Susan M. Pfeil on Processing the Unique Grief of Closing a Church

Susan M. Pfeil, LMFT, lives in New Canaan, Connecticut. She provides pulpit supply for churches and is a marriage and family therapist.

I held my brother’s ashes in my hand. The texture was finer and smoother than my sister’s ashes 18 years before. Hers had been more granulated, with a grayish tone. My brother’s were softer and pale white. Before I slowly circled the 90-year-old maple tree that stands outside my family home in Montgomery, Ohio, I held “him” in silence for a few moments. Then little by little, I spread “him” around the base of the tree.

I stood back and looked up to the top of the tree. I raised my arms, and from somewhere deep in my soul came a wail that had been held back for the year following his death. I let it go and wept, lowering my arms slowly. When the crying ceased minutes later, I felt an unexpected relief that I had finally done what I had been dreading: I had let go of him once more. Now it was clear he would not walk through the kitchen door later that morning. I turned around and hugged my sister-in-law and my deceased sister’s son. We shared a bit of closure for the loss of a brother, husband, and uncle.

Throughout the year and a half since my brother’s death, I have been attending a weekly bereavement group at the Family Centers, Center for Hope in Darien, Connecticut, which has guided me through different levels of the grief process. My participation in the group raised questions about other kinds of losses. What happens when we face a deep loss for which there is no closure, no spreading of ashes or burial of human remains? I’d experienced that kind of grief less than two years before, as the stated supply pastor to close a 122-year-old church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on Christmas Day 2016.

Pastoral Identity after a Church Closure

During the months following the church closing, when I discussed this experience with clergy colleagues, their facial expressions often had a puzzled, strained look, as if to say, “What on earth went wrong?” I reminded them that the best research on the matter suggests that 1 percent of American churches close each year. That’s better than most institutions, but it still means that on average more than 10 churches close their doors for good every day (and that doesn’t even include church plants that close within their first year).

As I considered my circumstances after just over six years in the pulpit of the church I helped close, I wrote to a colleague in our presbytery whose church closed after a much longer tenure. He wrote back telling of how his presbytery devoted significant time at its meeting to honor his church as it closed. His parishioners spoke about what they had gained from their church and what they would miss with its closing. They gave testimony and received witness to their experience. The ending of the church was documented for posterity like a memorial service after a death.

The memorial meant more to him than words could ever convey. He was speechless and seemed humbled by affirmations from the church and the presbytery. All experienced a sense of shared loss.

In contrast, my church experienced loss without quite sharing the experience. There were no closing rituals in the last services since they coincided with the traditional liturgy for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That was probably a mistake. Scholar and author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved GriefPauline Boss coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s in reference to families grieving for soldiers who went missing in action. She suggests that when participants can accept, grieve, and move toward integrating their loss in a healthy communal manner, they will eventually reconcile their loss within their life experience, as hard as it might be. The closing of our church remained unverified, unacknowledged, and thus ambiguous.

Ambiguous Loss

The First United Church of Christ in Bridgeport, Connecticut, founded in November 1894, was home to an extensive community of Hungarian congregants. Only a few decades before its closing, the church would hold two Sunday services, one in Hungarian and one in English. Hundreds of worshipers came regularly. Festivals were held annually, and the Hungarian culture thrived there as it did in other churches both Protestant and Catholic in western Bridgeport. This was a tight-knit group with a shared history. By the end of our six years together, they had invited me into their world through their stories and memories.

With our church closing, my pastoral identity could not help but be affected by the loss of these vital relationships. How could that loss be grieved? It was awkward to express how I really felt to colleagues or even to the parishioners.

Nine years before we closed in 2016, our church building was sold to a denomination that worshiped on Saturdays. The terms of the sale enabled our church to continue Sunday worship until we closed. Changes to the sanctuary were expected, and these came gradually. Movable chairs replaced the pews that our congregation had sat in for decades. An electric keyboard replaced the much-loved organ. The memory of the former sanctuary gave way to the recognition that the church was still open for worship, but it was changing and felt unfamiliar. It required acceptance of ambiguity.

The slow decline in the number of worshipers through illness, aging, and lifestyle changes prevented our church family from sustaining the spiritual life and practice of its parishioners. Eventually the energy of the once vibrant spiritual and cultural Hungarian community took the form of impending death.

One of my clergy colleagues spoke of my ministry as “hospice care to this church.” This was never more apparent than in the last months of its life when an average of 15 active congregants arrived to worship each Sunday. It wasn’t the number that was so troubling but the fact that they sat in the same seats, every week, at vast extremes from each other. They were isolated from one another in a large sanctuary designed for hundreds of people.

The congregants barely acknowledged one another and rarely, if at all, commented to me about the service as they left. The lack of energy was tangible and exhausting. Boss describes how “people are often ‘frozen’ in place in their reactions and unable to move forward in their lives.”

“Frozen in place” would also describe my own professional loneliness as their pastor during that last phase. Was I a pastor or a hospice chaplain? Both? Neither?

In Counting Our LossesDarcy L. Harris and Eunice Gorman also use the term ambiguous loss to describe losses “that are often not recognized for their significance because they are either intangible or not caused by a physical death.” Like Boss, they believe “the validation of [the] loss experience” is key to working through that kind of loss. A pastor with a church about to close needs similar assurances as someone experiencing a miscarriage, a long-missing family member, or the loss of a loved one to dementia.

Boss agrees that these moments can be confusing and disturbing. “Religious rituals for mourning loss are reserved for the clearly dead,” she wrote. “There are few ceremonies to comfort us when our loved ones are only partially gone. Families are left on their own to figure out how to cope. In a culture that stresses problem solving, an impending death may be interpreted as failure.”

About a year and half after the organ was removed, our leadership gathered for the last time on November 27, 2016. Everyone who had helped to keep the church going during the last year was thanked. The Consistory’s choice of the last day as Christmas Day seemed especially complex given the traditional seasonal images of birth and renewal. Already in my mind at that last meeting, I knew I wanted to encourage our congregation to think of the shepherds who went to the crèche to worship the Holy Child and then out into the uncertainty of night to become missioners. After our two final services, we would no longer be in this building to share this story together, but with the shepherds leading us, we too would be sent out into the world to tell a story of a living faith.

There was a bittersweet feeling as we made the transition from a small congregation to a dispersed community. Were we like the first-century diaspora, the Israelites after Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple? In retrospect, perhaps we could have engaged in a closing ritual at that last Consistory meeting. Such a deliberate act would have acknowledged our life together as well as its imminent ending. It might have been my own denial that prevented me from doing this. Why did I think I needed to model an unquestioning acceptance of all this without expressing emotion?

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Source: Christianity Today

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