May 29, 2020

Artesia Christian Church, Artesia, California

I never aspired to being the closing minister of a congregation. It’s not the kind of most ministers want on their résumé. But it has been one of the most important and fulfilling tasks I have done in ministry.

For seventeen years I ministered to and with the Artesia Christian Church in Artesia, CA. Like many churches, its membership aged and participation slowly dwindled. It is not as though we had no mission or vision, but as time went on, the energy for those things declined. Although we tried to keep things going as long as possible, it became evident that it was no longer viable for us to do ministry as a congregation any longer. Perhaps there might have been ways to cut back more and keep going a bit longer, but it would have only postponed the inevitable.

It was a difficult decision that had to be faced, and the people of the church faced it bravely. Even though for some it was the church they had been in most of their lives, it was clear that it was time for something else. With great sadness, the congregation voted to end our ministry together. We set a date several weeks in the future that would be our final worship service.

As their pastor, I knew it would be a time for grieving, but I also encouraged them to understand that from that point until we actually ended the ministry together a couple months later, they would be called on to serve as stewards of what God had entrusted to this congregation, including its heritage, its ministry and its assets.

We consulted with our Regional Minister who helped us understand the ways we could approach our task. The assets all had to go to other tax exempt organizations. The policy in this region is that the church property, if given to the region without instructions, would be used for new church development— either the property itself would be given to a new congregation or the money from sale would be used to start new churches. We wanted to be active in determining the ministry that would be done with the assets from the congregation. To do less, it seemed to us, would fail to live up to the stewardship that we were given by those who came before us.

The next difficult choice was what to do with the biggest financial asset, the church property. Its location was less than desirable for a church. We put it on the market thinking that perhaps a church would want it or developers would use the acre of land for apartments or houses. Because it is getting hard to have land rezoned for church use, our zoning turned out to be an important part of our asset. Because of that we got several bids on the property — going well beyond our asking price.

Even before we sold the property, we began thinking of what we would do with the proceeds of the sale. We began by making a list of the many ministries that were important to us as a congregation. Then we selected five of those to be the recipients of a permanent fund in the congregation’s name to be established with the Christian Church Foundation. We wanted the annual gifts for these ministries to be significant, so we limited it to five ministries. Included in this was establishing a grant program for leadership development in the Region. Even as our congregation was coming to an end, a new ministry was born.

Even though we limited the number of recipients of permanent funds, we wanted to share our blessing with some of the other ministries as well. To do this we set a minimum amount that would go into the permanent funds, and began thinking about one-time gifts to be given to these other ministries.

Before we heard the bids on the property, we began thinking of how to divide this money. In about fifteen minutes, we had set aside $150,000 for these one-time gifts. In all the years I had been minister of the congregation, we had never had a budget of $100,000. And in a few minutes, we were already doing ministry beyond our dreams.

When we learned how much money we would be getting, we began to add ministries and to increase our gifts. Through these one-time gifts we are sharing over a quarter million dollars with 17 ministries and organizations. We also set aside money for first year funds for our permanent fund recipients, so that they wouldn’t have to wait a year for the first draw on those funds.

In addition to permanent funds benefiting local and regional ministries, we were able to make one-time gifts for scholarships at Chapman University and Disciples Seminary Foundation, our local Habitat for Humanity, Disciples Mission Fund, Week of Compassion, Reconciliation Ministries and regional work.

During our final worship service, rather than receive an offering, we used the offering time to announce the gifts we were sharing. Representatives from most of these ministries and organizations were on hand. It was a wonderful experience to be able to call them forward and join with them in their ministries through our gifts. Certainly it was a blessing for those who were the recipients of the gifts, but more, it was a blessing for the congregation to see that even though it was a time of grieving, there was great ministry being done and that would continue forever in our name.

We also had a great deal of other assets to share: banners, dishes, choir music, art supplies for children, and many other things that accumulate through the years. When we discovered that Chapman University didn’t have copies of the Chalice Hymnal, we gave them ours. Many of the hymnals were given in memory or in honor of people who were special to our members. We kept those bookplates in the hymnals and put in new ones to note that the books were given to Chapman by Artesia Christian Church.

Now, whenever those hymnals are used at Chapman, they honor both those who were named and the church itself.

We also placed an inventory of what we had on our church website and invited other congregations to let us know what they could use. Much of our choir music went to other congregations. Our banners were sent to First Christian Church in Lompoc, where they will grace their worship space as they have ours. Our dishes were taken by First Christian Church in Bakersfield where they were given to families in need in packets of four place settings.

Throughout the final weeks, we continued to worship and praise God even though we were hurting, knowing that there was an end in sight. We continued to meet at the Table and to hear God’s Good News and to seek God’s will in what we were doing.

Often when church closings are discussed, resurrection is spoken of. I sometimes suspect that we speak of resurrection out of a pastoral concern — trying to keep hope alive in the midst of grief.

But I can bear witness that resurrection was most certainly a part of the closing days of Artesia Christian Church. Resurrection is not only the hope of a final resurrection; it is also the new life that comes to us in the little deaths we face over and over.

In the case of Artesia Christian Church, when we made the decision to end our ministry together, that vote was really the time of death. We saw that the ministry we had loved so deeply was no more. But immediately, we began to see new, bigger ministries that were opening before us. The days of selling property, giving away banners and dishes, making gifts and establishing permanent funds was a revitalized time of ministry. The church that had been hanging on to life, when we finally gave it up, found its new life in the resurrection that took place among us.

Because of this resurrection, the ministry of the Artesia Christian Church did not end when we closed our doors. On the contrary, in many ways it was just a beginning.

Written by Rev. Darrel Manson