If your church has been around for a while, you’re probably familiar with the struggle to keep a particular ministry alive. Perhaps budget realities are forcing your church to re-examine its priorities, or a source of funding support has dried up. Or perhaps it is simply a matter of old age. The ministry’s vibrancy is gone; the need that it filled no longer captures the enthusiasm or imagination of its workers or supporters. Perhaps it becomes almost impossible to recruit new staff—whether paid or volunteer.
Changing demographics, a new legal situation, or a shift in culture can also contribute to a particular ministry’s failure to thrive. It can become obvious that the need or opportunity that a certain ministry addressed is no longer present.
So how do you know when it’s time to say goodbye? When is it right to acknowledge that a certain ministry or program is nearing the end of its life?
Dropping a ministry abruptly can cause pain, ill will, and confusion in a congregation and in the people the ministry serves. To avoid that, an annual or biennial ministry/program evaluation can be helpful. When such an evaluation is part of your congregation’s pattern, people come to expect that there will be change periodically.
In this evaluation, the primary question should not be “How can we continue this ministry?” but “Why should we continue this ministry?” This honest query will help you take the temperature of every ministry so you can terminate dying ministries in a more timely fashion, rather than keeping them unduly on life support.
Given our penchant for resisting change we do not need much excuse to forgo an honest examination of our ministries. But other than such essential ministries of the church as worship, preaching, pastoral care, and education, most other ministries should be assessed as to their effectiveness and the need for them to continue. (This also applies to denominational ministries and programs.)
It is not easy to be honest when the cost of honesty may be the end of a ministry—especially of “your” ministry, a ministry in which you’ve invested so much of yourself—your money, time, energy, prayers, emotions, and love. Terminating such a ministry undertaken to serve God may seem all wrong. It may feel like a betrayal.
For this very reason it is important not to equate any one particular form of ministry undertaken by you or your church with the ministry given by our Lord to the church. The Great Commission is not synonymous with the great variety of particular ministries or programs that a church might undertake. Realizing that leaves a church free to use its Spirit-led wisdom to end existing ministries or establish new ministries without guilt.
That said, what are the sacred ministry cows in your church? What are the programs almost no one dares to change or criticize—the programs no one dares challenge for fear of being rebuked, scorned, or dismissed as “O you of little faith” or “O you of little vision.”
Are there programs and ministries in your church where the investment of people and money are more than the benefits warrant? Even though those ministries are noble and right and helpful, are they exhibiting good stewardship?
Ministries (like ministers) can become dated, tired, short on energy, and breathless. We do well to ask of every church ministry whether its “way” and its “what”—its form and its content—are still necessary, meaningful, and productive.
We are made to thrive best when, every now and then, we get involved in something that is new—or at least new to us. Sometimes all the indicators point to the need for fresh blood, fresh ideas, a fresh vision, and a fresh approach to a particular ministry opportunity.
We need to be open to changing, adding to, deleting from, or dropping the ministry. Is this ministry still doing what it was originally meant to do? It is possible to work hard to invent new ways of being busy in a given ministry in order to justify its continued existence.
More often than not, there are two parties involved in the operation of a particular ministry or program. One party is the founding and/or funding body of a ministry. This could be a denomination, a denominational agency, a classis, or a local church. The other party consists of those doing the ministry: staff, volunteers, and a core of loyal supporters.
The former may decide, for good reasons, to stop their active “ownership” role and perhaps their funding of a certain program or ministry. They may feel the need to re-allocate funds or pursue new ministry initiatives. This does not necessarily spell the end of that ministry. In most cases those doing the ministry are free to pursue other means of support and continue the ministry.
Grace and graciousness should allow sufficient room for the two parties to go their separate ways amicably when necessary. No feelings of guilt or recrimination should be given or taken.
A Fitting Funeral
If you determine that a ministry is at the end of its life, it seems wise to mark that end with a “funeral.” Funerals allow us not only to grieve a loss but also to celebrate a life.
While a pain-free funeral may be an oxymoron, not every funeral is tragic or equally painful. In the case of a ministry that did not die prematurely, it’s particularly helpful for all who were deeply invested in it to mark its end in an appropriate service. Just as significant new ministries are launched with prayer and celebration, so ministries that have run their course should be concluded with the same.
Announce a ministry “funeral” service well in advance of the event itself. Invite all who desire and are able to attend. The service might include a brief historical overview, testimonies about how the ministry has been a blessing, and prayer giving thanks to God for the ministry and the people who made it happen. But also include prayer for those who grieve the loss of this ministry and for the opening of new doors of opportunity in which they may employ their gifts.
Specific ministries come and go. The church should feel free to let a ministry go when led to do so in response to an honest evaluation and the nudging of the Spirit.
- What is the ministry or program in your church that you value the most? Why?
- What are the sacred ministry cows in your church—those that “no one dares change or criticize”?
- What are some of the ways that the Holy Spirit guides us in deciding to maintain, change, or let go of a ministry?
- What would be essential ingredients for a respectful yet joyful ministry funeral?
- How can putting a ministry to rest open the door to new life?