By Rev. Don Dewey and Rev. Susan Gonzales Dewey, Co-Regional Ministers
The season of Lent is upon us. It is a time of remembering who we are and whose we are. It is a time to again acknowledge our fragility, our vulnerability, and our finiteness. Lent is a journey inward where we once again travel the road of our imperfect faith, acknowledging our own brokenness and discover our need for healing.
Lent prepares us to be ready to embrace new hopes, new dreams, new possibilities, and new life. Yet first we must let go of all those things, ideas and ways that hold us back or burden our hearts in order to experience what might yet be. In other words, in order for us to truly experience a resurrection, there must be a death.
Therefore, in many Christian traditions, this season begins with Ash Wednesday. A time where we remember we are dust of the earth, and to dust we shall return.
I was reminded of this very personally recently in the passing of my mother a few weeks ago. At age 87, she had lived a good, full life and yet it was over sooner than we would have liked. As the case with most of us who lose a loved one or parent, we grieved and were flooded with so many memories of her love, faithfulness and self-less presence in our lives.
At her memorial service, I had an experience both of the sadness of loss, but also of resurrection hope as Susan and I held our twin grandsons, now just five months old. As the service was going on and memories were being shared about my mom, I felt the joy of a squirming young life in my arms, so full of potential and hope and possibilities, that my tears were coming from a deep place of gratitude for all of it.
At a recent Regional Board meeting, a conversation centered on congregations that have closed and what happens to the property if it is Regionally owned. There seems to be some who still think that the Region is closing churches. The truth is, the Region does not close churches, but churches do close.
Everything has a life cycle, a beginning and end. Congregations make the decision to close their visible ministry for a variety of reasons. Some find themselves unable to financially continue their ministry; others experience enough decline and aging that there is no longer leadership to support an ongoing ministry.
What the Region does do is come along side the congregation and help them discern the necessary steps to both close the congregation and determine how best to honor its legacy.
When a congregation makes the decision to close its ministry, the Regional staff explores all possibilities for repurposing the property with a new Disciple ministry. In the last ten years or so, we have had 16 congregations close. We have been able to repurpose half of those facilities with new Disciple ministries.
When repurposing isn’t possible, we do a thorough evaluation of the property by consulting the Region’s Property Trustees, our Broker, and often our Region’s attorney to determine the best course of action for the property. In that assessment, we often discover years of costly deferred maintenance issues that prohibit a new start to be sustainable. We also discover that these aging facilities are no longer located in the best places for new ministry or are not right-sized any longer for growing a new congregation.
When this is determined, a proposal is brought to the Regional Board to consider marketing the property so that the assets of this resource can once again be used for developing life-giving ministry.
Again, in the last ten years, Regionally owned properties that have been sold have allowed the Region to support our growing ministry. Resources have supported our camp and conference ministry, allowed staff hires (like a full time Regional Youth Pastor) and increase support for our Associate Regional Ministers. These resources have increased the work of our New Church Development Committee as they work with over a dozen congregations in formation and have just launched three new church starts, with more on the way. It allowed the Region to launch new ministry opportunities through the Hatchery, Transformation grants, Leadership grants, Vision grants and the Acts 2 Project that supports eight pastors and five congregations/ministries.
We were also able to purchase a retreat center in the San Diego area that will serve many of our congregations whose ministry is developed and grown through a retreat model of leadership development.
These resources have also allowed the Region to provide scholarships to our youth and young adults to attend General Assemblies, NAPAD, Convocation and Convención gatherings as well as Global mission trips and much more.
This is the life cycle of the church. We honor the legacy and build the future. Just as we grieve the loss of a loved one, we also grieve the closing of a church. Yet, we also celebrate and rejoice in the new life yet to be – the promise of resurrection. We are people who have hope in the future because of Jesus our Christ and his resurrection!
As I sat there in the memorial service for my mom, surrounded by family and friends, I had a deep sense of hopefulness for the future; reflecting on all the love, support, prayers and cards I received and looking into the face of my grandson I could rejoice in the goodness of life with a grateful heart.
Friends, as we make our way through this season of Lent, letting go of those things that keep us from fully embracing the sheer goodness of life and moving past the grieving of what was, to what is yet to be; may we experience anew God’s gracious and unending love that invites into a new and glorious future.
Together on the journey,
Don and Susan