The sanctuary of the former St. Ansgar Lutheran Church. Photo by former pastor Bill Barter.

Closing Congregations: When closing your building opens new opportunities to serve

  • Emily Esworthy
  • Sep 8, 2023

After 62 years, St. Ansgar Lutheran Church in Portland, Maine, closed its doors in June.

Although the Rev. Tom Chittick describes himself as “a happy pew sitter” rather than the pastor, the closure was especially personal to him. He and his wife Nicky met at St. Ansgar as children, and they rejoined the congregation in 2009 after Tom retired from ministry.

Closing a church inevitably involves sorrow, but St. Ansgar was prepared to find a silver lining. Tom explains that the congregation received wonderful advice years ago: “When you see the handwriting on the wall, act sooner rather than later, because then you will have the advantage — and the pleasure — of having legacies and assets that you can distribute.”

For St. Ansgar, the signs became clear last year when attendance and pledges dwindled to unsustainable levels. Those who were left agreed it was time to consider their assets and talk through the impact they wanted to create.

Outdoor sign reads "Immigrants and refugees welcome"

A sign on the lawn at St. Ansgar

Counting their blessings

Supporting refugees and asylum seekers was one of the church’s key ministries for years, so they collectively agreed to support related ministries globally and close to home.

For their global ministry, they chose Lutheran World Relief. “What can I say?” Tom laughs. “We’re standard Lutherans. LWR is part of what we believe in.” He also explained that this gift is an extension of the church’s long history of supporting the LWR Quilt & Kit Ministry.

To other congregations looking to make their closure meaningful, he reflects, “It's sad that we lost our building and that our congregation had dwindled down to 35. But it's also spiritually energizing to know that we're putting these assets to really important use.”

As for the church members, they remain in touch to continue their fellowship and, in Tom’s words, “to take care of one another.” In other words, their small group is still a church, loving its neighbors and each other … just in a different form.

A church sanctuary with light filtering in large windows

The promise of new life

The decision to close a church is never made easily and is always accompanied by deep grief. And yet as Christians, we cling closely to the resurrection promise that from death comes new life. In recent years, Lutheran World Relief has received more than $1 million in gifts from congregations that have closed their doors and turned the death of their congregation into new life for our neighbors in need around the world.

To learn more about how a closing congregation can provide lasting hope into the future, please contact Lutheran World Relief at

Emily Esworthy, Sep 8, 2023 email