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.
In 1994, Cedar Falls Mennonite Church, a small congregation of about a dozen families, purchased a church building (c1915) near downtown Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Within a decade, the congregation revisited the issue of building ownership. Although some of the supporters of the original purchase were no longer part of the congregation, discussion resulted in a renewed commitment to ownership.
Over the years the building mortgage was paid off and space was rented to another congregation and to a private pre-school. The latter rental agreement remained in effect. Over time, changing demographics resulted in fewer members with the skills to maintain the building, and periodic repair costs prevented building a long-term maintenance fund to cover future needs.
By 2016, it was clear that necessary repairs and improvements, including making the building more physically accessible, would require more than $160,000, not counting future maintenance costs.
In Fall 2016, the discernment process intensified with a strong commitment to involve as many congregational voices as possible. Six congregational meetings focused around these questions: How do we live out our church mission? Who are we as a church? What concerns and/or excites you about this conversation? What issues are important to consider during this discussion? What does a/this building mean for the life of our church? What role(s) does a/this building play as we live out our mission?
We sought congregational input through large group discussions (sometimes using a "talking stick"); table discussions at potluck lunches; written questionnaires; a straw poll asking individuals to rank priorities, values, and possible actions identified in prior discussions; and inviting individuals to speak confidentially with the elders, church chair, or pastor about concerns they preferred not to make public. Throughout the process we provided printed summaries of meeting discussions. Our goal was inclusive, open, and transparent communication.
Just before Advent, we concluded a congregational meeting by lining up in a "Keep or Sell" continuum, which revealed that we had reached a widely-shared preference to sell our building. We knew that further time-consuming discernment was needed regarding what our path would look like following the sale, but we were ready for the congregational chair, pastor and elders to devise our next steps.
In the spring of 2017, we formed a "Relocation Exploration" committee that was charged with (1) studying the information gathered from the congregational discussions, (2) investigating local space options, (3) keeping the elders and pastor apprised of the committee's efforts and seeking any input or counsel needed, (4) preparing a recommendation for our congregation, and (5) keeping the congregation apprised of the work of the committee in an open, transparent process. Committee members toured three local church buildings, meeting with church leaders who were open to considering sharing physical space with another congregation. Ultimately, the committee recommended renting space from First Presbyterian Church--just two blocks from the building that we were selling.
After a series of conversations with representatives from First Presbyterian, we signed a 3-year rental agreement that began mid-July 2018. It provides for shared use of the kitchen and dining room; office facilities for our pastor; Sunday School rooms; shared nursery services; and exclusive use of a large multi-purpose room that we renovated prior to relocating in late August. "Our" space accommodates worship, fellowship, library, and adult Sunday School functions. (The sale of our former building was finalized in October.)
We have received an extraordinarily hospitable welcome from our hosts, with whom we have shared Sunday potlucks, a Christmas Eve service, an Ash Wednesday service, and a series of Lenten meals and programs. To our deep joy, we have learned that another local congregation was inspired by our experience with First Presbyterian to adopt a similar model by inviting another congregation to share their church building.
Having "come home to a place we've never been before," we eagerly look forward to the next chapter in the life of our congregation.
By David Boshart
Executive Conference Minister
In recent weeks, the news carried live coverage of the fire that destroyed the 850-year old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Within two days, contributions to rebuild the church topped 1 billion Euros. Clearly this building means a great deal to a lot of people.
From the beginning, places to meet the living God have mattered in the identity and witness of the church. God's idea about the place of meeting was first a tabernacle, a moveable space to accompany people as nomads on the way to the Promised Land. As the people of God became settled in the land, King David imagined a permanent place of meeting--a house of cedar where God could live. God contested the notion that it would even be desirable to God to be confined to a house made by human hands. Eventually a temple was built. The temple was destroyed, the temple was rebuilt, only to fall again. The Temple Mount remains a contested place of meeting to this day.
Mennonites have had their own challenges with understanding the role of the place of meeting. We have tried to be careful to remember that "the church" is people who gather to meet the living God, not a building. It was not an accident that What is this place? is the first hymn in the blue hymnal. It is a profound statement about what we mean by our places of meeting. The relative modesty of our meeting places with generous space for fellowship and study further reinforce the notion that the nature of the church is located in peoplehood.
Even so, place matters when it comes to meeting with God. For new churches, the acquisition of a building is a symbol of legitimacy as a church. In some cases, the maintenance of a pristine building can overshadow the ministry of spiritual formation and witness in the world. Churches that have experienced losses of members due to demographic shifts or declining spiritual vitality find themselves straining under the burden of building maintenance and encroaching decay.
How shall we think about our places of meeting? it is clear that there will not be one answer for every context. All places of meeting are local and therefore unique. Permanence where places of meeting are concerned is not aligned with the theology of the early church that believed that our citizenship is in heaven and we are pilgrims by vocation, people on the way.
This is not to say that churches should divest of facility. But here we have two stories of churches that have done careful discernment about their places of meeting. First Mennonite (MN) and Cedar Falls Mennonite Churches have made bold moves to sell their buildings. Having done so, they are finding new opportunities to renew and reframe the ministry, identity and witness of their churches. Other churches, such as Bethesda Mennonite, have adapted the worship space to be a more intimate, authentic expression of their community as it is today. Still other churches, like Kalona Mennonite, have renewed Christian education spaces to reflect the value of their commitment to the children who are formed in the faith in that place of meeting. nine of our churches gather in the meeting places of other congregations. The continual reminder of their own "guest" status fosters a spirit of hospitality to those who are seeking a spiritual home where they can meet the living God. Christ Community Church gathers in a synagogue. Recent experiences of shootings at synagogues in other parts of the country have meant that this congregation thinks about what happens if one's place of meeting is a target for violence. Still other congregations are very much in the process of discerning whether it is best to move into home settings.
Clearly the question is not buildings or no buildings. The question is, who are we as God's people and how does our space of meeting reflect and support our commitments, our values and our hopes as the people of God in this place where we live and move and have our being?