No one instinctively knows how to close a church. There aren’t great Christian authors, speakers, and influencers talking about how to close a church building, to shut the doors for the very last time. There are plenty of books, articles, podcasts, and videos about church plants or starting a new church, but few on how to handle your church closing forever.
I have not been on staff during a church closing, but I have had churches where I previously worked shut down for the final time. In this article, I am going to define what I mean by talking about how to close a church, identify a process for closing a church and the legal steps required, and gather insights from real experiences on how to close a church.
What Does It Mean To Close A Church?
Before we can dive in and discuss some of the logistics of closing a church, we have to define what we mean by “closing.” There are two main ways to define closing a church:
- Disbanding: closing the church as a legal entity as well as ceasing to function as a ministry within a denomination or other governing authority. This is the most common choice made by church leaders when considering how to close a church.
- Disorganize: to close a church as a legal entity while still maintaining a presence as a ministry within a larger denomination or other organization. This typically happens when a church is closing and merging with another church or is becoming more of a bible study, small group, or house church.
Depending on which you choose, some of the steps in this article may not apply to your situation. However, closing a local church will always include dissolving the church as a legal entity. This means that a lot of the ideas in this article should still carry a significant amount of weight whether you are disbanding or disorganizing.
Something else to consider when defining how to close a church, depending on denominations or church networks, is that there may be bylaws and procedures in place already. Make sure you discuss with your church leadership if you are in one of those larger organizations before closing your church.
Why Might You Have To Close Your Church?
The global pandemic we saw in the early 2020s saw many churches closing their doors for the last time, especially in America. Pew Research has interesting research from 2022 that shows how these closures were accelerated by the pandemic but were, unfortunately, inevitable.
All of the research aside, there are a few main reasons that churches tend to make the difficult decision to close.
- Losing sight of the mission. Church leaders in this phase struggle to keep the organization afloat and can no longer sustain God’s Great Commission of evangelism to bring others to Jesus Christ.
- No longer caring about those outside the church. If you have a church that has become apathetic towards those outside its four walls, then it might be too difficult to correct course and closure becomes the only viable option.
- Clinging too fiercely to the past. Churches that can’t grow and adapt and evolve will eventually need to close their doors. As dying churches cling to outdated outreach programs and ignore how the Holy Spirit can work in new ways, then closure becomes nearly inevitable.
- Congregations filled with the wrong sort of passion. Passion for Jesus Christ is a good thing, but when that passion turns towards hatred of those outside the church then things get messy. Sometimes the culture of a church can turn towards hatred of outsiders and lose sight of the mission of Jesus.
- Poor use of resources. Sometimes, resources and people are mismanaged, whether maliciously or accidentally. When church leadership abuses or misuses church resources (such as church finances) or individuals, then sometimes the only thing left to do is close your doors and start fresh. Note: Church management software is a great tool for keeping track and managing your church’s resources.
While there can be several reasons to close a church, none of them are fun to talk about or admit. The hard work usually starts with recognizing the issues that led to the church needing to close and moving forward as best as you can. Knowing how to move forward and how to close a church, though, is a different beast entirely.
What Is The Process For Closing A Church?
The process for closing a church is going to look slightly different for each congregation, but there will be important milestones every church will need to address along the way. This section will break down a general process for how to close a church with some quotes from those who have walked through the process thrown in.
An important note: due to the sensitive nature of the reasons for some church closings and not wanting to affect the new congregations these pastors and church leaders are serving, quotes in this section will remain anonymous.
1. Break the news to your church members
“Communicate the decision to close your church early on in the process. The longer you wait to break the news, the worse it will be if that information leaks before any official announcements.” - Church Elder from Columbus, Ohio
While you want to make sure you have all of your ducks in a row before you announce the official closure of your church, consider announcing the decision to close the church as soon as possible. You may not have all the answers yet, but letting it sit will lead to information leaking out before you want it to.
However you choose to break the news of your church closure to your congregation, ensure that it doesn’t minimize the rest of the worship service. Making the announcement at the top of the liturgy can be difficult for the congregation to continue to worship, but intermingling the announcement with the rest of the service can be equally disruptive. Be careful with your timing.
2. Mourn the closing of a church
“No one tells you how it will feel like you are mourning a family member when a church is closing. The grieving process is as real as any loss of life...Some churches have basically been family longer than some of the family members have been alive.” Lead Pastor of a Nazarene Church
Theological seminary does not prepare you for how to close a church. Your congregation aren’t just subscribers to your business, your emails, and your YouTube channels. They are people who are part of a family. Mourn them like family.
Depending on the length of time before your church will shut down permanently, you may have weeks, months, or years to mourn. So take all the time you need and let yourself, your church leaders, and your congregation mourn appropriately with the time they have left.
3. Evaluate your remaining assets
After you have made sure to mourn appropriately, it’s time to start figuring out what is going to happen to things like the building, the chairs/pews, the discipleship groups, the worship equipment, and on and on. Once you are able to set aside your emotions, you have to start thinking of the closing of a church as a business transaction.
“The hardest part at the beginning...was figuring out what to do with 50+ years of the accumulated things and the memories that go along with them.” Church Elder from Columbus, Ohio
This is where many church leaders know the hard work has to begin, but this is also where many get lost in the process. While evaluating and assessing all of the church’s remaining assets is important, it can’t stop there.
4. Comb through legal documents
“Consult a lawyer as soon as you have made the decision. There are hundreds of questions that will pop up and having a lawyer will help you smooth out what can be a pretty painful process.” Church Elder from Columbus, Ohio
Look thoroughly for any documents for any dissolution clauses for guidance or proper steps in the process of closing your church. Look at your state articles of incorporation as well as anything that might be relevant from your state’s Attorney General. While most church leaders are going to be unfamiliar with these, a lawyer will know exactly where to point you next.
During the process of closing, a church might not have the funds to hire a lawyer. There are many lawyers who will often work a number of pro bono hours, especially working with tax-exempt nonprofits. So don’t be afraid to share your situation and see if you can find someone to help walk you through this process.
5. Close any bank accounts or funds
“Unfortunately, not every church leader or lead pastor is great at administration. Chances are high something, somewhere has been overlooked. Get someone who is able to look carefully through all of the transactions and accounts over the course of your organization’s existence.” Church Elder from Columbus, Ohio
Churches have a tendency to take on lots of funds and accounts for different ministries or organizations. Sitting down with a tax or IRS professional to sift through all the necessary documents will go a long way to smoothing this process out.
Something else to pay close attention to is exactly who has the authority to sign off and close or re-distribute accounts and funds. In my own personal experience, we had leaders who no longer lived in the country who were the only individuals able to make adjustments to a seldom-used account. Take extra care to close any and all associated accounts.
6. Determine what happens with the church property
“One of the most painful moments was trying to figure out what to do with the church building where so much life and ministry had happened over the decades.” Lead Pastor of a Nazarene Church
You can sell furniture and equipment but still not be prepared for the moment when you realize that the church property still has to be sold. Selling to another non-profit organization or church is ideal, but sometimes that isn’t necessarily feasible either. If your church has debts it simply has to pay, then you may have to sell to someone who can help you pay or absorb those debts.
The most important thing you can do is lean on prayer and scripture among your church leaders here. Selling or donating the church property is an important decision that will require a consensus, legal consultation, and sitting down with realtors. Drench it with prayerful consideration.
7. Consult with other non-profit organizations for where church members can go next
“It’s better to leave well and find places where you feel comfortable sending your remaining flock than it is to let them fend for themselves. Work with other churches and nonprofits to find safe places for your congregation to attend and serve next.” Lead Pastor of a Nazarene Church
This section is part of the reason why these quotes are anonymous. When church leadership doesn’t leave well, there are a lot of people left wondering where to go next. In the worst cases, they turn their back on the church altogether.
Working closely with other nonprofits throughout the closing of a church will ensure that there are good connections and good places for people to continue to worship and grow and be discipled.
What Legal Requirements Are There For Closing A Church?
The legal requirements for either disbanding or disorganizing a church are going to vary from region to region. The below tips are general legal requirements that apply to a wide range of areas, though. Please consult with a lawyer before making any major decisions! Also, I highly recommend checking out Church Law and Tax as a reference.
- When you finally close the church as a business, you will also need to find a way to resolve all debts as a business
- When closing accounts, pay close attention to who exactly has the authority to sign off and close accounts and funds (you may find that someone has to sign who is no longer involved in the ministry, in the country, or even alive)
- During the process of closing, a church might not have the funds to hire a lawyer, but there are many lawyers who will often work a number of pro bono hours, especially working with tax-exempt nonprofits
- No one is allowed to “profit” from the dissolution of a non-profit, so plan your financial closings accordingly
- Generally, there must be a written resolution coming from the board of directions in order to close a business or church
- The church isn’t considered “dissolved” until your articles of dissolution has been filed to the appropriate authorities
How To Close A Church With Grace
The closing of a church is something that no one prepares for and even scripture doesn’t touch on what to do in these sensitive situations. Hopefully this article can help make it smoother for those going through it.
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