Grieving the Loss of the Church You Love

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By Sharon Mager

“Grieving the Loss of the Church You Love,” authored by Grace Seaford Church Pastor Larry Davis, is a unique book that prayerfully uses the stages of grief to help a terminally sick church to graciously “die” and be resurrected. Davis draws from his experiences as a pastor walking his church through the process and from his personal life, sharing lots of interesting and insightful stories and examples along the way. At the end of each chapter, “next steps” are provided for churches who want to use the process.

Davis writes in the book‘s forward that he’s read a lot of books on church revitalization, and many are helpful, but authors miss a crucial point. “The authors assume that every local church should live and that death is a final blow. Those authors, whether knowingly or unknowingly, capitalize on the prescription of a treatment plan for a dying church whose promised prognosis will bring health before death comes. While there are times that treatment can bring health, most of the churches I have worked with are very sick or are in the final stages of a disease process.”

The attempts to lead change in a church clinging to a false promise of life instead of embracing a graceful God-honoring death may cause more harm than good, Davis said, “The impending death may be delayed, but generally, the result is a more excruciating and undignified death.”

In 2014, Davis met with Randy Millwood for lunch while participating in an AWAKEN Cohort on revitalization. Millwood, then a BCM/D Church Planting Consultant, asked Davis, “Does the local church have a life cycle?” After consideration, Davis thought —  yes! It does. That life cycle includes death. With Millwood’s prompting, that realization sparked a flame and inspired Davis to write the book.

Davis was familiar with the stages of grief. “I have an unusual graduate degree — Ethical Leadership. When I was studying in post-grad, I learned change management originally derived its philosophy from the stages of grief developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross,” said Davis. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The book follows these stages, adding “The Funeral a Celebration of Life,” and “The Resurrection.”

Davis said an organization can’t embrace something new until they’re able to grieve what was. If you understand that principle, it’s the beginning of how to lead a change process. God opened Davis’ eyes to use those principles to revitalize what is now Grace Seaford Church.

In 2015, Davis left a ministry position in a large church, fasted for two weeks, and followed God’s leading to revitalize a dead church in the Delmarva area.

Providentially, (God had a plan!) Grace Baptist Church in Seaford, Delaware, was praying for a pastor. Things were looking bleak. The church had dwindled to a handful, and Interim Pastor (now BCM/D Executive Director) Tom Stolle encouraged the church to pray in a way that was different than their normal prayer list — “to pray about God’s plan for the community around them and how the church was connected to God’s heart for that community. Stolle also reminded them that “he was not the man to provide that plan and that his role would be to shepherd the church in a way to prepare for its eventual resurrection,” writes Davis in the book.

God, of course, brought Davis and the church together. Davis served as an interim — continually emphasizing and leading in prayer and compassionately and lovingly walking the church through the stages of grief and pain. They evaluated every part of the church, ministries and procedures. There were challenging and emotional times when long-time members would stand up and get very angry at proposed changes (and he shares these accounts in the book). Davis and others would prayerfully show love and kindness and work to understand the reasons behind the anger (sometimes illuminating), and helping to resolve those issues. Davis stressed that change can cause much grief.

The church triumphantly made it through and began growing. “Baptisms were happening again, and our children’s ministry was growing. The attendees saw what this new resurrected life with Christ was producing, and they wanted more.” They unanimously called Davis as senior pastor (within minutes), and the church has been heartily thriving.

The book has been well received. One Amazon reviewer wrote, “I believe that this book is not only relevant to pastors of hurting or dying churches but also to pastors and leaders in thriving churches. If those leaders are to continually shepherd through the cycle of life, death, and resurrection that happens repeatedly in the local church, there is very relevant insight in this book.”

Another wrote, “This book is not limited to church transformation; it can be applied to your personal life, your teams, your work, or any organization or aspect of life. Take up your cross, and follow alongside Jesus. Embrace death. Mourn. Grieve! And find new life!”

Tom Stolle wrote, “The truth about church revitalization revealed in this book will change your perspective on a dying church and how that church can be raised to new life. Larry is the most passionate and knowledgeable person I’ve ever met about church revitalization. I encourage you to consume this book!”

Grieving the Loss of the Church You Love can be ordered on Amazon.

Watch the video below with Larry Davis and Randy Millwood about church revitalization, the seasons in the life of a church and the book.

Sharon Mager is a BCM/D Communications Specialist & BaptistLIFE editor.