Each year, all across the country, some churches choose to close their doors. It is so sad to lose these faith communities—some of which have been around for more than a century. There is profound grief for the remaining members, who often carry the memories of generations of their family members in these spaces. Church physical structures embody these memories of their family weddings, babies being baptized, and loved ones laid to rest. The loss is great.
Every year in our annual conference session, we vote to “discontinue” a small number of churches. This year we said goodbye to five beloved communities of faith in the Minnesota Annual Conference—a higher than usual number due in part to the pandemic. In my experience, churches generally close for three primary reasons: 1) they can no longer afford to pay a pastor; 2) they can no longer afford or are no longer physically able to maintain their property; or 3) they simply run out of participants. Always, there have been multiple attempts over decades to try and stop the decline but, for a variety of reasons, nothing has worked.
We all grieve when a church closes, and you can feel that grief on the floor of annual conference when we vote to discontinue a church. It is a very somber moment.
And yet, we are a resurrection people who believe that new life springs forth from death. This time of seismic change in our culture has granted greater permission to think outside the box and to not be constrained by expectations of how things are supposed to be. There is freedom in a time of cultural chaos to be innovative and creative. Let me share the stories of two of these five congregations that chose to close and how their missions are continuing in new ways.
Sunrise United Methodist Church (Mounds View): Sunrise was comprised of a group of kind and gifted folks who loved being together and did so much good in their community. Among their numerous strengths was the Christian preschool program they started more than 30 years ago, which is still thriving today. This church made multiple attempts over the years to revitalize but eventually aged-out even though their desire to be together remained strong. Maintaining their property just became too overwhelming. With the help of many (including their former pastor, Rev. Andrew Church), they made the tough decision to close. But, in consultation with key conference leaders, everyone saw the importance of continuing their preschool ministry, preserving their strategic location, and maintaining their property for future ministry use. After they voted to close, a group still wanted to worship together in that space. So, with the help of Kathy Huber and retired ordained elder Lynn Gardner (both of whom raised their own children at Sunrise), they have re-launched as the Sunrise United Methodist Fellowship and are drawing some new people (read more about Kathy Huber and her call to ministry). The Sunrise Christian Academy (preschool) covers the building expenses and works with one of the local transitional trustees, Terry Bankston, to manage the property; a couple of groups also rent space there on a weekly basis. Messiah UMC in Plymouth sent a mission team to do the tear-out of the parsonage and the United Methodist Nomads arrive in late July to help rehab that house. The mission team from Messiah and the Nomads are always a tremendous blessing to the places they serve and Sunrise is so grateful for their help.
Spirit River Community Church (Isanti): Even though Spirit River Community Church closed, it still had a powerful sense of mission and passion to reach new people. Many churches lose sight of their mission decades before they close, but Spirit River, in many ways, still embodied a church planting fervor. This made it doubly hard to make the decision to close. When the pandemic hit, it shut down the church’s banquet business and made it impossible for its renter/caterer to host large gatherings. This, in turn, made it impossible to pay the expensive utilities on that large piece of property. Another major factor was that Spirit River had the amazing ability to reach folks who were facing multiple challenges in their lives and many who had never had a church home. As we all know, the pandemic hit these already-struggling folks hard. People lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their cell phone and Internet connections. The leadership of Spirit River couldn’t even locate some of these folks, and there were others who just didn’t want to worship together in a different location post-pandemic. After church leaders considered all of their options and made the painful decision to close, the musicians who provided such great music for worship realized that God was not done with them. They still had a passion to play together so they have officially formed the Spirit River Band and are playing for other congregations and community organizations. They are excited about this new chapter and engaged in powerful ministry to reach new people and help others grow in their faith. The Spirit River Foundation will follow Spirit River’s signature ministry, Matthew 25 (a food giveaway program), that was re-launched by Coon Rapids UMC during the pandemic.
These stories of new life do not diminish the pain of having to close, but they are excellent examples of what is possible when we focus not on scarcity but on what opportunities God is revealing and when we make courageous decisions to be Spirit-led. Thanks be to God for new life and new possibilities!
Rev. Susan Nienaber is director of congregational vitality for the Minnesota Annual Conference; she previously served as Big Waters District superintendent until July 1, 2022.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church