Effects of Closing a Small Rural Church
Ennor, Laurence H.
Introduction : This project is based on the hypothesis that the closure of a small rural church is a traumatic event in the life of the church and the surrounding community, evoking feelings of loss and grief, which if treated in a sensitive and pastoral way enables people to accept their losses while looking for new opportunities. The central focus of the project is St James Church, Sheffield, a small rural town 50 kilometres west of Christchurch, and 13 kilometres west of Darfield, the main centre of the Malvern area. This church was previously St James Presbyterian Church and from 1979 it has been part of the Malvern Co-operating Parish, although most of the regular worshippers still think of themselves as Presbyterian. The St James Church was opened in 1910 but is now showing the effects of its age and will soon become unsafe to use as water has seeped in behind the exterior cladding (applied in 1959), causing an unknown amount of damage to the framing timber. There are currently 8 to 12 regular worshippers, and 37 on the pastoral roll. The church will have to be closed, but some of the regulars would rather not face this fact. Part 1 of the project sets the scene. As a way into the topic I explore some of the words of the hypothesis, e.g., church, small, rural, and consider some ways of classifying what is rural. Part 2 is about rural New Zealand. Rural New Zealand has its own characteristics. In order to understand what is happening in Sheffield, it is important to understand the nature of a rural community. I discuss Bill Bennett’s theology of the land and his rural spirituality from his book, God of the Whenua, together with what has happened to rural New Zealand over the last 40 years, as well as changes in the church during that time. Part 3 focuses on Sheffield in relation to rural New Zealand. In general Sheffield reflects the rural scene throughout New Zealand, but with some local differences. Having described Sheffield in Part 3, Part 4 is about what is happening to the church people of Sheffield as they contemplate the almost inevitable closure of their church in the not-too-distant future. I discuss the feelings of people who have lost many businesses, services and community groups from their community. If their church closes it will be yet another blow to them. Part 5 is about losses. People leave churches for many reasons other than the church being closed. I discuss the work of Alan Jamieson who has studied why people leave Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, but who still have a living faith in God. I also look at the experience of other churches in New Zealand and other countries when a church has been closed. Part 6 looks at some possible opportunities after the closure of a church. What is the way ahead? There is some discussion about ways of helping people pastorally during the time of change. Methodology : For collecting the main part of the data for this project I chose to interview most of the members of the St James Church (some were unavailable for interview). Because there are only a small number of regular worshippers at St James, Sheffield, there is a very restricted interview base, which meant that there was a risk of distortion of opinions, the sample not being big enough to detect trends. Due also to the small interview base, this project is essentially a case study. In order to try to correct the possibility of distortion and to gain a wider perspective I contacted other people in New Zealand and overseas, and have also studied literature from Australia, Canada and Britain. In addition I have interviewed some people from the Sheffield community who do not attend St James. I was given a very comprehensive summary of the Sheffield area and church from the editor of The Malvern Record, who has an interest in the history of the area. It would have been helpful for this project to have attendance figures for St James Church over the last 20 years, but these are not available as they are combined for statistical purposes with the numbers for the whole parish. I have spoken with the minister of the Parish during the 1980s about attendances during that decade. I am the ordained minister of the Malvern Co-operating Parish, and there could have been a risk that the rôles of minister and researcher conflict with one another. I feel that the people I interviewed from St James were honest and open in their responses, despite my being their minister. The research has helped me to understand the local church and surrounding community in a much deeper way than would perhaps have been possible with normal pastoral contacts. My term in the parish concludes in early 2010, and so I could very likely be the minister who has to close this church.
Advisor: Booth, Ken
Degree Name: Master of Ministry
Degree Discipline: Department of Theology and Religious Studies
Research Type: Dissertation