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Washington church retires

Community Bible Fellowship focuses on new ministry as it closes

by Myra Holmes

Churches, like people, go through life stages. A new church is born, grows and matures. Eventually it declines and dies.

It doesn’t have to be that way, says Rod Koenig, pastor of Community Bible Fellowship, Bellingham, Wash. When CBF leaders saw their church’s ministry declining, they chose to “proactively retire” rather than face an unhealthy death.

CBF was born in the 1990s as a Pacific District Conference church planting project under the leadership of Steve Schroeder. As the congregation matured, “hundreds of lives were touched with the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” says PDC district minister Gary Wall. “I am deeply grateful for these faith-filled risk-takers who pioneered a new work in the Pacific Northwest.”

Then middle age set in. Church leaders saw that attendance had declined to around 40. The budget, while manageable for the moment, was in a tenuous position—just one supporter away from crisis. The average age in the congregation was 50-something, with few young families.

Efforts to reach out to the Bellingham community, especially to young families, failed to bring new growth. “We weren’t able to get something to take hold,” says Koenig. In addition, the core leaders had been serving for years without a break. They were tired, and no one was stepping up to fill their shoes.

It felt like the church was sliding toward death, but CBF leaders were determined not to let their church end in an unhealthy way. After two years of processing and prayer, they saw three options for the future of the congregation: invest still more energy in breaking the downward trend, merge with another congregation or retire.

When a worker retires, Koenig points out, they’re far from dead. “They have a new lease on life for a new phase of life.” The same can be true of a church, he says. “Retirement for a church can be a positive experience rather than a negative experience, if people understand it’s not a death; it’s an opportunity to move forward with new conditions and new opportunities.”

Early in 2010, church leaders became convinced that such a “proactive retirement” was the healthiest of their options; they would close the doors and move into a new phase of ministry. Wall says, “This difficult decision was processed with the congregation, and, while not all agreed with the process and timeline of concluding the ministry, the congregation did support the decision to proactively conclude, rather than watch what appeared to be an inevitable decline.”

So on Feb. 21, CBF held their final service and shared their final meal as a congregation. Now, the “retired” congregation looks ahead to a new phase of ministry.

“We were able to close our fellowship while we were still relatively healthy,” Koenig says. He says that when a church is allowed to decline and end in an unhealthy way, people get wounded. Sometimes, they are so wounded they want nothing to do with any church. Koenig says, “I’d much rather see people move on to fellowship in other parts of the body of Christ healthy.” He hears reports that most CBF folks are beginning to minister in other churches.

CBF hopes to see their facility used for new ministry as well. The church had invested significant energy in maintaining a beautiful, fully-furnished campus. But the congregation was only using it for a few hours each week. Church leaders wanted to see the facility used for the larger kingdom of God in a way that CBF wasn’t able to do. The PDC is considering options for future ministry, says Wall.

CBF’s retirement does come with grief. No one really wanted to see the church close. It’s a difficult transition and a loss. But Koenig and CBF leaders hope that viewing the closure as a retirement rather than a death can help keep the focus on the next phase of ministry.

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