During the Council of Bishops meeting last week in Georgia, we heard many exciting reports (really we did, along with a few boring reports). One of the best was from the Path One team which is focused upon helping our UMC start new congregations. Our goal is to start 650 during this quadrennium here in the U.S. (along with a similar goal in our Central Conferences outside the U.S.), and it was reported we have already started 421 new churches with many more in the works!
Path One has a term which I believe we might want to use here in Indiana. The term is “Elijah Churches” – for congregations which intentionally vote to “close” or to “complete their ministry” and then to hand over the blessing of their building and facilities to help start a new congregation. The Biblical image is of course the story of Elijah the prophet giving his blessing and mantle to Elisha the new prophet. Such “Elijah Churches” are ones which chose to end their own ministry with dignity, as they further decide to bless a new congregation which is being born in their midst.
We have had some of those in Indiana. I think of Christ UMC in Fort Wayne which generously shared their facility with a new Hispanic UMC, and eventually they chose to give their building to what is now the Iglesia Getsemani UMC of Fort Wayne – a lively, growing Hispanic congregation. I was there the Sunday that we chartered Iglesia Getsemani UMC, and I had opportunity to see some of the members of the former Christ UMC who were there on that Sunday to give their blessing and even to fix the meal for that new congregation.
It is a wonderful thing when a person or an institution prepares its own legacy. Just as people have life cycles, so also congregations have life cycles in which their ministry is born, grows, matures, declines, and eventually is completed. Is it not easy for a congregation to recognize when they have completed their ministry and to make such an Elijah decision, but when it happens it is a joy to watch.
This E-pistle is not intended to threaten any of our existing churches. The Conference is not intending to close churches or to force vital mergers or changes. But we do have staff and superintendents who can help a congregation which wants to explore its future and to consider all of the options available. In some cases, after much prayer and discernment, a congregation may want to consider becoming an “Elijah Church” which helps the pass their blessing on to a new congregation. Such a church is not a failure, it is an instrument of continuing God’s ministry to new persons.
I believe that we need to find ways to honor those individuals and churches who are mature enough to prepare their own legacy.