Last week on the podcast Randy Weener talked about small churches and how some of them are at the end of their life cycle. This week Doug interviews Jason Vermeulen about his experience pastoring Casnovia Reformed Church during its final days and the time leading up to the end.
[00:00:20] Introduction to Casnovia Reformed Church
Casnovia Reformed Church is located in Casnovia, Michigan, a town that went from 1,200-1,300 people 50 years ago to 300-400 now. The church itself was 71 years old. Before Jason, there was a pastor who was there for 9-10 years but left in 2011. Jason became the pastor in 2015 after years of several contracted pastors who would drive into town each Sunday to preach. The church wanted to give revitalization a shot and realized it needed a pastor living in and investing in the community to do that.
[00:05:06] Analyzing the situation of the church
Jason began to analyze the situation as he began working with the church. He realized that the church had not had a vision for several years. In addition to that, because many of the members were at a retirement age, they also had the mindset of being retired from serving in the church. And although their kids had grown up in the church, many had left and gone to different churches. The reality was that there are lifecycles in the church, and at this point the church was on the downward slope and needed deep change for a revitalized ministry. After brainstorming sessions, they found two things to focus on in order to start revitalization – children’s ministry and unity within the church.
[00:11:05] Accepting the reality of limited capacity
The effect of the revitalization efforts was a new small group that consisted of the leaders of the church and one more volunteer for children’s ministry. From those results, it was clear that the effort was there but the capacity to change was no longer available. The process of closing took a few months. To accept the reality of a limited capacity to change, they walked through the 6 characteristics of a healthy church – location, ready for change, committed for change, resolved conflict, adequate resources, and energized leaders. The reality was that they were not able to meet any of these characteristics.
[00:16:50] Using real data
How did Jason communicate this decision with the congregation? They used commitment cards indicated how much each person was planning to tithe in the next fiscal year and how much they were willing to volunteer in the next year. The result was the tithe was $10,000 under the budget and there were no new volunteers. With that data proving the reality, the congregation was able to accept that revitalization was no longer an option.
[00:21:15] Making decisions with love
Throughout the decision making process, Jason continually asked himself, “What is the most loving thing to do?” His musing showed him two types of people in the congregation – those already leading and serving and those who were not. For the first, Jason realized that the loving thing to do for them was to put them in places where they can thrive, flourish, and be fed. For the others, Jason realized that the ending of Casnovia Reformed Church would force them to examine their lives – like tough love. Throughout the last few weeks, they preached about grief and suffering and then about what to look for in the next church. Jason wanted to help the congregation grieve but also equip them to move on.
[00:26:55] Final lessons
In the final days, they had an open mic where the congregation could share their memories together, share how God has blessed them throughout their time at Casnovia Reformed Church, and worship Him in that way. During the time of transition, Jason was open about his future plans, he published where he would be attending church for the weeks following the last service so that whoever wanted to join him could join him. Overall, he tried to set up the congregation with what they needed to find a new church and belong to a new congregation. Through it all, Jason learned that you can not control what another person decides; you can offer, invite, and point the way, but it’s up to the people to choose. And it’s up to God to use your faithfulness and He will do everything else.
Jason Vermeulen – firstname.lastname@example.org
Church Life Cycles Whiteboard Wednesday
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DOUG:Welcome to the Luminex Podcast. Here you’ll find ideas and conversation to help you on your church leadership journey. Luminex is focused on developing leaders to start and strengthen churches. We provide resources and support for you and all the leaders of your church family at luminexusa.org
DOUG: Welcome to this episode of the Luminex podcast and today we have Jason Vermuelen who recently pastored Casnovia Reformed Church near Grand Rapids. And we’re talking today about the question of revitalization versus closing for a church that is at a certain point in its life cycle. And Jason has just been through the closure of Casnovia Reformed Church and helped them to come to a conclusion of their ministry with celebration and I just want to talk with him about his experience. So, Jason, welcome to the program.
JASON: Glad to be here.
DOUG: So let’s talk about your church and its context and its background. Tell us a little bit about the situation at Casnovia.
JASON: Yeah, Casnovia if you’ve never heard of it, it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s a little village located about 20 miles North West of Grand Rapids off of M37. And it’s a rural context. And the church itself was 71 years old as of this year – founded in 1944, organized in 46. So it had a long life in the community there.
DOUG: So when did you come to church and how did that come about? How did you become the pastor there?
JASON: I came in summer of 2015. And it’s a little bit of a backstory to kind of how things had played out over the last 10 years or so. The last full-time pastor was there for about 9 or 10 years and he had to part ways with the church in 2011. And I don’t know a whole lot about that scenario but things happen, right? And then after that, there were several contract pastors. So people who would drive in from an hour or so, or just people brought in for a year, and they would come in every Sunday from wherever they were living and they would preach at Casnovia. And there was probably – I know of three or four of those arrangements and one of those happened to be some good friends of mine named Nate and Andrea Dewood, who were hired as contract ministers to just continue to preach on Sundays and begin to kind of help the church figure out its next steps. And even at that time it was considering: do we close or do we try to revitalize? And what we kind of all agreed on together myself Nate and Andrea and the consistory was no one’s been living here in this community in the parsonage really giving this time during the week. So we wanted to give the church one last shot to really see if we could turn this thing around by having a pastor who was living in the community and invested there. So that’s what I did. I came in 2015 in the summer and we gave it our all for a couple of years so –
DOUG: Yeah, that’s great. And like many of our rural communities, lots of changes taking place in the community but often the church hasn’t really gone through much change itself.
JASON: Yeah, it’s funny that you say that. My wife and I like to –we have three young kids so we’ve been watching the movie Cars –
DOUG: Oh yeah!
JASON: Are you familiar with that?
JASON: Lightning the McQueen, right?
DOUG: Lightning McQueen. Yeah.
JASON: Well the story of that movie, the first one, is about this little town, Radiator Springs, that, back in the 50s and 60s, it was the hop in town and there was just people all over the place and Route66 went right through there and there was no interstate, right? And what happened what I learned just a few months ago was that for a long time Casnovia was a much larger village than it is now – used to have 1200-1300 people. Today it has about 300 or 400 somewhere in there and M37 bypasses the downtown area of Casnovia which is a tiny little village. Anyway, and the story of the church pretty much follows the story of the village over the last 40 [00:05:00] years just a slow kind of decline.
DOUG: Yeah, and not an unusual story. Not a story that you can blame the people for but it’s just a story of much of the shift in population…
DOUG: …the shift in emphasis in our society from rural to urban to rural to suburban. And so as you became the pastor here, what happened in that first six months? What was your analysis as you started to get to know what was going on in the church and in the community?
JASON: Yeah, I have noticed a few things and it’s funny because the first six months we had just had a baby, so Nate and Andrea helped me out that first few months. But in that time we noticed – I particularly noticed that vision had been leaking for a long time Andy Stateman likes to talk about that that vision leaks. You have to constantly have a vision and constantly communicating it. This church, as you can imagine, with contract ministers, hadn’t even found its mission and hadn’t really had one necessarily in several years. I also felt like a lot of the people there, perhaps a majority, were really in kind of a retirement mindset. “Well, I have been serving at this church for 50 years and I’m old and I just want to kind of come and do my bible studies and I don’t really want to serve in the nursery, I don’t really want to get out in the community, I don’t –” So just kind of a do it all pastor mindset that “well, we are going to bring this guy here and he’s going to fix everything on his own, right?”
JASON: They don’t always say that but that’s kind of the mentality.
DOUG: Well in their age is actually retirement age…
DOUG: …as people moved away from the community and younger people moved away from the community it leaves that younger age group out of the demographic of the church.
DOUG: It’s really an accident of demographics and of history and so you have got a bunch of people moving into that retirement age themselves.
JASON: Right, yeah. It’s part of the natural progress of life and what I noticed was that some of the people who were now in the retirement age, their kids had grown up in a church but their kids weren’t hanging around.
DOUG: Right. They had gone to another place.
JASON: They had either gone to other churches or moved out of state, right. Or there were unfortunately, sadly a few the kids lived right down the street and just for whatever reason didn’t want to bother coming anymore.
DOUG: Yeah, they may have decided the faith is not for them anymore or that kind of thing.
DOUG: So this is very common and as you went through this first six months you were in the process of defining reality. What was that reality? What would have to happen for revitalization to occur there?
JASON: Yeah. With our leaders we talked about what Art Wiers talked about in an episode a while back about life cycles and so with our leaders I kind of just presented Art Wiers Whiteboard Wednesday video of this is our reality that we are past the hump of the bell here and we’re on our way on the downhill side of this. So we had just to acknowledge that reality as leaders. I don’t think that they had really seen a visual representation and really thought about it that way. So that was part of our just naming part of that reality. And then we said to everybody, leaders and the congregation even, that deep change was going to be necessary if we wanted to see a revitalized, refreshed, renewed ministry that was thriving in Casnovia. And so kind of the follow-up then, to acknowledging that reality, was that we invited the congregation into brainstorming sessions. We had one or two of those again giving them this reality at the front and saying, “what do you guys think we should do and can do within the realm of our ability to do as a church to turn this around?”
DOUG: Yeah, and what were some of things that you saw as the changes that would have to happen for them to stay open, to have new life?
JASON: Yeah, so as we brainstormed together as a congregation, what we collectively kind of narrowed down on – I do have to say that what I noticed was a lot of people mentioned things that had been done in the past. “When we did this thirty [00:10:00] years ago and we felt like it was successful.” So a lot of those kinds of ideas got suggested and it was still productful that we were able to narrow it down and say: so we agree as a congregation that to move forward we need to rethink our children’s ministry. If we want children to be part of this church, we need to have the programming available for them during worship perhaps as a Sunday school before worship or after worship. So we acknowledged that was what we needed. And the other thing that we narrowed down on is it’s kind of hard to be a mission minded church if we’re not also collectively together of one mind and heart. So we needed fellowship opportunities not just, hey let’s have spaghetti dinner but a little bit more intentional in small groups, in prayer groups and things like that. So these were the two things that we decided that we were going to make an effort at doing.
DOUG: So trying to develop and children’s ministry because the church in intuitively knew that it didn’t have younger people.
JASON: There were four kids and mine were two of them.
DOUG: Yeah. Right and then becoming more intentional about fellowship and discipleship and small groups.
JASON: Correct. Yeah.
DOUG: Okay. And how did those changed efforts go over? What really happened as a result of trying to produce that kind of change?
JASON: Yeah. I think ultimately we successfully launched a small group that consisted of our consistory and about three or four other of our core volunteers’ people that were kind of at the core of the church. So yes, those of us who really wanted this thing turn around made an effort of being part of the small group and it was great. And then in our children’s area, we had one particular volunteer who was doubling up as a consistory remember and she is a teacher so she’s been teaching for a long time. She had been running the children’s ministry and we were able to double from one to two children’s volunteers in our children ministry. So ultimately we just said that’s successful probably not enough to turn the church around.
DOUG: Yeah, the efforts were there but the capacity is just were not there.
DOUG: As so often happens in a church that’s on the last part of its life cycle.
DOUG: The capacity to change. It’s not even the desire to change it’s the capacity to change is no longer available to that group of people constituted as that group of people.
DOUG: So did that kind of lead to the decision to close? Walk us through why you decided: well, revitalization is not going to be what we’re going to do.
DOUG: We want to close and leave a legacy for other churches in our district, in our classis, we want to do this with dignity?
JASON: Right. That whole process took a few months and I think it took, myself included, I think it took all of us together, but particularly myself and the consistory admitting that we didn’t have the capacity. And really just facing that head-on which I think that that’s the piece that had been missing over the years prior was just to sit and admit we have the desire but we just don’t have the capacity with the people that are currently in our congregation. And so the way we did that was we walked through six characteristics of a healthy church, and we had used these already at the frontend of our brainstorming sessions but we hadn’t really honestly engaged with those items. I don’t know where these six characteristics came from. I think they might have come from Mike Gafa or from here, from Luminex. I don’t know. But first we looked at our location, and do we have a facility in location that’s ready for revitalized ministry. Location was on the fence, debatable, but our facility was actually great so that was a maybe, right? And we had to get honest about, are we a congregation ready for deep systemic change? But I think when I first came, the first few months, I wanted to [00:15:00] believe that, yeah, we could. But I think the longer things went we had to answer honestly, ‘no, we are not ready for deep change.’ Were we fully committed to change, no we weren’t. We wanted to stay engaged to the idea of change but we kind of wished that we could just go back in signing the old hymns. Well, I remember back we used to do these hymn sings and we just kind of wanted things to go back the way they were rather than changing to meet today’s realities, right? There was still some unresolved conflicts – that’s another characteristic. Are there unresolved conflicts? And I think, honestly, we had to admit that,, yes, there were. The resources were inadequate. And when the decision came to a head during my time there I had been working through the MFCA throughout the RCA ordination process and my time in that program was coming to an end, and I was going to be potentially up for ordination and so it became a great opportunity to call the question, to really just face this question as a congregation. Are we going to – what we tried to set it up was calling Jason means that we’re going to commit together to deep change and we’re going to radically just commit to that together. That’s what calling Jason means – we’re going to commit to that financially, we’re going to volunteer, or alternatively we acknowledged we just don’t have the capacity to do that and we make this decision the end well.
DOUG: I really like how you did not just let them – well Jason’s finished with his ordination process, it’s time to call him that’s what you do, you help them to really face their current reality and look at these characteristics. And so we’ve looked at three of the characteristic facilities and location, preparedness for change and the third one is systemic conflict. What were the other three?
JASON: Well, I think we’ve kind of hit the change thing was actually two different ones – are they ready for change, and are they fully committed to change was actually two of them.
DOUG: Okay. Alright.
JASON: The resolve conflict is a fourth. The fifth was do we have adequate resources.
DOUG: Concluded that those resources weren’t there.
JASON: Weren’t there. And then the sixth was are the leaders equipped, energized and excited to lead through and extended season of revitalization.
JASON: And our consistory was two couples and myself and our ministry supervisor.
DOUG: Yeah, and so the horsepower just wasn’t there.
DOUG: Yeah and so those things all were factors. You went through these six characteristics, led to the decision to close…
DOUG: …and then how did you communicate this with the congregation?
JASON; What we did was we were able to acknowledge that as leaders for the congregation, we used commitment cards and so there came a point where we didn’t call it a pledge drive, we called it a commitment drive and we asked what are you going to tithe for the next fiscal year. Kind of weird way to go about it but we just needed to know what are you planning on and we kind of told them about the realities that we were facing. And then the other card was I listed several areas of potential need for volunteers so consistory. We needed a consistory member. You have to get new one every year, right? Children area, who is going to be greeters at the front door or who is going to be ushers and a couple of other areas worship team, right? And we said we are going to do this for three weeks and at the end of these three weeks, we’re going to collect all the cards and we’re going to see if these matches what we need to continue forward and the cards gave us the data that there were no new volunteers other than the people that were already serving and the financial goal was about $10,000 below what we needed.
DOUG: So really it was in the cards.
JASON: It was in the cards. It was in the data. And I think that was the key, is that they needed the data right in front of them, that from their own pens, right?
JASON: To show just factually and objectively that that was reality.
JASON: So –
DOUG: And again I want to emphasize that your leadership helped them to define reality and to really get a grasp [00:20:00] on the situation. So often in these situations there’s no leadership and so they just continue to drift and cycle in frustration.
DOUG: And that’s so important and let’s talk about that in a way in our current climate, in our current ecclesiastical climate where people talk about the success of a church and they equate it with the success of the church minister. It’s really gutsy to get on the program and talk about this, but real leadership in these kinds of situations is so vitally important to not only shepherd God’s people but also to preserve resources for kingdom growth and kingdom movement and so I just want to commend your leadership.
JASON: Thank you. I was glad that I wasn’t alone, I was supported by our ministry supervisor but yeah you do have to have that one guy that’s the pastor that’s going to make the break. So it did take guts.
DOUG: So there is some hard things. What is going through your mind and your heart as your helping them through this decision, the close?
JASON: Yeah. I remember even having a couple of conversations not even just my own thinking, right as I’m even driving going about my day. When I think about the core team people who had been serving for 10 15 years, like some of them just five or six consecutive terms on consistory. For me it was, how can I love them the best? What’s the loving thing for the core people who want to see this thing turn around? What’s the loving thing for everybody in the church core people or not? And that’s also on the view of the kingdom, how are we using our resources? We could keep this thing going as it is but who is it ultimately helping this group, besides this group of 30 of us just to have a place to go on Sundays and kind of do our thing on Sundays, but not a whole lot besides that. We weren’t doing any outward mission work, we weren’t giving money to missions anymore and so for me it was kid them all about this question of, what’s the most loving thing for these people. And I had a vision of kind of two ways of looking at it depending on which people you are talking about. For the people who were already kingdom minded, already serving, willing to keep going and keep serving, I thought the most loving thing for them seems to be to put them into places and churches where they can thrive and flourish and not only to feed others but to be fed themselves, and maybe even to just have a break for a few months. Give them a break, let them catch their breaths and get reenergized in this next place of ministry wherever that was going to be. For the other people, people who were just kind of comfortable, just wanted to kind of come on Sundays and slip in and out, not really do a lot else, it’s a little bit of like a tough love. God does this to us all the time, doesn’t he? You’re too comfortable and he gives us circumstances, he allows things in our lives that make us uncomfortable because he loves us, because he wants us to flourish and thrive. And he wants us to examine our lives and our love and our commitments. And so for those folks it was: there may be other churches for you that I don’t know. Some of them – there were people that were in their 70s 80s even a woman who was 92 years old. You feel sad obviously. It’s a hard thing to see a church that you have attended for 50 plus years to have that close when you’ve invested your whole life into it.
DOUG: So I imagine there are a variety of responses from the congregation to this decision to close. Can you tell us about some of those and how you were able to handle them?
JASON: Most people were pretty sad but they didn’t like blame me or anything. I think having that objective data was key. I did have one guy who, he’d been there for over 50 years, and he offered to buy the building and suggested that we should just go independent. And this is him telling me this, the pastor of the church [00:25:00]. He said, we should just go independent and we could pay our pastor whatever we want to pay him. So that was one response that I got. But by large everybody that was there stuck around for the next 8-10 weeks all the way through our last service. We had announced it in June, and we had our last service at the end of August.
DOUG: Okay. So those last few weeks, how do you get yourself ready to preach the word? What were some of the things that you did during the last few services that helped you to end well?
JASON: I preached for a few weeks. I had a couple of guest preachers come in and we talked a bit about suffering, preached about that. And is God with us in suffering and obviously he is. This is a form of suffering, right? A great loss. And we talked about grief and what does it look like to grieve. And I preached about that, that you have just got to be honest with God about what you are feeling because he already knows it anyway. An authentic relationship with him involves us giving him your heart so I preached about that. So we just kind of walked for a few weeks through what’s it look like to grieve this. And then the last few weeks we kind of shifted a little bit into grief is still going to go on, but what’s the next step and what kind of church do you want to be part of, what should you look for in a church? And so, obviously, look for a church that has a vision that is clear and concise that everybody knows. Look for a church where you just sense the passion when you walk in the door, look for a church that warm and inviting; all those things that you want to see in a healthy church.
DOUG: So really you were equipping them to help select their next place of worship and service.
JASON: Right. Exactly. And then the other thing we did to kind of help celebrate together all the work that God had done, was I took the risky move of giving and open mic and letting there be just an open mic space. So I kind of created this space for people in the congregation they had known each other for so many years most of them to just talk to them. To talk to each other through the microphone and it was kind of a show and tell. So and so had this trophy from the softball team in 1975, and talked about who was on the softball team and how well that they do in the league. And one guy – there is a little wooden cross that’s hanging up in the upper kind of wall of the church there in the sanctuary. And he talked all about designing that cross and building that cross and what that had meant to him. And so just allowing for people to celebrate what I call not the official means of grace that we talked about theologically but the ways that God’s grace has come to us in the course of a life together as a church.
DOUG: And really that’s an act of worship celebrating all of the things God did through this community for so many years. Yeah.
JASON: Yeah. So they really enjoyed it. There were a few people, just a handful, that for whatever reason they felt like coming to the last service itself was just going to be too hard for them so they didn’t come. But there were others who hadn’t been there in a while who showed up that particular Sunday.
DOUG: So that’s important. You really allowed people to grieve at their own pace whether they wanted to go to the final service or not there was some space for that even in services going up to the end.
JASON: Yeah. I told them this is our last service, when it’s going to be, here’s is what we are doing these next few weeks. We had communion together, particularly, that last Sunday and that was sweet and it was pretty emotional for me to give them this final benediction to just say it’s been a joy what my tiny little bit of time in the course of 71 years, my little two is like nothing here but it’s been a privilege and –
DOUG: Wow. Well that’s really great pastoral care a real opportunity to care about God’s people at a very real part of their life. I always say to people there are no churches that are founded by the Apostle Paul that are still in existence today.
DOUG: Right. Churches go through a life cycle of birth and middle age and then decline and then death [00:30:00] sometimes they are able to interact in that cycle for a period of time but it’s going to happen to us all.
JASON: And it’s about just being at peace with that reality.
JASON: Even just life. Forget church for a second. Life itself. We all have a life cycle, and to just acknowledge that’s kind of a way that God made the world. It’s just a way things work. And so with the church, yeah, you love it when a church goes, it stays on the healthy side on that plateau area for a while, but just know it may not last forever.
DOUG: Yeah. So what are your plans? You are a young man and you have successfully closed a church in the prime of your life. And again I want to emphasize how important a ministry that is, how much work that is it to do. But, what have you been doing since the close of the church and what are you thinking about for the future?
JASON: Yeah. Well I’m definitely brushing up my resume, as you can imagine. But what I did, I published in the bulletin the last couple of weeks two things: one was, here’s who you contact besides me if you want to transfer your membership officially from our church to another church. Because I think it’s important for churches and for individuals to have a place to belong and I think membership is a covenant belonging. So I thought that was important and so I gave them ways to do that. And I also published secondly where I was planning to attend church the next few weeks after our last service and invited them to come with him.
DOUG: Oh wow.
JASON: And that was very mildly successful in the end. And again I couldn’t – part of that, a lot of that was out of my control. It’s up to people to decide what they are going to do but I preached at one church and I attended a couple of others, and a couple of people showed up from Casnovia at those churches on those days that I was there. And they were also meeting together as a small group still, the group that was kind of the core people. We’re still meeting together every couple of weeks and just checking in, praying together and talking about their experience at these new churches and how it’s out of her comfort zone and it’s been good.
DOUG: That’s great. So what’s been hard but good for you as a pastor and a leader in this experience? This is not an easy thing to do but, how has God shown his goodness to you in this tough transition.
JASON: I think he’s shown his goodness to me by the support of our classis, our regional body. Kind of say people have kind of come around with prayer support, with phone calls just checking in and hey, how is it going. So it’s been a lot of that and it’s definitely been one of the ways that God’s been good to me and to my family. I think one of the takeaways for me that’s been hard, but ultimately good, is to, and I think every pastor faces this whether you are closing a church wherever you are in that life cycle as a pastor, you have to face this reality that you cannot ultimately control what another person is going to do. And that’s so hard for us because I want nothing more than to see every single person in those pews totally surrender, totally passionate, ready to greet people on a Sunday morning, hands in the air worshipping the Lord, just all in. We want nothing more than to see that. We want to see the lost. The whole time I was there, the house across the street from the church, I knew those people and I knew the crazy messed up situation in that house, and they’d in fact lived across from that church for a long time. They’d never once set foot in the door except for trunk-or-treat to get some candy. You can’t control what other people do you can just offer and invite and point the way, you point the way to life, you point the way to Jesus and then it’s up to people to choose. And so the good thing about that I think is it’s up to God, it’s up to the Holy Spirit. You be faithful with you and God will worry about everybody else.
DOUG: Well Jason that’s a good word to end on. We’re so grateful for you telling your story [00:35:00] and again we have resources to help you in your church if you‘re struggling with this question do we revitalize or do we close and you can get access to those resources at Luminexusa.org. And if you have a place in ministry for Jason contact us here and we’ll make sure that we’ll pass on your information to Jason. Thanks so much for being with us on the program.
JASON: It’s a great privilege, glad to be here.
Thanks for joining us today for the Luminex podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us on iTunes and Stitcher. Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at luminexusa. But for all the latest in church leadership, including our whiteboard Wednesday series, be sure to visit us at luminex.org.
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