By E. Elaine Kauffman
Retired pastor, First Mennonite Church (Mountain Lake, MN)
Numbers were dwindling. Emotional and physical resources were waning. The maintenance and up-keep needs of an aging building became overwhelming. Energy efficiency was low. In a way, you could say, our building pushed us into making the decision to sell it and move out, a choice that turned out well in spite of our fears.
Group cohesion was good: seen in little gaggles of conversation that hung around after the morning service, gatherings for "Supper at Six" two Wednesday evenings per month, and a strong sense of group identity. In spite of suggestions that we could disband as a church or join another congregation en masse, neither of those options seemed to be preferred.
Conversations with at least two other church groups that might be interested in acquiring the property ended in nothing. Finally, the decision was made to list the property with a realtor. It was a heart-stopper for some long-time members to see that "for sale" sign on the lawn; even knowing it was practical did not make it easy.
Leadership was proactive about keeping everyone informed as plans went forward. No one was eager to see the building used for apartments or commerce, but that might have to happen. However, the offers seemed low. Then, in a surprising week, everything seemed to happen at once. On a November Tuesday at the annual meeting, the trustees were authorized to go ahead with any offer they deemed reasonable. Sunday night the congregational chair called to say, "We have an offer...and they want to take possession at the end of the year."
Quick work went into listing removable objects and letting members indicate what they would like to keep; everything else would go "as is" to the Hispanic Pentecostal group buying the building. One of the best feelings was that the building would continue to be used for its original purpose, a place of worship and praise to God. Major adaptations were in order. Office space and a room for our library books were arranged with our sister congregation, Bethel Mennonite Church. Among the possibilities considered, we discerned that we did not want to meet at a different time of day, nor to use a separate space in another church's building at the same time they would be meeting. The chapel space of the local nursing home, normally unused on Sunday mornings, became the option we decided to try. Cupboard space to keep songbooks was an added generous gift on their part.
The space was a good fit for our size. We like to sing and we could actually hear each other better than before. I loved being able to hear the voices of the children mingled with adults as they learned to join in the Lord's Prayer. In addition, the half a dozen members living in the nursing home or the assisted living facility next door could now walk to church without worrying about the weather or transportation. We also welcomed other residents on days when they were unable to attend their own services.
People pitched in as they were able: setting up chairs, restacking them, picking up hymnals. The gaggles of conversation continue as strong as ever. A hanging box of file folders is a practical substitute for mailboxes. Meetings can be held in the facility or member's homes or in the Bethel church. Bethel also offered their space for funerals. Potlucks and other events that center around the kitchen have been a challenge, but creative solutions, such as holding potlucks in the café of our local MCC store, have worked well.
The changing of our patterns has, on the whole, been good for our congregation. Moving out of our building was not the end of our story, but rather the beginning of a new life-giving chapter.