So, a week ago I got a call from a local business man - someone I know only from occasional pleasant conversations over the counter. His wife died suddenly and unexpectedly and he asked if I would preside at the funeral. He said he had called his former church - an Episcopal Church in the NE Corridor (not saying which diocese - it doesn't matter) - but found that it had closed 5 years ago.
This was the church where he and his wife had gotten married. It was where all three of their kids were baptized and confirmed and one was married. His wife had chaired the hospitality committee and both had taught in the Church School and organized and lead girl and boy scout troops. His wife had served on the Altar Guild and he had served on the Vestry, including two terms as a Warden, one during a capital fund drive as well as a time on the Search Committee.
He said he knows that all the checks he's sent for the past ten years have been cashed. No one sent him a thank you note - which he didn't expect nor want - but neither did anyone send him a note telling him that the church had been closed. He wistfully and sadly wondered what had happened to those five checks and hoped they went to some good.
But, he wondered if I would be willing to preside at the Celebration of Life ("That's what they're calling it these days," he said, sounding confounded) and Memorial Service at the funeral home chapel - the service directly from the Book of Common Prayer, please, but no communion, thank you - and that I would kindly understand if he was really, really angry at the church and would probably be for a very, very long time.
In my pastoral work, we have a saying: Pain touches pain.
It was very clear that the pain of the sudden, unexpected death of his wife was touching the pain of his sudden, unexpected learning of the death of his beloved church.
The intensity of all that pain was almost too much for him to bear.
So, when I went to the house the next day to plan the service with him and his daughter, we talked a bit about the closed church and the checks.
No, wait. She passed the Exit for Furious about 10 minutes after she heard the story from her father and was on the road to Heads Will Roll.
So, while I was there, she called the diocesan office. She put the speaker phone on so everyone would be able to hear.
To my surprise and delight, the person who answered the phone at the diocesan office did exactly what was needed:
Offered sincere condolences.
Assumed the veracity of the complaint and didn't challenge it or get defensive.
Apologized, profusely.There are lots of possibilities I can imagine about what happened to that money - everything from theft by an individual to incompetence of a bookkeeper to an overwhelmed diocesan staff to the indifference or arrogance or the "hands off" leadership style of the diocesan bishop.
Assured the caller that, "I, personally, will get to the bottom of this and get back to you."
And, I'm sure there are things I can't possibly imagine.
It's important to know what really happened so that, yes, if there was any wrong doing, there can be accountability and appropriate consequences, but especially so that procedures and policies can be put in place so it never happens again.
The daughter's response was equally surprising and delightful.
She said, "Look, bottom line, we don't want the money back. We want it to be put into a fund that provides pastorally for the congregation after a church is closed."
"You can use it to pay someone, if necessary, to search the parish records and books and make sure letters go out to everyone to notify them of the church's closing. I don't care if half of the letters come back marked 'undeliverable'. The cost would be worth it to make the good faith effort to make sure everyone knows what happened to their church."
"The only thing I ask is that it not be used to pay some or part of diocesan staff position," she said.
"My mother would want to help the bishop be the bishop: The Chief Pastor. I want to help the bishop and the diocese to be pastoral. Is that too much to ask?" she asked, her voice trembling with emotion.
Again, the person at the diocese who answered the phone was very pastoral and said quietly, "Of course not. That is not an unreasonable request. It's a perfectly reasonable expectation."
She again apologized profusely, offered sincere condolences, promised again to "get to the bottom of this" and get back to her. "I will call you no less than a week from today to give you an update of where I am," she said as they exchanged pleasantries and hung up.
A few days later, I presided at the funeral. It was in the chapel of the funeral home and it was lovely. I was in cassock, surplice, tippet and hood. The service was directly out of the Book of Common Prayer. The music was piped in over a Really Good sound system. It was solemn and respectful with moments of poignant humor and absolutely infused with a sense of celebrating this woman's life.
It was everything the Burial Rite in the Book of Common Prayer promises: A belief in the resurrection so deep and so profound that it creates a safe place where people can grieve and mourn while also rejoicing in the precious gifts of faith and life. In that moment of communal worship, God's people can weep and laugh, all without concern for judgement.
It was not in "A" church but the church was there in that funeral home chapel. It was an honor and a privilege, as it always is no matter where I am, to be the church's representative at a moment of intense individual family loss and pain and grief and emotion.
I don't yet know if the diocese has gotten back to the daughter. I pray for the best possible outcome.
That's not why I'm writing this blog. The money is not the important thing here. It's just money. It's gone and the family doesn't want it back.
It's the relationships we have in Christ that are more valuable that fine gold. The breach of trust in that relationship may have caused irreparable harm to an entire family.
I'm writing this blog because, after I posted this story on my FaceBook page, it became clear that this is not an isolated incident. One person wrote that, after her church was closed, she drove by and noticed that "someone" had thrown out the parish registers in the dumpster.
I'm writing this blog because I hope a few folk read it and call their diocesan offices and ask if there is a diocesan policy for pastoral care for congregations of closed churches. And, if there isn't one, to insist that one be developed.
If necessary, write a resolution for your next diocesan convention as an opportunity to educate the diocese on this issue, and get everyone on board with the policy.
I also hope some seminary faculty or seminarians read this and begin to ask what kind of pastoral care might be required for a congregation when their church closes. There are going to be more - not less - of these pastoral challenges in the years ahead.
I understand that the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut has such a policy. You can find it here.
I especially like the Pastoral Care section but I don't see a specific area that deals with making an attempt to reach out to parishioners who have moved away.
I think it's incredibly important that dioceses take responsibility to insure the pastoral care of all parishioners of all closed congregations.
Even the ones that have moved away.
Especially the ones that keep contributing.
Because, you know, sometimes the unexpected and unthinkable happens.
And then, the phone rings.
I don't think, for a clergy person anyway, not answering the phone is an option.
UPDATE: A note from Joan Gundersen, Archivist from the Diocese of Pittsburgh
A number of dioceses do not have an archivist. Every diocese should. The position doesn't need to be full time, depending on the circumstances. There is an organization for individuals serving a parish or diocesan archivists and they offer training at their annual meetings. It is NEHA (National Episcopal Historians and Archivists). If your diocese does not have someone designated to handle these responsibilities, it is not meeting its pastoral obligations or serving as good stewards.