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Study: How Older Parishioners Cope With Church Closures

 

As church congregations decline and churches close, what is the impact on the well-being of older adults?

Researchers put that question to members of three Anglican parishes in eastern Canada, facing the threat of church amalgamation due to spiraling costs.

The impact of closing churches may be less than expected.

The new research found that issues of faith and community have greater impact on the well-being of older parishioners than do changing parish structures.

Lauren Trueman and Odette Gould from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, reported their findings in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging (Vol. 29, No. 1, 2017).

Study themes

To understand how older parishioners were coping with changes underway in their church communities, the researchers conducted three focus groups and interviewed 39 participants sampled from the three parishes.

Parishioners had been members of their current church community for between one and 55 years. The average length of membership was 17 years.

Three main themes emerged from the study:

  • crisis
  • transition, and
  • status quo.

Crisis

Supporting the closings, most parishioners believed that the only realistic outcome was the amalgamation of the three parishes into one church.

"I don't think any of our churches can go five more years down the road," one participant said. Another added," If we do nothing, we're going to go under anyway."

Many felt frustrated that it was taking so much time to come to a decision. As one parishioner remarked, "Really we should have made this decision four years ago, we shouldn't even be sitting here having this discussion today."

Some individuals felt it was up to the bishop and priest to provide leadership and make the decisions, but others believed changes had to be driven by the grassroots.

In fact, the clergy have no clearly defined role when comes to church closings. As they saw it, they would be unable to please everyone no matter how they chose to act.

Transition

Many parishioners viewed the current crisis as an opportunity to take a fresh look at Anglicanism's core values. They also saw it as a chance to find ways for the church to refocus its efforts to meet today's needs.

For example, participants talked about how the young people in their own families saw the church as irrelevant.

In addition, they noted fundraising focused on raising money to maintain the church, but little effort was invested in reaching out to the broader community.

The participants believed community renewal was necessary to attract new members, no matter what decision was made regarding amalgamation.

More practically, parishioners suggested linens, banners and stained glass windows from the closed churches be integrated into the newly shared building, as a way to make the shift to an amalgamated church less distressing.

Status quo

Parishioners emphasized that changes in church structures would not change how they worshipped God or whether they went to church. Rather, these issues were rooted in their faith and commitment to the church community.

Many highlighted the emotional support fellow parishioners provided during difficult periods. As one participant put it, "If times are tough, if you are having some problems, whether it be physical, mental, you have something to fall back on. You have a church family you can go to here."

Several said their faith provided direction and meaning in life. "I think it helps you to make certain decisions that you might make differently if you didn't have some sort of belief or you didn't have a church family to help out," one participant said.

Others claimed church activities, whether cleaning or organizing events, gave their life a sense of purpose.

Impact on well-being

The study concluded that these older adults viewed the current challenges as a transition rather than a crisis. In other words, the parishioners believed trust in God and the comfort of a supportive community would sustain them, regardless of the decisions taken in the current situation.