Aging pushes churches to fiscal brink

Some aging congregations are mergering with younger, multi-cultural congregations in order to stay alive.

By Jeff Brumley

Things were looking bleak for Orange Grove Baptist Church and its aging membership when Greg Shoemaker arrived as its pastor about a year ago.

Located just north of Pascagoula, Miss., the congregation and community around it had been hit hard by years of flooding, the closing of a paper mill and elementary school and the decline of the local fishing industry.

Add to that the national trends driving down church attendance and all Orange Grove Baptist had were about a dozen mostly elderly members worshiping in a sanctuary meant for 120.

“It was a little discouraging,” said Shoemaker, 44, a bivocational pastor who also works in health-care administration. “They were a dying church with a lot stacked up against them.”

What he didn’t know at the time was that the decline in numbers would continue and raise questions about whether the church would survive.

Churches on the edge

It’s a question thousands of American churches confront each year. Estimates of annual church closures range from 3,500 to 7,000. That’s likely to increase as younger generations, including the rise of the “nones,” increasingly avoid organized religion.

One of the biggest dangers facing those churches is the failure to see the financial trap that puts them in, said Chris Gambill, manager of congregational health services at the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“A lot of established, traditional congregations don’t realize how close they might be to this scenario,” he said.

That scenario can spell trouble because aging members are the biggest givers in most American congregations. Gambill said 60 to 75 percent of giving comes from members who are 60 and older.

Gambill said those older members are often resistant to changes in ministries, and their giving isn’t being replaced after they leave or pass away.

“My best guess is that there is a 10- to 20-year window before most churches hit a financial crisis that will push them over the edge,” Gambill said.

Discerning that edge for Orange Grove Baptist church wasn’t always easy, said Patsy Ready, 71, a member of the congregation since its founding as a mission of First Baptist Pascagoula in the 1960s.

“I can remember a time when it was full and we had youth groups and everything,” she said. “Then we began to have our ups and downs, and it was probably in the ‘80s when we began to see real declines and couldn’t seem to build back.”

Ready said a series of preachers brought with them surges in attendance followed by more declines. Not until three or four years ago did the idea of shutting down become a sustained conversation.

“Personally, I felt like it was going to go down,” Ready said. “The last three or four years we have really been down to where 10 is a big crowd.”

‘A time for reinvention’

While shutting down is a nightmarish concept for most churches, others have found it to be a graceful way for aging members to leave a legacy, said Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary near Kansas City.

In 2008, a St. Louis-area church closed and gave $2.2 million to the seminary. The money was used in part to create an endowed chair and programming that continues today, Marshall said.

Another church donated its property to the seminary, which is using the facility as a church start for a new congregation, she said.

“Congregational health doesn’t mean that you live forever,” Marshall said. “It means you are able to make wise decisions about your future, and sometimes wise decisions are to merge, move, sell or give away.”

Gambill agreed and said the center is hearing from an increasing number of churches wanting to know how to go about shutting down. But most inquire about other options, including mergers with other congregations. “I think it’s a time for reinvention and re-imagining,” Gambill said.

At Orange Grove Baptist, Shoemaker came out of the gate fast in exploring those kinds of options.

First, he got the church very close to an agreement with a residential treatment program for substance abusers, but it fell through because of the frequent flooding in the area.

A few months later, the congregation was close to inking a deal with an agency that uses empty church buildings to house homeless families as parents go through job training.

“We were ready to receive our first family … in August 2012, and that is when (Hurricane) Isaac came through,” Shoemaker said. “It was a mess – the church got 16 inches of water.”

The members were haggard from their own hurricane experience and dejected about losing the homeless ministry.

“It would have been easy to quit right there,” he said.

‘Rethink funding models’

Gambill said churches faced with these situations must be creative in the way they think about their facilities, revenues and ministries.

“Most established traditional churches need to think about their funding models and wrestle with the idea: is it realistic to think we can support this institution simply by passing the plate?”

Innovative solutions increasingly tried include hosting business incubators, schools, social service nonprofits, coffee houses and bookstores, Gambill said. Parking lots can also be revenue generators during non-worship times, he said.

“I think the day has passed that we can build big buildings and expect to be the only ones who use them,” Gambill said.

That turned out to be true for Orange Grove Baptist. Two weeks after Isaac, Shoemaker learned through the local Southern Baptist association of a growing Hispanic congregation in need of a permanent home.

The sanctuary at Orange Grove Baptist was full for the first time in years when the merged congregations worshiped jointly on Jan. 13.

Talks progressed quickly and by October 2012 the two churches agreed to merge. The long-time members of Orange Grove deeded the property to the Hispanic group in exchange for being able to worship there as long as they are able.

A celebratory joint worship service was held last month, though the two congregations will worship separately due to the language barrier, Shoemaker said.

There are a lot of practical benefits to the arrangement, Shoemaker added. It gives a young, growing congregation a home, and it takes the burden of building maintenance and expenses off the older, original members of Orange Grove Baptist.

“We had a building in need of remodeling and 12 old people who can’t do it, and they had between 60 and 80 who are all young and many of whom are laborers,” Shoemaker said.

But Ready said there is also the emotional benefit of being able to worship in a sanctuary she and her friends have called home for decades.

“Had this not happened, I think we would have just closed the doors,” she said. “And that just hurt.”

Jeff Brumley is assistant editor of Associated Baptist Press.


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