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Building expenses spark Presbyterian finance woes

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The Emporium was lit up on Saturday night with the music and enthusiasm of over 100 congregants and supporters of the Yellow Springs First Presbyterian Church, who were partying at a fund-raising benefit. Though the successful gathering raised over $1,000, church members know that such special events mainly serve to unify the church and the wider community rather than adequately addressing financial concerns. According to a small group of church leaders who met for an interview last week, the Presbyterians still must find solutions to their financial difficulties, which are rooted in maintaining a large, aging building that provides space for community gatherings in the center of town.

The church leaders talked last week about the many strengths of the Presbyterian Church that has graced the downtown since 1860. Some of them grew up in the church, which they describe as a very tolerant Christian community that seeks to further the spirituality of its members and the community. The church was one of the first in the village to embrace racial diversity in the ’50s, according to Fran LaSalle, and it has long been committed to social justice issues, Ruth Bent said. The church’s music program, directed by former Antioch College music department leader James Johnson, draws people from outside the membership, whom congregants welcome to all of their programs and services, Libby Rudolf said.

“The church invites participation from all segments of the community and especially those who are living a life of exploration,” church leader Joe Dowdell said during the meeting. “We invite them to join us, participate, leave us and come back if they wish — it’s a nonjudgemental environment.”

Though church leaders feel the core of their message is good, the problem is that the message isn’t getting out there. Church membership has steadily declined over the past 40 years, from a peak of 200 in the 1960s to just under 100 today. A typical Sunday service attracts 30 to 40 people. And because approximately two-thirds of the church’s total revenue comes from annual member pledges, the decline in membership has caused significant financial concerns.

The church has an annual budget of about $90,000, most of which goes toward operating and maintaining the large, aging facility, church leaders said. With lots of windows and high ceilings in the main sanctuary and in Westminster Hall, the building racked up a $13,000 heating bill for the first six months of this year, LaSalle said. In addition to utilities, the church has regular renovation needs, such as fixing the boilers, repairing leaky windows in the sanctuary, and replacing the dishwasher in the kitchen.

And last year, church leaders were caught by surprise by an unexpected and very costly repair of the church manse, or pastor’s residence, on West Whiteman Street. The job cost nearly $35,000. The unbudgeted repairs increased what had been a $5,000 to $10,000 annual deficit over the past 10 years to what the leaders estimated was an unsustainable $20,000 this year.

Because of the cost to renovate the manse, church leaders made a budgetary decision not to retain a pastor in residence, and to rent out the manse for a small amount of additional income. Therefore, since former Pastor Angela Schenck left at the beginning of 2007, the Presbyterians have paid visiting ministers to give sermons for the Sunday services, which has been not all bad, Bent said. A diverse mix of speakers attracts people to services, and enables the congregation to host some very talented speakers. The absence of a dedicated pastor who knows the community and can support church members with bereavement and other spiritual issues has been partially filled by church members who volunteered to serve as deacons.

Due the extreme nature of the church’s fiscal difficulties, over the summer the Presbytery of the Miami Valley recommended that an administrative commission of the church begin meeting to assess the financial situation of the Yellow Springs congregation. According to Executive Presbyter Dennis Piermont, who oversees the governance of 64 regional churches, the commission volunteers will take as long as a year or more to assess the situation and help the local congregation figure out the next steps toward restabilization.

Though the Presbytery does sometimes provide financial assistance, Piermont said that because there has been “no real growth” in the Yellow Springs church over the past several decades, an infusion of money is not likely to solve what he sees as the more rudimentary problem of a dwindling congregation. The Presbytery has established commissions to help resolve conflict within regional churches, but Yellow Springs is the only church in financial crisis.

“The commission will help the congregation focus on where it needs to be in the ministry, in other words, do a critical assessment of what God is calling them to do,” Piermont said. “Often we need to reinvent parts of ourselves to respond to our communities or our culture, and figure out ways of revitalizing.”

Part of that change should involve rethinking the way the church welcomes newcomers into its community, said Kay Reimers, one of the church leaders. The Presbyterian congregation in Yellow Springs can sometimes appear to be insular, she said. The church needs to consider itself from the perspective of a new member, she said, and members must reassess how they embrace those who weren’t necessarily raised in a church environment and have little context for how to mix with a mature congregation.

Figuring out what the new model of self presentation and relating to the larger community can start to feel like “marketing,” and Reimers clearly said that the congregation would want to avoid sounding like a mega church.

“We don’t want to adopt a super slick marketing look that’s superficial Christianity and feel-good religion, and that’s not what it’s really all about,” she said. “But we need to change…it shouldn’t just be the congregation taking care of the congregation. We should be trying to take care of the community, to see what’s out there that needs to be filled.”

The Presbyterian Church has always offered its facility for community use by the local schools, Boy Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous, Chamber Music Yellow Springs and the recent community Thanksgiving, to name a few (some of which use the church free of charge). And to do what is right for the larger community as well as to gain a little additional income, the church has opened its space to groups such as Nonstop Antioch, who no longer have a home on the college campus.

Though the income from rentals and fundraisers provides much needed support, Dowdell clearly emphasized last week that the income from these things could never come close to covering the church’s main cost of maintaining the building. Because the facility is too big for the current size of the congregation, the community has considered alternative uses of the facility, such as renting Westminster Hall or another part of the building as office space or other semi-permanent use.

But to solve the larger problem, it again comes back to the aging church community attracting new members. Looking out at the larger community may be a challenge for those who have functioned in a more traditional way by taking care of each other within the church, Reimers said. But the church has members with new ideas too, and the two groups tend to balance each other in a healthy way to ensure that the church meets the needs of long-standing members while doing its best to reach out to fill the needs of others, she said.

Though the fiscal challenge is real, the Presbyterians have a hopeful outlook and a belief in their ultimate purpose as a congregation.

“We come here to learn more about what it takes to lead a good life and to help the world,” Bent said.


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