Friday, September 9, 2022

For One Small Church, COVID Proved Too Much to Overcome

by Bob Smietana (National Reporter, Religion News Service)

The following guest post was submitted by Bob Smietana of the Religion News Service. Interested in sharing your congregation’s COVID impact story to be featured? Contact us!

A banner hangs outside of Grace Evangelical Covenant Church on the day of its final service (August 28, 2022)/Contributed by Bob Smietana

As their congregation approached its 60th anniversary, leaders of Grace Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago put together a video, recounting its history.

Formed out of two small churches in 1961, Grace traced its roots back to the last 1880s, when those churches had been founded by Swedish immigrants living on Chicago’s North Side. Those two churches had flourished for decades, but faced with urban renewal and changing demographics, began to shrink. So, they had decided to join forces to create a new future.

Things had not always been easy. But in 2021, despite a global pandemic, the church was hopeful for the future.

Pastor Amanda Olson preaches her final sermon at Grace Evangelical Covenant Church on August 28, 2022/Contributed by Bob Smietana

“What will the next 60 years hold,” Pastor Amanda Olson asked in the video, which was posted on YouTube in January 2021. “Only God knows. You are invited to join him in making it happen.”

But the church’s future would be shorter than any realized. And the pandemic would take a far greater toll than anyone had imagined. In the summer of 2022, after a series of congregational meetings, the church leaders sent out a letter, saying that Grace’s story had come to an end.

“It is with sadness that we inform you that our congregation has voted to close the church,” they wrote.

For Grace, COVID proved too much for overcome.

Like many churches, they’d switched from meeting in person to worshipping in new ways during the pandemic. Church members met in small home groups, held in person or on Zoom, rather than taking part in a streamed worship service on Sundays.

For a while, the church had more people taking part in small home groups than they did at the pre-COVID Sunday morning services. The second year, however, “tanked” as Olson put it. People got tired of meeting online or in small groups and longed to be together. And yet, when the church did meet in person, fewer people were ready to step in and volunteer the way they did before COVID.

The church had other challenges. For years, the church had attracted students from a nearby Christian college, which was also home to their denomination’s seminary. But eventually, Grace was no longer the “it” church, Steve Dawson, a longtime member said, and so fewer young people showed up. The seminary’s programs had also changed – with fewer people moving to Chicago to attend school there, choosing instead to attend remote learning cohorts, cutting off another supply of new members.

As COVID shut down business in Chicagoland, including their denomination’s headquarters, some church members were all of a sudden free to work from anywhere. Some decided to move away from the city, to be closer to family or to live somewhere where the cost of living was lower, eroding the membership base.

Rev. Olson knew that the church would have to begin to reinvent itself. Which was difficult as the pandemic wore on and people in the church became worn out. Olson said that her pastor’s heart and her leadership brain have been in conflict during the last few years.

As a pastor, she knew her people needed time to rest and recover from COVID.

“But my leadership brain said, if we don’t need use this time to be transformed—there will not be a future for this church,” she said.

The church began a series of meetings to look at possible ways forward. One option was to focus on small groups for worship—and only meet once a month for corporate worship. Another was to return to a regular pattern of Sunday worship. Doing both seemed too much, especially with a congregation of only about 65 people, where many leaders were already serving in two or three roles.

Whenever they voted, the congregation was always divided. And there was conflict. Not angry conflict but strong disagreement about what the best thing to do was. And church leaders were reluctant to move forward without a consensus.

Congregants attend the final service at Grace Evangelical Covenant Church on August 28, 2022/Contributed by Bob Smietana

The idea of closing came up but was one few wanted to pursue.

“No one wants to be the Grim Reaper for the church,” said Olson.

Things came to a head when church leaders began to look at some much needed repairs for the congregation’s 80-year-old building. Those repairs, while not earth-shattering, were going to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. The church could afford the repairs, as giving had remained strong and the church had money in the bank.

But church members and the congregation wondered about the wisdom of investing that much in the building if they had no plan for going forward.

Eventually the church met with some denominational leaders and realized they had two options: the first was to reboot the church by going through a revitalization process. The second was to close—and use the resources of the church to start new congregations.

They chose the latter.

Grace Evangelical Covenant Church’s sign greets visitors at the entrance several years prior to closing/Contributed by Bob Smietana

At the church’s closing service in late August, Olson said that the church could have held on for years. They could have raised the money for the repairs, doubled down on what they were doing, and marched forward. They would have survived, she said. But survival was not the goal.

“No one wants to close a church,” she said. But closing, even though it was hard, was the right thing. The death of a church is not the end of the story, she assured the congregation.

“The reality is that we cannot experience resurrection, friends, without first having the courage and the guts to face death,” she said.

At the church’s last service, the pastor sent her congregation out with a blessing:

“Go with Grace.”

Editor’s note: Bob Smietana, National Reporter for the Religion News Service, was a longtime member of Grace Covenant Church. He wrote about the church in his new book, “Reorganized Religion”, and in a recent article for RNS.