The cusp of the new year, with all its inherent possibility, may be an odd time to think about institutional death.
But it was on a December day that Holy Emmanuel Slovak Lutheran Church decided to pack it in. It was the snow that did it. There wasn't anyone left who could shovel snow.
Death was preceded by a lingering illness. The basement floor, home to many dances and courtships begun, had warped in a flood thirty years earlier and not been repaired. One of the loose ceiling tiles in the church proper dangled ominously directly over the lectern. The lector reading the scripture won attention for more reasons than one.
The church’s physical deterioration mirrored that of its membership. The immigrant coal miners who built the church are all dead now. They worked hard to educate their children so they could escape the mines. They did so with gusto and fled with the four winds. Those left behind—perhaps not the most able of the lot—aged and dwindled.
Some would argue that the church was dead years before it closed, and in a certain sense that was true. But as anyone who has been involved in hospice can attest, the dying deserve the dignity of making choices as long as they are able to make them. And if those who are attending the dying think they would have made different choices along the way—oh well.
So Holy Emmanuel died much as it had lived—reactive, motivated by deep suspicions, and disinclined to cooperate with anyone else. They’ve never formally disbanded, although they’ve sold the building. They never had a celebration of what had been, and given the number of deaths since they ceased worshiping, it’s unlikely to happen now.
All of ten miles away, there’s another very similar church: same denomination, same ethnicity, same demographics. And it is in a hospice sort of situation. A good Sunday is one when attendance cracks double digits, and everyone knows that how long the church stays open depends on the order in which its members die. But here’s the difference between St. John's and Holy Emmanuel: St. John's will live until it dies. The organist—she is in her 80s, but until recently entertained at nursing homes with an act that included a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader routine and others that defy explanation—somehow manages to keep the place immaculate. Worship is traditional, but attention is paid to detail, and hymns are sung with conviction. In the years since the fall of the communist regime in Slovakia, they've paid the airfare for half a dozen Slovak seminarians to experience church life in the States.
My best guess is that some Sunday (I’m guessing two years, but again, as anyone who has been involved in hospice can tell you, guesses are pointless) after worship, the congregation will say, “This is it. Let’s go eat.” Tears will be shed, a certain quantity of a particularly foul Slovak plum brandy will be consumed, plans will be made for splendid closing worship, and such money as remains will be earmarked for some worthy cause—probably one in Eastern Europe. And while we dread the day, we will greet it with good cheer and the conviction that God’s work has been done.
Dear board member, your school is dying. This is not a scare stratagem. Institutions, like individuals, have life spans. Some are long—sometimes longer than seems good. Some are short—some tragically short. That is the way of the world. One of the tasks of leadership, of course, is to see to it that your school does not die of preventable causes. But it is also your task to help the school live well so that perhaps it can die well when the time comes, sharing its resources as best as it can for the good of the church it serves. Every cliché you’ve heard about living like you would if you knew you were dying this year holds true for your school, too.
Even those who loved the place roll their eyes when they speak now about Holy Emmanuel. And even those who have found the congregation exasperating in the extreme will laugh when they recall St. John’s.
How will people speak of your school in the past tense?