In my first year of full-time ministry I’ve seen precipitous decline followed by folding a congregation into another congregation under the auspices of launching out in the future, and now, I’ve been the pastor of a congregation that has closed it’s doors.
All in all, it was a year I will never forget.
Seminary left me more prepared for academia than pastoral ministry, but I was a student pastor which aided my transition into ministry. I went to a “Church Start” boot camp led by a planter/coach named Jim Griffiths which gave me some new ideas and found through working with other pastors quite a bit about how church functions. Not to mention reading about a dozen books on the subject (skimming most of them). But nothing could really prepare me for closing a church down.
It started out so well, we grew in attendance over the first two months. Amarillo is a great place to live, the people that were at the church were great people, hard workers with a heart for others. It took a little to filter through and see the problems that were there, and now looking back I know a lot of the problems were with me and not knowing exactly where to lead a group of people. Those mistakes aside there were other insurmountable difficulties that led to the church closing, but right now is not where I will reflect on those – besides Jim Griffiths book would decline in sales if someone rehashed it poorly in one liners.
The service tonight hit me with the finality of it all. I turned my keys over to the District Superintendent and said goodbye to my first charge. With communion and just a small group that has become friends. Two were at the church either at the beginning or almost from the beginning, two had joined while I was there, and one had just been there a year and spent the afternoon helping me load a trailer to go to our new house.
It is a sign that Westover Fellowship still has groups and pockets of community within those formerly part of it.
Christ was still with us.
The Holy Spirit still led us.
We still love God and love God’s people.
We still praise God and serve God.
But we closed down and through our lot in with another church, St. Paul UMC. It’s a good move, those that stick with it can multiply the ministry there and bring a new flavor to the community which has been incredibly welcoming. All in all there are a lot of good things that can come of this.
A number of articles can go out and say closing a church might be just what God wants, and that may be true – even for us. There is probably work out there for the Kingdom that we are all now especially equipped to do. There are communities in need of our gifts and grace and ready to welcome us in as part of the crew. God can work all things to good.
But it’s still sad.
I imagine it hits the hearts of those who were there the longest or most involved with the community most, and as we spoke aloud the memories of children’s baptisms, of baking communion bread with the youth, of funerals, and of playing with my daughter Jane in the nursery (or my office), it really felt like a death. Sure, the building was a bit to iconoclastic for my taste and even with excellent musicians and vocalists we never really had a chance to get a house band with it’s own unique flare. But mores the pity, because it was still a place of worship and joy.
As Christ said, “Blessed are those who morn…”
As we celebrated communion on last time as Westover Fellowship UMC, it only took a small loaf and a small chalice, but it felt final. I may never again have communion with that particular group of friends and members of the body of Christ. It was for a little while my home, and my friends there will always have a little part of me. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”, and that is what I am doing for each of the people I met while there.
Farewell Westover Fellowship UMC – you were a community that served God, that loved God. Go in the peace of Christ.