Tonight our association held their annual meeting at a church which shut down several years ago. I’ve been in the building several times since it closed down, and it’s always depressed me — the musty smell, the empty space, the sheer amount of lost potential. Until tonight, however, I’d never quite figured out how the church collapsed so thoroughly. From all reports the church had a sizable endowment as late as the 90’s, and with some decent management it could still be doing significant ministry. So what happened?
The end-game of the church was, unfortunately, a story which has played out again and again in churches. A pastor is called without wisdom, severs the church’s relationships with other congregations and the congregants relationships with each other, and then moves on — blaming everyone else for the destruction caused. Yet, a church with the resources that this one had going for it needn’t have taken that path — a path often taken out of a sense of desperation. The reality of what happened to the church never fit with else I knew about it, until tonight.
During the meeting I wound up in a hallway I’d never paid much attention to before. On the walls were several dozen plaques, all dedicated to the same pastor. He was everywhere. The mayor of the town honored him, civic organizations honored him, religious organizations honored him, the church gave him plaque after plaque. From the dates on the plaques I gleaned the pastor had been there for sometime, at least from the 60’s into the early 90’s. When the scope of those plaques hit me I realized what killed the church. When the pastor left, the church just stopped. After showing the hallway to a friend and mentioning my insight, she pointed out another plaque with the pastor’s name on it. This one, dedicating an education wing, listed the dates of the pastor’s reign — 1947 to 1994. Forty-seven years!
As the sheer weight of that reign sunk in, I began to realize something else. The decor of the church was vintage 60’s and 70’s. the upkeep of the building looked like it had slowed to a crawl years before it closed, which was odd given the endowment the church had possessed. The church hadn’t stopped after the 47 year pastor left, it stopped at least a decade before he ended his reign.
Suddenly, the run-down and empty church was no longer depressing, it was frightening. We slip into stagnation so easily, and then entropy — organizational, spiritual, and physical — works it’s deadly power. Stability can be a wonderful thing, but when stability becomes the thing, the death cycle has begun. It’s a sobering thought.