I was on my summer internship doing hospital chaplaincy, and I had the opportunity to serve on the palliative care team. Palliative care, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for patients and families with serious illnesses and injuries. I was assigned to a case where an elderly women had suffered a massive stroke, and was in a coma. Her recovery unlikely, her children faced the difficult choice of removing life support and placing her on hospice. As the chaplain, I sat with the family, offering an empathic ear that listened to their concerns and sadness about their mom’s state, I mediated arguments between the siblings and their spouses as they accused each other of less than honorable motivations and past hurts, and did my best to gently and as pastorally as I could steer them toward the decision that made the most sense: place their mother on hospice and say their final goodbyes.
Well, this went on for 3 hours as we waited for the palliative care doctors. I was getting nowhere with the family; in fact, I felt like things were going backwards. As my frustration mounted, ticked off that my very pastoral presence wasn’t bringing calm into the situation so that a rational choice could be made, the palliative care doctors finally walked in. The practitioner, with just as much empathy and genuine care, said, “I’ve reviewed your mother’s situation and health and I can tell you in my most honest medical opinion, she isn’t going to make a recovery. My only question to you is, what would your mother want in this situation?” The siblings agreed to take their mom off life support and place her in hospice.
My initial reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me. You just roll in and in 5 minutes get the family to make the decision I spent 3 hours trying to get them to make?” After reflecting, I learned a important lesson about the necessity of varying skillsets and roles on teams. What the family needed in that moment was “outside my lane” as a chaplain. The doctors, as compassionate truth tellers, were the people they needed, with the information and expertise they needed to make their choice.
Many of us are well aware of the challenges facing ELCA congregations (and likely all denominations) with respect to shrinking membership, resources, and a lack of pastors for the number of vacant calls. There are a lot of faithful, smart folks who are working to address these realities. However, I think there is one reality out there that many of us know, but aren’t willing to acknowledge:
There are a number of congregations out there that are no longer viable.
The reasons vary, but the reality is the same: while God always promises God’s people a future and a life with it, the same isn’t true for congregations. While we certainly don’t know the timeline or shelf life, as God’s people are pulled in new and different directions and the context around them changes, the communities they create will be affected. The truth is, just like our own lives, congregations also may come to a point where their life comes to an end.
I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a healthy way to talk about this. It’s kind of like the person who didn’t exercise enough or eat right through their lives. Maybe that’s part of their demise, but the causes when we’re facing the end aren’t worth dwelling on. It’s about facing and living through the ending with grace and dignity, not making a list of regrets and shortcomings that brought on the end. Also, it isn’t about clawing tooth and nail for survival, right to the bitter end.
I digress. My point here is to raise the issue that we don’t really have the appropriate skillset or role in our current leadership structure to deal with issues of viability and end of life with congregations. We have mission redevelopers, developers, Directors of Evangelical Mission, assistants to synodical bishops for conflict resolution, and intentional interim pastors. However, these are roles that assist congregations in transition, not facing a choice about whether to continue on or not. None of these roles directly addresses the issue of viability and end-of-life with congregations for whom that is a reality.
Do we need a “palliative care” type role among our current pastoral leadership models to address congregations facing serious issues as they face the future – God’s future for both God’s people, and for congregations?
Do we need a pastoral skillset to lead congregations through discernment of their viability? Do we need compassionate truth tellers who will assist and empower congregations and synod leadership to make an informed decision about the congregation’s viability?
I believe that God is calling us into a conversation about this, and it’s one we need to have no matter how much we’re unwilling to admit more than just a few of our congregations are facing the question of whether or not they’ve reached the end of God’s mission for them in their current state. If we start with God, then we know that there is a future for us as God’s people; our faith doesn’t die with our congregation, but rather it is the beginning of something new. The truth is – and we know this – new life often can only happen when we first put to death our own fears and need to survive.
As people of faith, death AND resurrection is who we are. It is the same for congregations. We, both individually and communally, often avoid the first. We need leaders who will come alongside and help us with the issue of viability we simply won’t talk about….but need to.