Capital North Conference

What We Can Learn from
Lord of Life Austin’s Closure & Resurrection 
As a resurrection people, Christians have something hopeful to say about death and change. But what about when it’s the end of your church as you know it? 

Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Austin, TX closed in March 2023. A majority of congregation members decided they could better live their community’s values in new ways, including through an endowment for partner ministries. In an era of rapid change and instability, Lord of Life models one way to reframe our hopes and fears about change. 

“People keep saying, ‘I’m sorry your church closed,’ and I’m like, ‘Why? We are helping thousands of people who are marginalized across Texas.’” said Randi Ladolcetta, member of Lord of Life. The former congregants gather regularly to discuss where to worship next. “We talked at dinner last night and asked, could we have gotten this close without going through this process? The answer is no.” 

Such intentional closure is not an isolated incident. A study from Lifeway research found that although 3,000 Protestant churches opened in 2019, 4,500 closed that same year. The Lutheran church, born 500 years ago with reformation in our DNA, might be the perfect learning ground to reframe change in the church, to believe in a promised resurrection after “holy closure.” Jesus Himself told us, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). 
Lord of Life congregation on holy closure day, March 2023. 
The former pastor of Lord of Life had just retired in 2019 when Pastor J. Mills was called to the church as a pastoral intern, fresh out of seminary. Mills is a 21-year Navy veteran with a long beard and warm demeanor. The congregation of about 35 first asked him to lead the Synod’s Discerning God’s Future, a process for profiling a church to call a new pastor. 

“I had to be super creative with liturgy!” said Pastor Mills, who incorporated the process into Sunday worship to make sure more of the congregation was present and participating. 

One pivot point on the journey came as the congregation realized they financially could only support a part-time pastor, but it seemed difficult to “sell” the job description. Mills pointed out to the transition team that there was no room for dishonesty with themselves or a new pastor – too many congregations worked to present their best truth and newly called pastors quickly became resentful or disenchanted after discovering exaggerated descriptions of congregational vitality. 

Alongside Discerning God’s Future, the Southwestern Texas Synod offered the companion Holy Fork in the Road. Mills has since taken on this part of the journey to help future congregations (starting with Lord of Life) decide from three directions when reality calls for a reset moment. The first possible direction at the fork, Rebirth, means recreating the church in a way that would be unrecognizable to former parishioners. Second is Resurrection, or closure with an intentional next life for the congregation and its resources. And third, Do Nothing, in which case funds or people will likely trickle to zero in a struggling congregation.

“If we espouse the resurrection as the pivot point for all humanity, then we should be the first ones who embrace the ability to change something in our daily lives,” Mills said.

As a trained death doula (akin to a hospice chaplain), Mills sees the new life made possible by death. He certainly is not a church “closer,” rather he helped Lord of Life consider their options. 

With remarkable intuition for a newly minted pastor, Mills created discussion questions for all options. One asked members if they knew whether or not the congregation they were baptized in still existed, and if that matters. 

Understandably, the congregation’s initial bias was toward the Rebirth option, perhaps to sell their 10 acres and open a storefront church downtown that continued their primary service ministry for foster youth. As to be expected, there was deep anxiety and sadness around the option to close. 

“Last June was bleak,” said Ladolcetta. “If you had asked any of us, we would have said ‘I’m never going to church again.’” 

“But now, to say I closed a church that donated thousands of dollars to the foster community, LGBT community, immigrants on the border,” Ladolcetta continued. “To say we put our money where Jesus is, it’s worthy of telling people. It’s beyond just saying ‘Oh I’m a Christian.’”
Lord of Life’s closure and rebirth cake, all in one.
As the congregation grappled with the anxiety and strong emotions of potential closure, Mills reminded everyone, “to live into the fact that the seven churches of Paul don’t exist anymore. But everything they did informs us for good and for ill. We still refer to the Corinthians all the time.” 

“That Holy Fork in the Road conversation, those six weeks helped us identify what our values are,” Mills said. “By imagining what is important for us as a community of faith, it was easy for us to move the conversation beyond the invitation to close, to move to ‘what can we do with all we have?’

On the first Sunday after Easter 2022, the congregation assembled and voted 85% in favor of holy closure. Their final worship service took place a year later on March 5, 2023. That day they gave $800,000 away to ministry partners, the biggest share to Peace Lutheran Church of Austin to fund half of their housing development for families without a home.

In addition, Lord of Life’s land sale enabled a $3 million endowment split among four partners: Technicolor Ministries, an LGBTQ+ affirming mission development of the Synod; Eagle Pass Frontera Ministries, a Synod mission development welcoming migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border; Upbring, a Texas nonprofit supporting foster and adopted children; and ReconcilingWorks, which advocates for full participation of LGBTQ+ Lutherans in the church. 

For the 15% who voted to remain open, the disappointment was understandably deep, and all left for new congregations. “Watching a church close is a death, that is a grief process, and people have different ways of processing,” said Ladolcetta.

Lord of Life’s endowment will fund at least three years of Pastor Mills running Holy Fork in the Road Ministries for any Synod churches who want to work through the questions. Ladolcetta hopes other churches can “view Holy Fork not as a last resort, just view it as a tool when they get an inkling that things aren’t right, to ask where is God in this church? That’s when you do Holy Fork, not when you have 10 people left, when you are selling land to pay bills.” 

In a world terrified of death and endings, perhaps Christians need to be those willing to remind us of the new life promised when we meet a natural turning point. We don’t have to stop at the question, ‘how do we die well?’ We can in the very next breath, with hope and even excitement, ask, ‘how can we be reborn well?’
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