It survived Dayton’s great flood of 1913 and more than one arsonist’s flame, but declining membership and resources are just too much for a 158-year-old church at the edge of Dayton’s Oregon District to handle.
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St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church pastor Robert E. Miller confirmed rumors Wednesday that the church located at 239 Wayne Ave. will close at the end of the year.
“It has survived a lot,” Miller said. “We’ve been an outreach ministry here and to the intercity for over 40 years with our feeding, hygiene, clothing and birth certificate program. And we know that ministry has a beginning and it has an end. Now it is time for St. Paul’s to pay it forward to someone else.”
December 31 will be the last day for the church that dates back to 1859.
The steeple was built around 1869 and the parish hall in 1954.
The future of Project Blessings, a nonprofit that has fed needy families and individuals at the church since 1978, is undetermined, Miller said.
Jeremiah’s Letter, a program at the church that serves 18,000 people annually by providing direct services and educational opportunities, is also mulling its future
Miller said St. Paul once thrived, but its membership has fallen by half every ten years since 1969.
“The kind of rebirth the city is having downtown is not going to fill the pews on Sunday,” St. Paul’s pastor of 17 years said. “It was a church of German immigrants (when it opened). Back in the 50s and 60s it had more members than it could shake a stick at.”
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The growth of the suburbs and population change in downtown and the rest of downtown impacted the St. Paul’s congregation.
The church now has fewer than 100 members and many are elderly. The average age of worshippers is 73.
“There is no investment left in the church or neighborhood,” Miller said.
The church can only pay 40 percent of its bills through collections. The rest comes from its dwindling investment fund.
Parishioners voted 52 to 8 on June 11 to close the church and began to ponder its future in February.
Miller said an interested party has stepped forward interested in buy the church. That company would preserve its historic features.
St. Paul would use a portion of the proceeds from the sale to “pay it forward” to nonprofits it supports like DayBreak, a shelter for homeless teens, and The Victory Project, an after-school program.
Letter Miller wrote in the church’s May/June newsletter before the decision to close was made:
As a youngster growing up I learned how to play the telephone game. It is a game I never really liked and actually thought was pretty stupid. If only that game were not so true to real life! If you don’t know, the game is where a group lines up back to back and the leader tells the first person in line a story about something/anything and then that person turns and repeats what they have heard to the next person and so on until the last person in line has heard the story. Then the original story that began the game is told to all and the last version of the story is shared to see how much the story line changed between the first and last person. The difference is usually dramatic, with facts altered and the story line greatly changed.
It seems to me that since February 26, 2017, when the original recommendation to close was presented to the congregation by the Advisory Committee, many of you have been playing the telephone game. For instance, a decision to close has not yet been made, but many people tell me that’s what they have heard. The decision to close or remain open will be made by a vote taken by the congregation on June 11 – it has not yet happened. I have also heard that if we stay open then nothing will happen to Project Blessing or Jeremiah’s Letter when, in fact, this combined entity cannot afford to maintain the expense of operating in the parish hall for any length of time in the future regardless of whether the church stays open or closes. I have also heard it said that our church history book tells us we have overcome fires and floods, so why not this? It is more probable to overcome those and other obstacles when you are a 1,500+ member, thriving congregation of all ages paying your own way rather than a 100 member, aging congregation relying on an investment fund to cover over 60% of the yearly expenditures in the same physical structure that has aged as much (and more) than its members.
So once again, I feel compelled to state the facts so that everyone may be as well informed as the first person in line for the telephone game:
• our membership has fallen by half every ten years since 1969
• fewer than 50 of us worship regularly • the average age of the worshipping congregation is 73
• offerings cover less than 40% of our expenses
• spending on behalf others has diminished to less than 9% of our current budget
• we will use all of our investments in the next four years or less
So while we are grateful for all that the Lord has done throughout our history, both among us and with us, the fact remains that with our continuing decline in membership and failing financial health, we are unable to see a way to sustain our ministries.
Make no mistake! Neither the committee nor myself like this reality any more than any of you. I personally have lost a lot of sleep and a decent amount of health over struggling with this issue (not to mention certain inappropriate comments made to me) and the inevitable conclusion that will come at some point yet to be determined. This struggle is real. It is not new. It has been with us for much longer than my tenure as Pastor. It has just been easier for the congregation at large to ignore rather than deal with it. But ignoring it is no longer an option and the committee and I have chosen to be transparent and present the actual facts as well as acknowledge the high emotions we all are feeling in this situation.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote on June 11, you have been given the opportunity to obtain the correct facts, participate in informational meetings, and express the raw emotions that this situation elicits. Many churches go by the wayside without ever being given this opportunity. Just ask the former members of South Park UMC.