Thursday, July 17, 2014

Book Review: Gail Irwin's Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection

Irwin, L. Gail.  Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection.  Eugene, OR: Resource Publications.  ISBN # 978-1-62564-231-8.  $22.00.

One of post-2008 Recession’s reality checks has been the challenge placed on many congregations and denominations.  Local churches were frail enough already, and for some, the economic downturn accelerated a series of anxious questions and difficult decisions.  Churches closed.  Some churches lost significant endowments while also dealing with the consequences of higher than prudent use of principle if not their dividends to meet operational shortfalls.  Churches without a reasonable grasp of their financial and property management (admittedly few and far between) are still bailing out the water, often casting clergy with modest compensation and some benefits overboard in favor of part-time pastors who still are expected to keep up with the duties of their predecessors.
It’s been a tough few years, hasn’t it?  Working with churches as a judicatory staff member has attuned me to the types of conversations churches attempted over the years.  The churches who met the challenges with diligence and thoughtful planning have navigated the rough seas as gracefully as one could expect.  For others, conflicted or mismanaged congregations are worse, not better, for the experience.  Some clergy look forward with relief that retirement can be no longer deferred.  Others ponder what ministry will be like with twenty-plus years still to go, facing a future of primarily only bi-vocational opportunities with few, if any, pension and healthcare provisions.  Add in the studies regarding pastoral attrition, and it’s a volatile mix.
Called into the midst of ministry in these times, the Rev. L. Gail Irwin, an ordained minister and freelance writer, offers some deeply pastoral words for persons who love the local church yet struggle greatly with the challenges of stricken stewardship, waning relevance and buildings leaking and creaking in rural towns and inner cities.   Through this book, Irwin summons us to remember the God who turns mourning into dancing, seeing new possibilities where decline, decay and death have seemed the only viable futures available to some congregations.
Irwin speaks as a minister well acquainted with the faltering churches of our day.  She shares earnestly of her pastoral and personal frustrations and heartache as congregations she served could not embrace healthier ways as well as moments when she could see a far greater narrative at hand than the dispirited faithful could tell about their future. 
Irwin’s forthright prose speaks to the truthfulness of congregational longevity.  History is marked with the rising up and the drawing to a close of countless congregations, yet in our post-Christendom funk, we feel ourselves particularly challenged.  Irwin observes, “The decline we are seeing now in the life of institutional churches is part of the greater story of how God keeps nudging us out of our comfort zones and on to that better country.  It is our task to keep moving forward with trust, even when we’re not sure where we are headed” (p. 21).
The book offers wise words for all who love and toil within the world of congregations: congregants, lay leaders, pastors and denominational staff.  Irwin invites us to address the depth of our grief when hard decisions loom.  Taking stock of the psychological and spiritual toll difficult times place on church leaders is encouraged as well.   I found her chapter on “Expressions of Grief in the Faith Community” especially helpful as I work with congregations, and I admit her thoughts helped me process some unresolved matters still lingering within my own pastoral journey with struggling congregations.
Irwin challenges churches to have a clear understanding of the possibilities before churches aware that they are nearing an ending.  Understanding the community around a congregation and realigning the church’s mission may move a closure situation into revitalization. Irwin offers laity and clergy the opportunity to consider several pathways into the future rather than the “boom or bust” mentality far too familiar. She reminds the reader that hard decisions are best made within the faith community together, not just deferred to a few key leaders or the clergy (or the bishop/judicatory official, etc.).  While we struggle, it is helpful to remember that the facing of the future is communal as much as it is inevitable!  Irwin wisely observes, “Once we are able to face the change that is already happening around us, we may open our hearts to the possibility that God is yet at work in our struggling churches” (p. 38).
Reading the book slowly and thoughtfully will give you the opportunity to hear the wisdom of persons interviewed by Irwin and assure you that your church’s challenges are very much relevant issues among many churches.  The questions accompanying each chapter offer a number of thoughtful reflection opportunities for individuals as well as small groups.  Pastoral collegiality groups would find this particular helpful, as the book addresses many situations of church transition and challenge commonly experienced at some point over the years of ministry, if not already!
The book also addresses the fruitful ways churches can opt for closure.  The way in which a church plans its last wishes, divesting of all assets, can be a time of building up a lasting legacy.  Practical advice helps difficult decisions be ones of great joy, reminding us that one congregation’s ending is the beginning of something else God will plant and bring to flower.   Resurrection, we are reminded, comes in many wonderful ways, bringing new life where it was thought to be otherwise!
Gail Irwin's ongoing blog posts can be read via:

Likewise, check out the active discussion Facebook group "Congregational Seasons", exploring churches in various forms of transition and resurrection.  Log on to your Facebook account, type "Congregational Seasons" in the search bar, and then you can request to join this group and receive updates, including occasional posts from Gail Irwin! 

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