Few of us are ready for a death—whether it’s our own, someone’s we love, or the death of an institution like our church. When we see death on the horizon, we tend to clutch at whatever we can, blaming others for our loss and strategizing about how to postpone or prevent the end. But in our effort to avoid suffering, we may be disregarding some deep truths of our faith—that nothing created lasts forever, that fear and worry may be natural but are not necessary, and that letting go is possible.
Those of us who are Christian hear these truths of impermanence in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament. For example:
- “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted… a time to break down, and a time to build up… a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
- “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day…. because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:16-18)
- “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear? … Strive first for the Kingdom of God … and all these things will be given to you as well…” (Matthew 6:28-33)
Buddhism is even more emphatic, attributing human suffering to our inability to accept impermanence. In her most recent book How We Live is How We Die, Pema Chodron quotes Thich Nhat Hanh that “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” Chodron’s point is that “We can continue to resist reality, or we can learn to frame things in a new way, seeing life as … dynamic and vibrant, an amazing gift of an adventure.”
Season of Grief
I’ve been thinking about all of this recently because the past few years have been a season of grief for me. In August 2019, my husband died suddenly while recovering from knee replacement surgery. In March 2022, my father died only slightly less suddenly after a fall. Coming to terms with their deaths and especially, in my father’s case, with their effect on my life, has become work to which I dedicate time every day, seeking to let go of accumulated fear, anger and pain. I know that many of you are struggling, too, not just with the death of loved ones but also with the death of beloved churches.
Based on my own experience with loss, here is what I can suggest if it looks as though you may need to let go of your church.
- Feel what you feel. I can only speak for myself, but this is harder than it looks. Most of us have had to pretend about our feelings at some point, whether at work or with relatives or friends. Sometimes we even pretend with ourselves because we wouldn’t be able to keep breathing if we had to admit what we feel. My suggestion is to acknowledge to yourself the entirety of what you really feel—not just your anger, for example, that the Council might replace pews with chairs as they try to become more multipurpose, but also your underlying fear that even this small step will be the beginning of the end of the church that has sustained you. Sit with yourself or with a trusted spiritual adviser and be honest about your grief and fear.
- Study your story. Those of us who are Christian have a story that can help us. We are taught to notice the different seasons of life, to expect change, and to believe that God is at work even when we feel most abandoned. We cannot always see God’s purpose—“For now we see in a mirror dimly”—but we can know that God loves us, that God is present with us, and that God has a future for the Church, if not for every church. Study the story well enough to hear it even when it challenges you.
- Choose what you say and do. Whatever you feel, it is usually not helpful or gracious to share all your feelings with everyone around you, especially those feelings that have not yet been refined in light of the whole story of God with us. Feel what you feel, but choose what you say and do based on your study of Scripture and your desire to love God and your neighbor.
I cannot promise you will ever be resigned to what may ultimately be the death of your church, but I can say that, in my own life, to the extent that I’ve been able to let go of my fear and anger, the heart space they once occupied is being filled with love.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.