiocese of Boston has closed nearly one-quarter of its parishes over the past decade. But Protestant denominations, which often emphasize congregational independence and democratic decision-making, are leaving many of their small churches open, avoiding the controversy that has characterized the Catholic process but allowing for a sizable number of struggling, even moribund, congregations with minimal programming and part-time clergy.
For everyone’s benefit, moribund means “approaching death.” You know you didn’t know it either.
I hadn’t thought about how different the two religious systems approach congregational viability. But it is true: even if a parish is economically viable and has a few hundred members, the archdiocese will often close it. But on the other side of the ecumenical rail, my United Methodist church has 35 people on a Sunday morning, and we are not closing anytime soon.
To my eyes, there are several major reasons for the RCC version of congregational sustainability:
- Image. The image of a failing church is not one that the RCC wants, so if a congregation even gets anywhere close to that, they will close the church.
- Decision-making. At Annual Conference, we closed two United Methodist churches, by a vote of the people, bishop, superintendent, and local congregation. There much more people involved in the process, so no wonder Catholic Bishops can close churches much easier.
- Money. This may seem like a cheap shot, but I know the Boston Archdiocese has been selling off property to pay for clergy abuse suits. Other denominations may have similar suits, but the way they are affiliated means any monetary damages stop with the local church.
On the Protestant side of supporting smaller churches, that seems empowering. But is it? There’s these considerations for consolidating churches:
- Proper Leadership. The scrappy parishes that finally shed their insecurity can find they can be resurrected. But smaller churches means often green ministers or local pastors (non-seminary-trained) take the reins. While that gives them energetic or contextual leadership, is it really a good idea to send new pastors to really struggling churches?
- Small Communities are PERFECT. One of the finest churches I’ve ever been to is based off of Leonardo Boff‘s concept of Base Communities: small grassroots churches. If it is one’s ministry model to be small, then denominational leaders need to make room for that.
- Zombie Churches. I know of a few churches that have less than a dozen members in a huge church…because they have large endowments that pay for the church costs. If the church put everything on automatic withdrawal from their bank account, they could exist forever even if not a living soul is in the pews. Is that really ministry? Is that really what the givers of those endowments would want, rather than giving that money to a viable ministry a few streets over?
I’m not a big fan of the arbitrary numbers that say you need 120 people to start a new service, or if you fall under 80 active parishioners you cannot sustain a pastor. But are there other non-numerical considerations?
- What should be the tipping point to consider changing a denominations’ policy on consolidating churches?
- What should a local congregation consider as they seek to close smaller churches and move into different ways of ministry?
Thanks for your thoughts, and welcome to our visitors!