I got to spend the weekend in Hocking Hills. But not for a personal retreat or an anniversary getaway. It was basically for an event to mark the death of a church. It sounds morbid, doesn’t it? But I actually found it quite beautiful. And even strangely encouraging.
I went to the Hocking Hills at the invitation of my friends at H2O Akron, who are grieving the end of their time together as a church. They had a good run. They cobbled together a patchwork leadership situation for several years, hoping for a viable, long-term leadership team to emerge. But when all the possibilities were exhausted, they decided the wisest course of action was to shut things down. So, they decided to pull together a special retreat to process this transition together, to practically prepare for transition, and to celebrate everything that God has done through the years. That’s where I came in; I served as a facilitator for processing and preparing for transition.
And honestly, being present for such a mindful and meaningful moment felt kind of redemptive for me.
In the Spring of 2012, I remember sitting on the outdoor terrace of the Café Baton, within view of the Herengracht 88 (where our church was renting meeting space at the time). I was with my friend and mentor, Bob Phillips. He had seen several churches come and go in Amsterdam, and I believe that he saw things that Spring that I wasn’t able to see at the time. Looking back, I think he saw the lack of long-term viability that had been there for years. And I think he saw my upcoming departure as another step closer to death for our church community.
So anyway: at that café, I remember Bob suggesting a funeral for our church. Like, a literal ceremony to mark the end of its existence.
Whether it was Bob’s explicit suggestion or my own imagination running with his concept, I pictured pall-bearers and a casket coming out of the H88 and up onto the bridge over the Herengracht. I pictured scattering an urn-full of ashes into the water. A mental image flashed through my head of our people dressed in black. Mourning together: Arjen, Mirjam, Michaël, Mila, Afzal, Mourat, Marc, Heidi… I didn’t like it. I didn’t want that death to happen. My heart resisted any element of “failure” or an inability to finish this work that God (and I) had started. I wanted it all to be sustained and perpetuated for God’s (and my) glory. I was scared of death.
But Bob knew that the fatal blow had been struck: whether with Steve’s relapse into addiction way back in 2003, or Todd’s sense of calling back to the USA in 2009, or my decision to come back to Ohio in 2012, or some combination of all these things. I, however, resisted this terminal diagnosis. To my shame and embarrassment. I look back now and realize that I was self-centered and short-sighted. I had a ton of mixed motives. So I missed an opportunity for closure, for a good “Good-bye” there on that café terrace, when I blew past Bob’s idea for a funeral.
I insisted that the young Dutch leaders I’d been grooming were going to be fine, even though there were some obvious elements of immaturity. We set up some contingency plans, with extra opportunities for coaching and support, to try and help to ease the transition. But it didn’t last. I moved in July of 2012, and by October of 2012, the young Dutch leaders were gone. They made some mistakes, and the rest of the church didn’t respond well to those mistakes, so they just hit the “Eject” button — and that was really the beginning of the end.
The church limped along for another couple of years, with a jerry-rigged system of coaching and lay leadership… But it was not sustainable. I can’t even give you a date for the death of our church in Amsterdam. But I can tell you that it’s gone now.
So I was super-proud of the H2O Akron folks handling the death of their church better than I did. If the church really is a living organism, then it makes sense that it would have a life cycle: birth… growth… deterioration… death… Now, the Bible tells us that death is a result of the Fall. Consequently, it will probably never feel great. But there can actually be something beautiful and powerful in recognizing one’s mortality.
Even when a tree is healthy, it regularly sends out seeds. It regularly sheds its leaves and twigs and branches. But especially when an old tree starts to deteriorate and die, it might start to shed whole limbs. Its bark might peel away, even while the trunk stands. And eventually, the trunk will rot away and tumble or crumble to the ground. But even when it’s completely toppled and lying on the forest floor, it immediately starts to return its nutrients to the ecosystem. Fungi… Insects… Mosses… Underbrush… Maybe even descendants of the tree will sprout up in that spot from seeds lying dormant but activated once extra rainwater and sunlight can reach it…
Death gives way to life. The death of a church isn’t easy. It’s very natural to resist it and resent it. But for anyone who has ears to hear, it’s wise to get good at saying “Good-bye.” It’s a mark of maturity to do well with saying “Farewell.” And to that end, our friends at H2O Akron deserve the highest praise.