Organisms and organizations have life cycles—they transition from birth through infancy and adolescence into adulthood and maturity. Unless regeneration occurs, gradual atrophy ensues.
Churches are subject to a similar cycle of life. Sometimes they experience rebirth. And sometimes, the most effective way to for them to continue their rich heritage of a ministry is to discontinue or merge and reallocate resources and assets for new ministries.
Such foresight and faithfulness honors the past dreams and sacrifices of those on whose shoulders we stand and ensures that future generations will be blessed by a Wesleyan option for spirituality and service. Since 1797, the trust clause delineated in our Book of Discipline and included in the titles to all United Methodist church property provides for this important lineage of spiritual and material assets.
Paragraph 2501 of the Discipline explains that all properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination, and that this reflects the connectional structure of the Church by ensuring that the property will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination. This is “a fundamental expression of United Methodism whereby local churches and other agencies and institutions within the denomination are both held accountable to and benefit from their connection with the entire worldwide Church.” To the extent possible, assets are distributed to new ministry initiatives in the general locale of the merged or closing congregation.
The following recent examples illustrate how reallocation of assets brought new life to ministries of United Methodism in Minnesota. Congregations in closing stages of life can make decisions that give witness to a resurrection faith and offer a lasting memorial to their dearly loved congregation.
Don’t cheat resurrection
Without these churches’ generosity, giving their life away to the end, Minnesota United Methodists would not be able to start new faith communities or resource existing faith communities. Only about two-thirds of the total annual Congregational Development budget comes from apportionments. To continue our momentum with new church starts, revitalization efforts, strategic property purchase, training of lay and pastoral leaders, and missional placement of clergy, there is a growing need for additional financial resources some of which can come from legacy gifts.
Our mission is not to close churches. We want every church to be a thriving, vital church. But keeping doors open without promise of meaningful ministry is not cheating death, it is cheating resurrection. We are a resurrection people, believing that new life is being born out of the old. Members of closed churches often experience a blessing as they find a home in a neighboring or merged church. In their new church home, they no longer have to devote all their energy to the survival of the church they love. They are now free to use their gifts for the church’s ministry and grow spiritually in new ways.
In this season of Easter we ponder with both pain and promise, what it means to “lose our life for the sake of Christ in order to find it anew” (Matt. 16:25).
Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church