Anglican Watch

When Episcopal churches close — part III

When Episcopal churches close

We’ve watched Episcopal churches (and many others) close for several years. In doing so, we’ve observed several consistent themes. Perhaps identifying them will be helpful, although our list of issues is not intended to be complete. Instead, they reflect the forgotten, often human aspects, of church closures.

  • Consider alternatives. We automatically consider a church building part and parcel of the gig. But many churches transition successfully to meeting in homes, rental spaces, and other fora. Indeed, one church planter told us the saddest day of her life was when she realized her church had to buy a building. And consider denominations with underused space that might welcome the company — and the rent.
  • Be transparent — Forget the Dennis Canon and all the noise about who owns what. When a church closes, it should not come as a surprise to anyone. Yes, it may become diocesan property, but that is not the issue.
  • Honor people — the final vestry in a closing church often undergo tremendous trauma, including criticism from every direction. Show extra kindness to these exceptional members. 
  • Trauma — it would seem like this trend would be painfully obvious, but you’d never know it from how many dioceses handle the closure. Yes, the bishop rolls through, and there’s a (usually nasty) sheet cake, but addressing parishioner concerns takes a lot more than that. These concerns range from pastoral care to the return of restricted donations, re-interment of human and pet remains, and how to handle memorial contributions. 
  • Human remains, in particular, are a big deal. Even if it’s been decades, a concerted effort must be made to contact descendants. Many an unchurched family has poorly reacted to discover that grandmother’s ashes are now under a big box retail store or stored on a shelf somewhere. 
  • Memorial donations need to be considered carefully. Often ignored altogether or addressed with minimum effort, no one wants to find the Tiffany window they donated in memory of a loved one on eBay. Efforts must be made to return these items, sell them back if necessary, or find a museum or other appropriate place for these emblems of enduring love. One family we know, which had long lost touch with their grandparents’ church, was horrified to see the gorgeous window they commissioned at great cost for their grandparents selling for a few hundred dollars on a salvage site. Talk about adding insult to injury.
  • Restricted donations often cannot be used at will. Absent appropriate language in the deeds of conveyance, restricted donations MUST be used according to the terms and conditions under which they were solicited. And Episcopal entities are famous for shoddy business records. To use restricted assets in a way not contemplated in the original transaction is at best breach of contract, at worst fraud.
  • Parishioners may need help finding a new parish. The new church may be within the Episcopal church or outside. But each parish has a personality, and it can be challenging to walk into an established family system and say, “I’m from St. Mark’s, which just closed.”
  • Parish registers need help to find a new home. Although not as crucial to the church or society as large as they used to be, these are often treated with careless abandon on the way out the door. Ideally, dioceses should have a checklist for parishes to complete, to make sure these issues aren’t overlooked.
  • Lessons learned need to be compiled. Yes, sometimes churches close because the neighborhood around them has changed, but far more often, the parish hasn’t changed with the times. And conflict can play a considerable role in church closure. Was there something that could have been done to address infighting? Were family systems issues ignored until it was too late? Was the parish ever offered coaching on how to change and adapt? Far too often, we hear, “But it was such a friendly and welcoming place,” conveniently omitting the fact it never once made an effort to grow.
  • Consideration needs to be given to the next use of the property. It may be tempting to sell out for a mega office tower or high-end condos, but if the land was donated to build a church, the deed needs to be examined for possibilities of reverter. In other words, you may not be able to sell willy-nilly. And even if a reverter doesn’t exist, the grantor may be unhappy if they aren’t at least consulted before a sale.
  • Deal honestly with members. Suppose you held a fundraiser three years ago to prepare your diocesan offices for the next 20 years by modernizing air conditioning, replacing flooring, and more — and that 20 year thing was an express part of the request for donations. In that case, your donors will be angry when they discover the place is for sale just a few years later. And if circumstances have changed, explain how they’ve changed. In other words, don’t walk in and announce, “I’m the bishop and this is how it’s going to be.” (Yes, we’re thinking of you, George Sumner.)
  • Tie up loose ends. One church we knew closed down, only to discover soon after that it was the remainderman for several multi-million dollar trusts. Even worse, the trust documents had been in the church’s possession the entire time. It was just that no one bothered to read the papers. The same goes for parish safes, safety deposit boxes, and the local registrar of deeds. Many churches hold unused cemetery plots, houses, or condominiums. Indeed, one church we know closed about eight years ago, never realizing it owned a block of prime, suburban townhomes, all rental properties. For a long time, tenants paid rent into escrow. We don’t know how those issues were ultimately resolved, but “badly” comes to mind. And how the hell could you not know you owned an entire block of homes?
  • If your church operates under a corporate entity, continue maintaining the entity for several years past closure. Doing so protects against personal liability, child sex abuse cases, and more.
  • Consult with CPG, your accountant, and your legal team. Nothing replaces individual attention to these issues.

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