As the snowdrops begin to open in my garden, and lightness in the day starts to get a bit longer, and the early signs of spring are in the air, there is the sense of promise, the hope for something new. And hope, and waiting and growth are key phrases within Christian ministry and organisations. There is a pining for growth, new growth, revivial is what it used to be called. That something new is awaiting, dawning and ‘moving forward’ are part of this.
But my thoughts this week have been on where I was a year ago, and where I was about 5 years ago also. This time last year, my situation was anything but growth (as in the archived posts on this site for february 2017 will reveal). This time last year I was preparing myself, and preparing staff within a youthwork organisation, and making decisions about it that would put the process in place for its closure.
One year on, and i think it needs to be said. There was no preparation for closure, what it would feel like, what i needed to do, what impact it would have on staff morale, spirituality and vocation – or my own. There was no preparation for closure, it doesnt appear in the youth ministry handbook. Theres 10 secret formulas for starting youth ministry, or 10 ways to tell kids about faith, or top themes for theological ministry amongst the urban youth. What there isnt is ‘how to survive when youve had to close someone elses ‘baby’? or ‘where is God when you feel like closing is whats needed’? . In training for youth ministry, there was none of it, in the writing about youth ministry there is precious little. After all its all about Growth- or desperately avoiding closure.
But the more I talk to people, the more i realise quite how isolating it has been for others too. And not just isolating but also very common. Yet there is silence on the subject in the seminars, conferences, and blog spaces- mostly. No one wants to talk about closing down. Because no one want to talk about it, no one wants to help others be prepared for it. For some, more than me, it might have been their own project that they had to close – the pioneering ministry- that caught local or national attention, for others they are employed to rescue something – but that something might be beyond rescue , others are deliberately appointed with no idea that closing a ministry is what they may have to do within a short period of time.
Talk of opening, developing and making new things happen is easy to have energy over- but a stark reality also exists that closing ministries is all the more likely and common in the coming weeks and months ahead. It may be that you have never had to stop, close or end a piece of work, but my haunch is that if you have had to, it took a brave decision, to do so, and one made with little support. May be it is why churches and ministries dont like dealing with the honest questions like ; who is this ministry for? and ‘who is it benefiting?’ – it is easier to keep something going, and avoid having to make difficult decisions.
I think we do a disservice to many many good youth workers and ministers by not talking and preparing them for what might be the inevitable closing down. It is all well and good ending to have something new in mind- it softens the blow somewhat, but that doesnt really prepare for the process, both organisationally, personally, professionally and spiritually for the communication, questions, interactions, politics of closing.
For the theologically minded, the metaphor of death, of closing, is part of the redemption story. Without it, there is no life beyond it. Andrew Root talks about faith being a negation (Faith Formation in a secular age) , faith itself is about a giving up, reduction and potentially a closing. It might be suggested that Jesus tried to prepare for his own death by communicating with the disciples so they knew – but they didnt want to hear. There might a time when you know that the writing is on the wall for a club, group, church or organisation – but that others do not want to hear (or neither might you want to either). There are theological premises for closing, The churches in Revelation report card details why some churches had ‘yellow cards’ and warnings that could affect their longevity. But even though there remains a distinct possibility of closing, and what could happen to churches – actually talking about practically, and in youth ministry practice is rare.
So, if you’re about to go into youth ministry, about to start a ministry through ordination – there might be little talk in the way of closing and ending a ministry. Maybe it not something you will ever have to do. It is fair to say that if you’re in the voluntary sector, and relying on funding, or volunteers from churches, or donations – then there may come a point where this might be a reality.
A Year on, and I begin to realise the effect of all this. I realise that it causes me not to want to have to close something down again – so fearing starting something new that i have responsibility for, losing confidence in my own strategic thinking, or in wanting to let young people down. Not things i thought of at the time. And what of me spiritually, or psychologically – or the others who were part of the organisation. It could be that we become hardened with tighter resolve for next time. It could be that some have found a space to be in ministry elsewhere, or that it confirmed for others that youth ministry and its politics and the management of it wasnt for them. It might be said that when one door shuts, another opens.
When it comes to the psychological or spiritual effects of closing or ending ministries – what might be done to help prepare others. For one we need to talk about it. Why not have seminars or sessions at conferences on it, or talk about it more.
If there is Drama in the Christian life – then the tragic and comic may occur simultaneously- the tragic of others might be easy too deal with – to stand alongside anothers pain, their loss and grief – it might be our calling to do so and be pastoral (and im thinking of a funeral here) – but that drama of christian ministry may also include the tragedy and ending of ministries to which we are responsible, or part of. Fortunately in the drama, God is still the key actor, fortunately there overall drama is one of redemption, but at times that hoped for redemption in the midst of current situation feels away. But God is no less present – if anything the crisis moment is where God is more likely to reside, if the biblical narrative has anything to say. It is not the proud, but the humble who are lifted up.
Being prepared for closure, a year on I realise quite how much I wasnt prepared for this at all. I was even doing an MA in managing youthwork – and closure was barely mentioned in the module! But barely was better than none. A year on i realise that many others have the same kind of unprepared alienating experience, and are disorientated in ministry because of it. Ill happily have a conversation with you about it, or talk to emerging leaders about what this can all be like, the one reality in ministry no one wants to talk about. Lets talk about it more.