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Physical space for God’s glory: A story of selling church property

Ryan Baer, pastor of Ridglea Presbyterian, and Jan Devries, general presbyter of Grace Presbytery, help lead the final worship service at the church’s longtime location. All photos were taken by Paige Bacon, a member of Ridglea Presbyterian Church, during the decommissioning service on July 29, 2018.

Why do churches sell their property?

Sometimes a congregation gets too small and too old and the church closes its doors. Sometimes there’s a split — folks disagree on doctrine or theology and a church sets sail for another seemingly friendlier denominational island.

And sometimes, the spirit blows. The old ways aren’t working.  The neighborhood changes. The phone rings. The time seems right.

Some Presbyterian congregations have found that saying “yes” to selling all or a piece of their church’s property has led to a new season of ministry — a call into something new. Here’s the story of how one church in Texas decided, after 75 years, to move on.

It was Nov. 1, 2012 — a Thursday, and Ryan Baer’s first day as pastor of Ridglea Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas. The mail came around lunchtime. And Baer found on his desk a thick envelope from a big-time Fort Worth law firm, addressed to him. He’d been on the job for just four hours. How could he be in trouble already?

Ryan Baer, pastor of Ridglea Presbyterian Church, preached during a final decomissioning service July 29 at its former property on Camp Bowie Boulevard in Fort Worth.

Inside was good news: a notification of a bequest from a longtime member who’d given 18 percent of his estate to the church, about $400,000. “It was like God saying: ‘It’s a gift. Hang onto it. I’m going to tell you what to do with it later,” Baer said.

Seven months later, in June 2013, Baer got a call from a church leader who said, “We need to have lunch” right away. That man, a real estate attorney, told the pastor that he’d been approached by a big property management firm that, unsolicited, had presented a letter of intent to buy the church property for $2.5 million.

Baer presented the idea to the congregation, asking, essentially, “Should we pursue this?”

The congregation voted by an 85 percent margin to say, “You’ve got to look at it.”

Lest things all seem too sunny here, back up in time a bit, about 70 years, and listen to a tale of a church that was given a free piece of land, and ended up with asbestos, a leaky basement and only 11 parking spaces. The property, however, was located in a commercial strip that had grown increasingly valuable. The question for the congregation was this: stay rooted in a place where much good work had been done, or sell it, take the money and move?

In the early days of World War II, choosing this spot for a church seemed like a great idea. A decision to build an Air Force base close to an aircraft assembly plant was transforming the Ridglea neighborhood on Fort Worth’s west side, bringing jobs and new homes.

So the presbytery commissioned a trio of ministers to spend a month going door-to-door canvassing in 1940 and 1941, in preparation for starting a new worshipping community. In 1942, the new congregation began meeting in a rented storefront, with no heat or air conditioning. On Easter Sunday 1943, Ridglea Presbyterian Church was chartered — it celebrated its 75th anniversary last spring

Looking for land on which to build, the congregation found an offer too good to pass up. The congregation was offered, at no cost, a lot across the street from where it was renting, as long as Ridglea would build a brick structure there that matched the surrounding buildings. A man had donated the land, just over an acre, to what was one of the first urban village developments – stipulating that it be used for a civic, nonprofit, educational or religious reason. The land was there, free, nearby and waiting.

So Ridglea built the church, and dedicated it on June 4, 1944, two days before D-Day. From the beginning, the site had a big limitation: only 11 dedicated parking spots, which didn’t seem too big a concern at the time, because Sunday blue laws meant the nearby businesses were all closed on Sunday mornings and the parishioners could use those spots.

That began decades of the church not quite fitting its space — and not being sure what to do about it.

  • In 1955, the growing church had an offer to do a land swap for a bigger piece of property a few blocks away. The congregation voted to approve the deal, but a title problem scuttled the plan.
  • When the growing Ridglea church needed more space, a decision was made to dig out a basement to make room for a fellowship hall. “In Texas we really shouldn’t do basements, because we have foundation and water issues,” Baer said. But the church leaders – whose numbers included more than a few handy aeronautical engineers – essentially said, “we’ll just engineer it.” They concocted a complex French drain and pump system, which “worked great as long as the pumps worked,” Baer said. The fellowship hall was dedicated in 1958.
  • In 1982, an arsonist attacked a number of churches in Fort Worth, throwing a Molotov cocktail into the pastor’s office and causing a fire. While the money from the insurance settlement fixed that damage, dealing with that also brought into focus the reality that “the basement had a leak problem that had plenty of temporary fixes,” as Baer put it, but a permanent solution meant moving to different site.
  • The possibilities that emerged included a land swap – trading the church’s one-acre site for four acres elsewhere. In September 1986, the congregation voted that down by a margin of 2-1.
  • So the church stayed put, continuing in ministry and putting money into repairs. The basement continued to flood. The congregation got smaller. The picture, Baer said, was this: “Big building, fewer people, fewer dollars.”
Passing of the peace.

In 2012, Ridglea called him as its pastor — and not long after, the offer to buy the property arrived. Next came the congregational vote to pursue the possibility; the formation of committees and study groups; and an engineering assessment of what repairs the building would need if the congregation wanted to stay put. One team looked for other possible buyers, ultimately determining that the original offer was the best one.

Just one hour before the time was to expire on the due diligence period for that deal, the buyer withdrew the offer, saying asbestos had been found in the building.

Next came an independent real estate appraisal, the bottom line of which was “all your value is in your dirt” – the land itself, as the building would be torn down, Baer said. The neighborhood association raised concerns about a new potential deal with a gas station and convenience store. Then another developer came along, and the Ridglea congregation struck a deal to sell for $2.5 million — without knowing where it would move next.

Along the way, on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, a potent hailstorm hit the church, blowing out 23 windows on the second floor. “It hailed so hard it killed flamingos in the zoo,” Baer said. Insurance pronounced the church’s roof a total loss. With the insurance settlement and the earlier bequest, doors opened and “God keeps providing,” Baer said.

Dale Bench has been the organist at Ridglea Presbyterian for 30 years.

About the same time, a Methodist church on four acres not far away closed its doors, the result of some congregational consolidations. A developer bought that land; the neighbors were unhappy; then Ridglea offered to buy the church from the developer, having just the right amount of money.

The new church is only two miles from the old one, “almost in the dead geographic center of our current membership map,” Baer said. It has no basement. There is abundant parking. Instead of an old pipe boiler system, “we’re going to be able to push a button and get from heat to AC and back again in a day.”

The shift to the new property won’t take place immediately. Before moving in, Ridglea wants to do some renovations. In the meantime, the congregation will worship in the building of a former Presbyterian congregation that closed in 2016, and which the presbytery had a contract to sell to a funeral home — a contract that fell through at closing.

“It really was a providential thing and a witness to the connectional church” that the space became available, Baer said. “It really is God’s providence. It’s almost like these other contracts had to fizzle” for the right things to fall into place.

Through all the twists and turns, the Ridlea congregation has figured some things out.

It made space to celebrate and honor the decades of ministry in the old building – taking some stained glass windows to the new space, but also looking ahead. “There’s some grief” at leaving, Baer said. Yet “the congregation recognizes a building should be a tool for ministry, not an end in itself.” By moving, Ridglea Presbyterian can cut its maintenance and utility costs by more than half, and stay in the neighborhood “that birthed us and we know and is ours.”

Multiple generations were represented at the final worship service at the old location. Aspen Cleworth attended with her mother, Allison Cleworth, and great grandmother Kaki Foster.

The Alban Institute used to say that “the average lifespan of a suburban Protestant church is about 75 years without a new birth and purpose for being,” Baer said.

“One of the things we’ve done really well is we’ve used our polity well.” At each crucial step, the congregation voted, so “their voices were heard.” And because deals kept falling through, “we had the gift of time” to get used to the idea of going somewhere new.

Along the way, Baer asked the congregation to consider over and over not just practicalities, but “is God calling us to mess with this?” He told them, “If this building belongs to God, like everything else does, are we being good stewards of this building?”

How can a physical space, and even the dirt beneath it, be used for the glory of God?