Guest commentary by Michelle Henrichs
Our congregation sold all of our real estate and has lived to tell about it.
Heritage Presbyterian Church in Muskego, Wisconsin, has a familiar story to tell: graying and declining membership, budget deficits and an aging building. As we entered 2016, we had just over 100 members on the rolls and approximately 40 in worship each week. But then, it seemed like the decisive blow occurred: Our well water was deemed unsuited to drink. We tried several fixes, including digging a new well, but continued to get a failing test. In May 2015, the Department of Natural Resources gave us one year to hook up to city water (financially unsound) – or lose our occupancy permit.
During this time, the congregation held conversations about their future. We met with another Presbyterian church just a few miles away. We discussed selling or developing a parcel of land belonging to the church in hopes of receiving enough sale or rental income to move forward.
The session began to meet weekly to discern God’s call. This included recognizing that our former identity of a congregation with many children and youth was not our current identity. We had joyfully raised and launched our children, but like parents facing an empty nest, we needed to discover who it was we were now.
As we reflected on Scripture, prayed, discussed and questioned, we found that there were three areas that were a constant part of our identity: worship and music, caring for one another and impacting our community. Surprisingly, our buildings weren’t required to live into any of these!
On December 13, 2015, Heritage Presbyterian Church voted to sell all of its real estate.
One of the most pressing questions became: “Where are we going to go?” We decided to not just talk about it, but to experience it. One Sunday we cancelled worship and elders led groups to four different congregations who worship in non-traditional spaces. Another week, we moved our worship service to a local senior living community. Another Sunday, we worshipped at a local church as we considered sharing their building with them. After much conversation and prayer, we decided to relocate to Tudor Oaks Senior Community. On Pentecost, we began worshipping in a new space with new people.
The second question became: “What are we going to take?” When you live somewhere for 50 years, you accumulate a lot of things. So, over the months between Christmas and Pentecost, the congregation journeyed together in the process of remembering, grieving, cleaning, packing and hoping. There were many opportunities for everyone to participate in rediscovering a common history together through the many filing cabinets, closets and rooms.
While the decision to sell was almost unanimous and done with an eye and heart to the future, the congregation had grieving to do. In addition to the remembering during our packing and cleaning, we also held several Services for Wholeness to help us journey together. These were times of lament and hope.
In February, we closed on the final parcel of property and are now real estate free. Praise be to God! Funds from the sale have been allocated to our endowment fund. While we hope to maintain the endowment as a permanent balance in order to assist Heritage Presbyterian Church in investing in God’s activity around us, earnings will be used to maintain our operations and expand our mission and outreach in ways that serve God’s people while also nurturing the spiritual life of the congregation. Like the servant caring for the master’s money, we seek to be faithful with what God has provided (Matthew 25:14-21).
Our work isn’t done yet. The congregation and the session continue to discern how best to steward the resources God has provided. As we begin to explore new partnerships in ministry within Milwaukee, we can see how worship, spiritual growth and connection all work with mission. We joke that the mission council might soon be the only council of the congregation, except for the session. But we’d much rather spend our time this way than figuring out how to fix the roof or who’s going to mow the lawn. Now, we’re channeling our energy into our gifts. For example, three times a year, members lead worship at other congregations to raise awareness and funds for water projects in Ribe, Kenya.
God has been with us on the path and has promised to make a way for everyone. No one traveled the path alone. Together, everyone made decisions and grieved over leaving the building just as together we look forward in hope to what is springing forth.
MICHELLE HENRICHS is pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church, a worshipping community in Muskego, Wisconsin. Her passion is helping people find their story in God’s Word – and then bringing God’s Word into conversation with the everyday-nature of their lives.