Steeplejacking: Taking Over Dying Churches

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Istock _000005649206xsmallI’ve been talking with
leaders of once-sizable churches. Every week they face the painful
picture of a shrinking flock amongst the sea of empty seats.

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Thousands of churches today are declining to the point of
unviability. Many will be forced to close their doors in the near
future.

For the faithful members and staff, this attrition feels like a
vague terminal illness. They’re not certain of the cause or the
prognosis. Often, I’ve heard a wistful member ask, “What will we do
when the endowment runs out?”

At the same time, a new “ministry strategy” has emerged among
the younger churches in town. Some call it “steeplejacking.”
National ministry organizations advise local pastors to target
declining congregations and overtake their properties. It’s like a
churchified foreclosure and eviction process as the ambitious ones
attempt to acquire buildings at little or no cost. “All for the
sake of the Kingdom,” they say.

Once in awhile, all ends well. Both the overtaking and the
undertaking congregations find ways to meet their challenges and
simultaneously serve their communities and honor God. They find
win-win solutions. Both see their years of faithfulness, hard work,
and sacrifice developing into something valuable and durable.

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But sometimes steeplejacking becomes an unnecessarily divisive
and destructive exercise. This usually comes about when raw pride
and hubris enter the scene. I’ve seen leaders of a young church
communicate coldly with a struggling church, boast of their
attendance numbers, and tout their plans to establish multi-site
locations all over the landscape. They attempted to intimidate the
shrinking church into surrendering their keys or “face the
possibility of closure.”

Predictably, such predatory overtures are not received warmly.
And they run the risk of damaging the cause of Christ in the
community, positioning Christians as those who seek to euthanize
the old in order to provide a cheap place for the young.

Now, it’s true that many churches are dying. It’s true that many
will be unable to support their facilities. And it’s true that
other churches in the same communities could make good use of
vacant or underused church properties. And when handled with
humility, love and sensitivity, churches can come together to bring
new life during challenging times.

Some simple approaches can help growing churches and struggling
churches come together to accomplish something honorable and worthy
for the Kingdom.

FOR THE STRUGGLING CHURCH

  • Be open to the possibility that God may have new purposes for
    the faithful work and investment you’ve made over the years.
  • Involve the entire congregation in celebrating the blessings of
    the past, and opening hearts to what God may do in the future.
  • Proactively reach out to other churches to explore how you
    might work together to serve your community.

FOR THE CHURCH NEEDING SPACE

  • Pray for humility and sensitivity.
  • Understand and appreciate the deep pain experienced by those in
    dying churches.
  • Take on the compassion of a Hospice nurse, rather than the
    bloodlust of a predator.
  • Use good relational skills. Initially, meet personally and
    informally with leaders from the struggling church.
  • Don’t tell about your success. In fact, don’t tell at all. Ask
    questions. Ask about the challenges the struggling church faces.
    Ask how you might help the struggling church.
  • Rather than talking takeover, talk first about less threatening
    options, such as renting space or sharing ministry
    initiatives.
  • When considering lease or sales figures, don’t be ruthless.
    Make reasonable offers that reflect current market conditions. The
    selling congregation may have good plans to invest the proceeds in
    other God-honoring ministries that resonate with their
    mission.

These are challenging times for many churches. These times call
for the Body of Christ to summon abundant doses of love, respect
and compassion for one another.

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About Author

Thom Schultz

Thom Schultz is an eclectic author and the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café. Holy Soup offers innovative approaches to ministry, and challenges the status quo of today’s church.

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