By Marshall Fant III
As ministers of the Gospel, it’s natural that we would want to preserve and revitalize the institutions that have accomplished God’s work in the past. But what do we do when we realize that a church has lost its effectiveness, and efforts to revitalize have failed? Should a church like that be kept alive at all cost?
Sadly, some churches have accomplished their purpose and need to close. This decision presents countless uncertainties that likely will elicit fear in even the most audacious church leaders. But closing, though often difficult and emotional, does not need to be interpreted as failure. In fact, a church that dies with dignity can have a major impact on other churches and even continue its ministry into the future.
The process of closing a church presents numerous difficult questions. How does a church die well? How is it possible to end well after so many years of fruitful ministry? How do the leaders of a church maintain a good name to its members and community? Yet, despite the questions, a church closing must be guided by one unwavering rule: the rule of integrity.
Closing a church is a time of great vulnerability, so every decision must be made with extra care to ensure the church maintains a good name before God and man. Daniel provides us an impeccable example to emulate. In the book of Daniel, we observe a man that had a long and consistent ministry. He maintained his integrity to the extent that his opponents could find none occasion nor fault; forasmuch as he was faithful, neither was there any error or fault found in him (Daniel 6:4). When closing a ministry, the leadership needs to emulate this great man of God. Daniel lived his life to the end with integrity, and the church must as well.
When striving for integrity in a church closing, carefully consider these three components:
A church’s constitution is the governing document of a church. Is your church constitution’s dissolution statement clear? If not, now is the time to make necessary changes. When a church is in the process closing, it is neither the time to change the constitution nor bring in new members or bring back past members to influence the details of the closing.
Most churches operate as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and must follow both Internal Revenue Service and state regulations that govern how non-profit organizations close. Check with your state’s attorney general’s office as well as the IRS to make sure you follow the right steps.
Please consult a qualified attorney to advise you on the details of asset distribution, as great profit can result when they are handled with integrity. One common misconception might lead well-meaning church leaders to offer a retirement package for their pastor from the remaining assets, a practice that is both illegal and unethical. Another misunderstanding of assets is that they (cash, buildings, vehicles, and computers, to name a few) can be sold or distributed to church members. This cannot be done, as legally they must all be transferred to a similar 501(c)(3).
Funds transferred with integrity to a like-minded 501(c)(3) can be rerouted to ministries that will bear future fruit. Over thirty years ago, a church closed and repurposed $200,000 through a church planting missions agency. The agency invested the money, and the interest from it has financially assisted over 30 church plants. One church closing assisting 30 churches plants— that is ending well with integrity!
When a church needs to close, great care needs to be taken to maintain integrity in all of its affairs. Church leadership must carefully consider its constitution, its government, and the distribution of its assets. A church may need to close, but that does not mean that its ministry is over. If done with integrity, a church closing need not be considered as failure and loss, but rather as positive change and hope for future ministry.