What to do? Pretend everything’s fine? Just give up?
For three small, city congregations in Flint, Michigan, the way forward started by adding up the numbers.
Jim Offrink, then pastor of Bethany Church, was looking into the teeth of another cold Michigan winter. Offrink had been Bethany’s pastor since 1992. “I did at least 10 funerals a year for the first 10 years I was at Bethany Presbyterian,” he said. When he came, the congregation had 195 members; at the end, it had just 118. “I felt like I could never get ahead of the demographic curve,” Offrink said. “People kept dying faster than I could get new people in.”
In the fall of 2005, Offrink looked hard at his congregation’s budget. Working with the finance committee, it was clear “we had just so many years left with a full-time pastor and so many years left that we could afford to support a building that was costing us $15,000 a winter for heat alone.”
So on Feb. 2, 2006, Offrink sent a letter to four other small churches in Flint – presenting them with the possibility of merger. They all were small and struggling congregations, one with a parking lot just big enough for 18 vehicles. He suggested that if they each sold their buildings they could join forces, save about $30,000 a year in heating bills, and have more energy for mission.
In the end, one congregation pulled out of the conversation, one shut its doors altogether, and three others moved ahead.
Two — Bethany and Farnumwood — were predominantly white congregations that had loyal members but had been growing smaller for decades. Christ the Liberator parish had been established in the 1960s as a black congregation, but had never grown beyond about 90 members.
Offrink suggested that the three congregations merge, and that they all sell their buildings and move someplace that was energy-efficient and, for all of them, completely new. Emotionally, he figured, “the sacrifice would be equal” if they all left their buildings.
“When I first heard of it, I said, ‘Oh no! Never!’” said Barbara Wesley, an elder, retired school administrator and long-time member of Christ the Liberator. “Then I started looking at the economics.”
She realized, “We were stagnating also. We just weren’t doing anything to bring in new members, to generate income. We were just kind of set in our ways, going to church every Sunday, very, very comfortable with each other. When I realized that, I thought, ‘We want to do more.’”
The idea began to gain ground.
By January 2007, all three congregations had met and voted to merge.
By June 2007, the Presbytery of Lake Huron had consented and a committee was created with representation from each of the former congregations.
By July 1, 2007, all three congregations had formally closed down, with special farewell services for each one, and begun life together as one single united congregation. “I wanted us to be named ‘The Church of What’s Happening Now,’ but the congregation held out for Trinity United Presbyterian,” Offrink joked.
No one is pretending that the path has been completely smooth, or that the future is necessarily bright and cheery. There are definite challenges — merging different styles of worship; building a congregation that considers itself multicultural; finding new ways to interact with the community in mission; and hoping that the frost melts fast enough that the foundation of their new sanctuary can be laid and the building completed by June, before Trinity United has to move out of the building it currently is using.
All three of the old church buildings have been sold. The presbytery designated money from the sale of the small congregation that closed – and which didn’t join in the merger – to help buy a 10-acre plot of land right near a shopping center on which Trinity United is building a new, energy-efficient building, with plenty of parking,
Many of those involved acknowledge that change isn’t easy — but can bring new life and new energy.
Sharon Auger’s grandparents were among the earliest members of Bethany Church. She was born in 1938, baptized there, and has been involved with the congregation ever since.
Bethany, on the east side of Flint, had initially been a neighborhood church; many of the people who went there worked in the auto industry and lived nearby. But over the years, a lot of families moved to the suburbs and the jobs at General Motors dried up. The closest elementary school became a magnet school with a bilingual population; Hispanic families moved into the neighborhood to be close to the school. Many of those families are Catholic and the church did not make strong connections with the Hispanic neighbors, although it tried through a variety of outreach programs.
For a once-neighborhood church, the neighborhood was no longer the same.
The more they talked about it, the more people such as Auger began to see that letting go of the old, familiar ways might provide a chance at new life.
The long-time members had grown discouraged at seeing continuing decline. In the 1950s, the youth group at Bethany had 35 or 40 teenagers every Sunday. But before the merger, there were “five teenagers at the most left in the church. Most of us were the elderly group, the over-60s,” Auger said. “It was very hard on people who’d been a part of the church for a long time.”
When they first heard of the merger possibility, “all three of us churches had the same feeling — that we’ve got a great church over here, why doesn’t everyone come to us?” said Shirley Hale, a deacon from Farnumwood.
But “we were all struggling to keep these buildings open, and meanwhile we were cutting back and cutting back on our programs. We thought, `This is stupid. We ought to get together and share what we have.’ … We’re going to do a new thing and go to a new place where nobody will say, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it here.’”
With the willingness to try something new have come signs of new life.
While some left with the merger — some were not in favor, some thought the distance to travel was too great — others have joined the church. So far, the numbers have pretty much balanced out with a combined membership of around 310. There’s now a youth choir and a children’s choir.
On Easter, the men of Trinity United cooked a breakfast for more than 100 people.
An older member looked around, and said to Auger: “Sharon, I think it’s going to work after all. There’s a great deal of hope and optimism right how.”
There’s also an intentional effort to make things new. Representatives of the congregation have traveled to other cities for training in how to build a strong multicultural church. Trinity United is offering worship that blends in many influences, from classical to gospel to contemporary.
The congregation is still meeting in Bethany’s building, waiting for the construction of their new church to be completed. It has stairs, just a tiny elevator and on-street parking. “It’s a place nobody’s fallen in love with,” Offrink said. “That’s been a blessing. … We’re really ready to go.”
Still, there are tensions, and there’s been some grief over what’s been lost. Some say the black and white members have been polite to one another and welcoming, but still are trying to feel their way towards a deeper connection. Wesley said that during coffee hour and social times, people still tend to sit with their old friends, although new friendships are beginning to take root. And the congregation still is working on how to be more outwardly focused and less concerned about survival.
Previously, “as the churches became more and more strapped for cash and more and more concerned about paying the bills, they seemed less and less able to see mission beyond,” Offrink said.
The congregations already had a history of working with local elementary schools and are working on building connections with the school district where their new building will be located, to provide services such as tutoring and an after-school program.
Auger said she would recommend that other small, struggling congregations consider holding discussions with other nearby congregations about joining forces together. “It’s been a spiritual experience, it’s been a get-to-know each other experience, it’s been exciting. We’re going to have pitfalls, we know that. But so far, the Lord hasn’t given us the big ones.”
Offrink —who’s in the first year of a three-year call as designated pastor to the combined congregation — told them from the beginning, “I’m not here to get your money, I’m not here to get your building. I’m here to get your heart. If you believe this is God’s will, it’ll happen. And if you don’t believe it’s God’s will, it’s not going to happen; it’s going to be a fiasco. We have really prayed over this time and time again, what part of this is God’s will? And many of the big issues we thought would be big issues have not been a problem at all. …We just get to it and it melts away.”
Here’s one more discovery.
“Even the pessimists are finding that there is a lot of satisfaction in diversity,” Offrink said. “We don’t realize how homogenous and uninteresting we become when we’re just the same people doing things the same way, over and over again.”