Resurrecting Dying Churches to New Life


One thing Bob Farr is certain about – when it comes to repositioning a church, the future is uncertain. There is no step-by-step formula with guaranteed results.

“Our process is firmly in jello,” Farr said. “Every time we go to do one of these, things turn out differently.”

Farr was addressing a group of United Methodist Conference-level leaders, primarily district superintendents and Conference staff, who came from all across to the country to meet at The Gathering in Clayton (St. Louis) to talk about multi-campus ministry. Although every church is different, Farr has learned a lot from each individual church he has worked with in the repositioning process. There are now 18 churches in the Missouri Conference who have been through these steps through Farr’s center of Congregational Excellence.

The process typically includes a church recognizing that it does not have a viable future on its current trajectory. Without a major shift, which would usually include a closure and a restart, the church will continue to decline while being unable to afford even basic maintenance on its building, and cannot invest in renewed efforts for ministry. But even in extreme situations, it can be very difficult for someone to see their church close and give itself over to something different.

“People feel grief and anger which can lead to dysfunction. But even if they are working against the process, you must remember these are good people. Each person thinks they are defending the church that they love,” Farr said. “Many of these are generational churches. People can tell you about the grandparent who planted church, sometimes these were the first generation in the family in the country. As clergy this a painful process for us, but we’re experiencing the same kind of pain as a member who is seeing the break-up of a lifelong relationship with his or her church. Sometimes I’m driving home with this on my heart, saying ‘What did we just do?’”

It seems it would be easier to let a church in decline simply continue to decline, and eventually fade away. But to do so would not be staying true to the mission of the United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

“We must try not to be held hostage and end up missing the ministry of Jesus Christ,” Farr said. “People may get angry and leave, but when that happens they usually just go to a different church. By taking action, you’re not jeopardizing anyone’s salvation. But if you just let them be, you may miss the mission of Jesus Christ.”

When Farr talks about repositioning, 15 out of the 18 he has worked with in the Missouri conference has involved starting a new church as a second campus of another church. Being backed by a vital church makes many steps of the process easier, and opens more possibilities. But sometimes taking this as a new disciple-making opportunity isn’t easy for people to accept.

“Some people in a congregation may feel that my taking on another campus, they’ve become in a two-point charge, after they’ve worked hard to become or remain a single charge,” Farr said. “In these cases nothing we could say would convince them that they hadn’t been demoted.”
There is one problem with the plan of doing a church repositioning with the mother-daughter church new plant model: it takes a mother. There are more small churches edging closer to closure that need a restart than there are large, vital churches to initiate a restart.

“I have a dozen requests on my desk from churches who are interested in becoming a legacy church, and closing to give their building and resources to a new-church start,” Farr said. “Out of our 800 churches in Missouri, we only currently have about 40 that are well-positioned to launch a new campus, and most of those are one of three geographic areas. Some churches that are hoping to become part of another church are more than two-hours away from a large church.”

Facilities can also be an issue. Some church buildings are too large, or too far gone in terms of deferred maintenance, to be good candidates for a new church start. Rev. Matt Miofsky, senior pastor The Gathering, which was hosting the Conference, said an example of that is St. John’s UMC in downtown St. Louis. The beautiful, Theodore Locke designed building of woodwork, stained glass and marble was too large and would require too much money to be a location where they could start something new. After it closed, the building proved hard to sell, and was on the market for years, eventually receiving only a fraction of what would have been market value some time earlier.

An example of being right-sized was the church that was the location of the Conference – The Gathering at Clayton. This church was still in good condition and had money in the bank when it voted to close and become a new campus of The Gathering. The building was also the right size to launch something new.

Someone asked Miofsky if he was concerned that the sanctuary at the Clayton campus would limit the size of the congregation because it isn’t big enough. He said he didn’t think it would be an issue.

“With multiple services we could grow this site to 500 – 600, maybe more,” he said. “If it needs to be able to accommodate 1,000 someday, we’ll cross that bridge when get there.”

Even smaller churches in good condition can require quite a bit of money during a restart.

“A building like this will take $150,000 - $200,000 to get up to speed. Even when it’s in fine, it’s dated,” Miofsky said. “It’s hard to start something in a big space. This place will feel good with 150.”

A person from Texas asked about a church in her district that was valuable due to its location in a downtown commercial district, but was near closing and wasn’t an attractive church building. Should it be sold, or revitalized? Farr replied that it is important to have a strategy for the entire area. Someone from Georgia replied that they consider the “highest and best use,” and in most cases like this the church would be sold. Miofsky said you have to keep the mission in mind.

“Are we in this to invite new people to follow Christ, or are we trying to save the churches that we have?” Miofsky said.  

Farr outlined a three phase conversation process that takes place between a district superintendent or Conference staff person and a local congregation that is considering closure so their church can be repositioned. The process is not for the timid.

“We’ve had many churches go through conversation 1 or conversation 2 and decide not to go onto the next step,” Farr said.