In locations around the world, six missionary families are rejoicing after receiving lump sums worth several years of financial support. And in Tracy, Calif., the eight-year-old Crossroads Baptist Church is looking forward to worshiping with the accompaniment of the beautiful grand piano it acquired—for free—in August. On a broader scale, the GARBC is preparing to launch new church-planting initiatives thanks to funds earmarked for that purpose. These gifts are part of the legacy of Berean Baptist Church, Fremont, Calif.
For several years Berean Baptist Church knew it was headed down the road toward closure. The church was struggling to grow and hurting financially and didn’t know where to turn for help. They sought counsel from several groups, but none was able to meet the church’s needs satisfactorily. Then Barbara Stepp, the wife of Deacon Bob Stepp, suggested contacting the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. This is our association, she reasoned. We’ve been in fellowship with them since 1955. We can trust them.
“I told my husband to call and don’t wait,” she says. “He called, and we’re so thankful.”
The Stepps learned that the GARBC offers free consultation services for a wide variety of areas, including pastoral search assistance, strategic planning, church finance and business advice, pastoral counsel, leadership training, and—just what Berean Baptist needed—guidance in the process of closing a church.
The Blessing of Consultation
Michael Nolan, director of strategic ministry growth and treasurer for the GARBC, asks, “If a church is going to close its doors, who is going to close all the accounts, pick the real estate agent, sell the property, file all the legal and property documents, and make sure the proper assessment has been made leading up to the closing? Can you imagine the toll it would take if one person in the church had to shoulder all these responsibilities?”
Bob Stepp spoke with Nolan, who also serves as director of Baptist Builders Club. This arm of the GARBC had granted the church a loan in 1965 to help with a building project. Perhaps now the GARBC’s consultation services could meet an equally vital need. In a conference call, Berean’s leadership discussed with Nolan two possible alternatives to closing: merging with another church or revitalization. Nolan answered the men’s questions, then reached out to legal, tax, and actuarial experts within the GARBC’s network to provide pro bono assistance as needed. Throughout the process, all parties involved recognized that God was providing much-needed direction through the consultation.
Over the next 12 months, the church called multiple times to seek professional advice. Then, just when the process seemed to be stabilizing, tragedy struck. In rapid succession multiple deaths deprived the church body of several key leaders, including Bob Stepp and treasurer Don Van Brocklin. The pastor himself was in poor health. The church’s membership now stood at only 19 members. Acting quickly, the remaining two deacons proposed closing the doors, and chairman Bob Green led the church members in voting to approve the proposal. Now, more than ever before, they needed help. Someone had to ensure that all the necessary steps were taken during the closure. Even more important, the church body desired to leave behind a God-honoring and ministry-enabling legacy long after the lights were turned out for the last time.
“We never want to see a church close,” Nolan says, “but the body had already made the decision, not only that they were going to close, but how they wanted to close and what they wanted their legacy to be.”
Nolan visited Berean Baptist Church on Palm Sunday 2014. He fellowshipped with church members and preached during the worship service. Afterward, everyone enjoyed lunch together and then called a business meeting to order. In that meeting, a unanimous vote affirmed the members’ decision to close the church. But the church’s closure would enable ministries around the world to thrive.
Opening Many Doors with the Closure of One
Even in a church’s closure, there’s victory in the legacy it leaves, Nolan says. “By closing your doors, you could help open another door—or many doors of other churches.” Berean Baptist Church wanted the gospel testimony to stay in its community and wanted its building to remain a church, even if it was no longer called Berean Baptist Church. So Berean sold its building to a nearby Baptist church for a deeply discounted price. That church held its first service in the facility on Sept. 14.
The sale of the property enabled the establishment of a one-year severance package and a retirement package for Berean’s pastor. Six missionary families, as well as the state representative of the California Association of Regular Baptist Churches, received lump sums equivalent to several years’ worth of support. The CARBC also received funds to start a rescue ministry, so if other churches begin struggling like Berean did, they will have a resource in California to help them keep ministering. The remaining funds were entrusted to the GARBC to enable the association’s vital ongoing work of planting, revitalizing, and guiding churches. Throughout the difficult closure process, Berean’s leadership had come to realize the importance of the association’s role in supporting its fellowshipping churches. They knew that strengthening its ability to continue acting in that capacity would be a worthy and fruitful use of their remaining resources.
Local GARBC ministries, and one out of state, received the church’s tangible assets, including pews, cloth chairs, a stage, books, toys, cribs, Braille Bibles, puppets, a sound board cabinet, and hymnals. The GARBC posted a notice in its monthly E-Info online newsletter that items would be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Recipients included Deaf Baptist Church in Fremont, Pilot Lake Wilderness Camp in LaPorte, Crossroad Baptist Church in Tracy, Pioneer Baptist Church in Citrus Heights, and Camp Manitoumi in Lowpoint, Ill. Remaining clothes and appliances were donated to a shelter in the Fremont area.
“I’ve never faced a situation quite like this before,” Nolan says. “You hate for any church to close its doors, but this one closed, and their legacy will be long-term.”
Closing a church does not have to mean the end of ministry. It could offer the beginning that a new church is desperately praying for, or the encouragement a ministry needs to keep going.
Melissa Meyer is associate editor for Regular Baptist Press.