PBS Features Philadelphia Churches in Danger of Closing

The Loss of A Church Is A Loss to the Neighborhood

PBS’s Religion and Ethics ran a 10-minute report on the future of many city churches. It focuses on our home town—Philadelphia. It addresses a phenomenon that is playing out across the country.


One of the people interviewed is Bob Jaeger of Partners for Sacred Places. They help churches preserve their sacred space.


He says:  

I think it is fair to say that this is a national crisis. It really is a national crisis.

This short video barely begins to cover the topic of church closings.

“In Philadelphia alone, with an estimated eight hundred houses of worship, Jaeger estimates between one to two hundred churches are at risk of closing.”

The video attributes closings to shrinking congregations and shrinking budgets.


The root cause of church closings is much bigger than that. Whole denominations are in difficult financial straits.


Churches that could survive with creative leadership are dying because creative leadership is rare. The focus is on staying afloat—paying salaries, utilities, insurance, and here’s the big one—law suit settlements. Those law suits, often dealing with clergy misconduct, are not paid by the offending clergy but by fewer and fewer people in the pew. The law requires payment, but the law cannot force congregational giving—the only source of income for many denominations. Property—especially property with endowments attached—is the most liquid asset available.


The dire state of regional bodies skews their thinking and mission. Organizations established to assist ministry now seek to force church closures to assure their own survival. Ecclesiastic cannibalism.


We at Redeemer in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia are very aware of the danger many congregations face. We have survived the most aggressive forced closure imaginable. We were obviously viable, so the strategy was to isolate the congregation, refuse to approve professional leadership—and when that didn’t work—attack the laity as a group and—just to make sure—attack the most trusted congregational lay leaders as individuals.


Bite the hand that feeds you.


Other churches may not realize that by standing quietly on the sidelines while this played out, they were selling out their own future. There but by the grace of God . . . .


The slightest weakness may attract the attention of a regional body. It will include plenty of pious pronouncements. “This is stewardship—preserving assets for mission.”

So don’t get into a conflict—no matter how justified it might be. Don’t start an initiative that may seem bold (cost money). Don’t borrow money to renovate your property before things get really bad. Don’t ask for denominational help. Just keep on doing what isn’t working as long as the money holds out.


Stay off the denominational radar!


The case of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod vs Redeemer, weakens the rights of congregations. These vary in different denominations. The courts are not likely to know the distinctions—or care. The courts ruled that they have no jurisdiction to enforce church constitutions. Unless a denomination enforces its own rules, it’s the Wild West of Religion. No sheriff in sight.


Our experience is that our denomination is unable to enforce its own rules. Two thirds of the people with a vote are unfamiliar with church law and the other third may not only be unfamiliar with church law but also owe their career trajectory to their relationship with the hierarchy.


Strong lay leadership, theoretically equal to clergy in Lutheran tradition, is feared or seen as somehow threatening. Silly.


Consequently, a provision of the Bill of Rights, (separation of church and state), meant to protect the practice of religion, can and is used by church leaders to sidestep their own rules to gain the property and assets of small congregations to benefit ministry in neighborhoods that are more demographically friendly—or more likely— to plug their own deficit budgets.


The churches of the suburbs are coming back to the city for what they left behind in the decades of white flight—property and endowments.


Jaeger notes:

“Unless they [congregations] do something creative and bold many of them will close or merge in the next ten, twenty years.”


“Creative and bold” do not come easily to church leadership. Mergers rarely work. Members of the church that is shuttered become unchurched. Their contributions of time talent and money are lost.


Denominational leadership is stumped. They don’t know how to minister in the urban neighborhoods that are increasingly mixed racially, ethnically, and economically. They want to become inclusive, but their entire structure is geared to “come and be like us” —no matter how many “Welcome” signs are posted.


Frequently, people making decisions about neighborhood ministries know nothing about the neighborhoods. They are following leaders without question.


They might learn from Jaeger’s advice:

“You may love the architecture. You may love the fact that it houses a concert or recital every month. You may love the fact that kids in your community go to day care. You may love the fact that homeless are sheltered there in the wintertime. You may not be a member but you can say this is a place that matters.”—Jaeger


Or if you prefer to quote scripture.

Be bold. Be strong.
For the Lord God is with you.