There are many lighthouses on the coasts of Oregon, Maryland and North Carolina. Lighthouses with their beacons provide safety and security to ships. The light from beacons can penetrate fog and darkness and therefore can help to prevent ship wrecks.
Last year, I had the privilege of working with another kind of lighthouse. I served for several weeks as a Pulpit Supply Pastor for Beacon Hill Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, TX.
This church provided one hundred and seventeen years of ministry to the Woodlawn neighborhood of San Antonio. This congregation functioned as a sort of lighthouse, a beacon bringing lots of light into the lives of people.
The church was very supportive of the GLBT community, served as host church for the San Antonio Catholic Dignity Movement. The church ran a heavily utilized food bank. The church also rented space to several artists who produced paintings and sculpture which was displayed throughout the thirty thousand square foot facility. Beacon Hill also hosted the San Antonio Brass Ensemble, a weekly farmer's market; members of the church were also heavily involved in the Beacon Hill after school program.
The church also hosted the Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association, the Hugs Not Drugs group for addiction recovery. The church also hosted a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who had an office there and a violin teacher who had a studio there.
Beacon Hill generated a lot of light to the community. So what went wrong? Why did it need to close in September 2014?
What do you do when the beacon goes out?
It could be said that Beacon Hill's story is not unique. You had a congregation of two thousand members in the 1960's dwindle down to sixty-nine members in 2014, but with an average attendance of thirty to thirty-five people each Sunday.
Beacon Hill was saddled with a large thirty thousand square foot physical plant which needed a lot of repairs. Thus, it's probably not a great surprise that the Mission Presbytery met with the church membership and it was agreed that the church would close.
I remember that I found out about this a week after I started there. The first Sunday that I lead worship, I looked at the beautiful art work, the Batik banners in the sanctuary, heard the beautiful music from the guest musicians from Trinity University and I thought
"This is a good place. "
Now I will tell you in thirty-five years of ministry, I have buried people as young as fifteen and as old as ninety-five. I must admit that I prefer burying the later. But I had never closed a church.
That's an entirely different matter.
I found that in the weeks that I was at Beacon Hill, many people were expressing their loss and difficulty in separating from a faith community that they had known for years. One of my Clinical Social Worker friends said to me, "You know you are really working with a Hospice patient. " How right my friend was in this observation.
One person observed "I don't know what I'm going to do. I have been attending and have been part of this church for fifty years. "Another person was heard to say "I realized that this will be the last time that I will be serving Communion to these people. "
I have come to realize that closing a church is more than closing a building or making plans regarding disposition of the church property. Closing a church really is about untangling and severing the traditions, the human connections that people have generated over generations. When you close a church a lot of human relationships, communal experience, and programs including outreach programs to the community and plans and hopes and dreams for the future get disrupted.
It can be argued, in this case, that better stewardship would be to dissolve a small congregation, sell the property and use the proceeds for other areas of ministry. But I wonder if this sentiment is not similar to Jackson Browne's observation in his song "Where Were You? " about Hurricane Katrina
"That property is valued more than human lives. "
What do you do when the beacon goes out? A few of the former members that I know have affiliated with other congregations, Presbyterian Church USA and otherwise, but there are still a lot of people who have not. One person observed "I don't think I'll join anywhere for at least a year. I'll just be a floater. "Another person said, "After all I have been through with the closing of this church, I'm not going to join another one. I'm too old to go through this kind of thing again. "
The lesson learned from when you close a church is that besides being concerned about property, you need to be concerned about the souls of people, how they will navigate the termination of these long standing relationships? How can they be prepared to move on to the next phase of their spiritual journey? How can you help them to make that journey through the fog and the darkness without crashing on the rocks?
Years ago, I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan on the last day of the climbing season. I started at Station Eight at 10:00 PM at night. I was the only American amidst a large group of Japanese climbing that night. The climb involves traversing a lot of switch backs on the trail and climbing over rocks. I remember that I had my climbing stick, my flashlight and I was hanging onto to a chain hand rail. It was dark and the wind was blowing and I was cold.
And then it happened,
The flashlight went out.
It was dark and I felt scared and afraid. I knew that I had to keep moving. There were many people behind me who were continuing to climb the mountain.
All of a sudden, A Japanese man from Yokohama, along with his family, gave me his flashlight and we used its light to finish our climb, together at the top, so that we could see the sun rise on the only day that where there was no fog. It was a clear, beautiful view.
What do you do when the beacon goes out? You give your neighbor, your fellow traveler light from another source.
May it be so for us all now and always