When a church closes and sells its building, it doesn’t have to mean the end of its ministry. Many of these congregations have left a legacy by donating their buildings or the proceeds from selling properties to Lutheran outdoor ministries.

Gifts from closed churches have allowed outdoor ministries to renovate facilities, relocate buildings to their grounds, and construct year-round retreat centers for children and adults.

“With the increased camp use by adults, we need facilities that will accommodate people of all ages,” said Jeff Bluhm, executive director of Lutherdale Ministries in Elkhorn, Wis. “With the shift in demographics of the church, especially with the aging of our church, we’re expanding our ministry to serve adults.”

Gifts totaling $230,000 from the closings of Mayfair (Chicago), Christ (Melrose Park, Ill.) and Messiah (Elgin, Ill.) Lutheran churches have allowed Lutherdale to start a $2.9 million campaign to build a retreat center.

“We’re honoring each of those churches with memorials in the new building and a recognition of those congregations that their ministry will live on,” Bluhm said.

A gift of a church building also allowed Lutherhill Ministries in Texas to open a retreat center on Galveston Island on the Gulf Coast. Named for the donor, Zion Lutheran Church, the 6,500-square foot Zion Retreat Center opened last fall to offer year-round programs in a resort-like setting just blocks from the beach.

“Zion wanted its ministry in closing to continue on in some way,” said Matt Kindsvatter, executive director of Lutherhill.  When the retreat center was dedicated, approximately 70 people came from the church, which closed eight years ago. “They were so excited to see their ministry continue,” he said.

Zion gifted the land, the church building and about $20,000 in operating funds, Kindsvatter said. Lutherhill then raised $1 million to renovate the building into a center with eight bedrooms and private baths. It’s decorated with old artifacts from the Swedish Lutheran church, including the articles of incorporation from the 1800s.

Anthony Grizzaffi, a member of First Lutheran Church in Galveston, was council president of Zion and managed the 2009-10 closing. He recalled that Zion had experienced declining membership, but when Hurricane Ike flooded the church in 2008 with 3 feet of water, the congregation realistically considered their future.

Although the congregation didn’t have flood insurance, they did renovate the building. But membership continued to decline because people who had lost homes in the hurricane left Galveston Island, Grizzaffi said. “Our goal was to rebuild it as a church, but we didn’t want it just to be a church for funerals and Sunday services,” he said.

Faced with selling the building, the congregation decided to donate the property to Lutherhill. “We didn’t want to see it become a dollar store or something like that,” Grizzaffi said. “There was some sorrow and some relief in the gift because it meant that the church wasn’t going away. The ministry was just transforming. We weren’t a failure and it didn’t go against our legacy. We preserved our ministry for future generations—it’s a retreat for statewide residents to enjoy.”

Green Lake Lutheran Ministries in Spicer, Minn., also received the building of Marble Lutheran Church in Marble Township, which closed in 2004. Unlike Lutherhill, Green Lake had to move the building.

Dave Eliason, director of congregational and community engagement at Green Lake, was the executive director at the time and oversaw the 100-mile, $70,000 relocation of the church to the camp. “It was quite a parade going across the prairie,” he said. “We had to cut the steeple off to get under power lines.”

“The congregation was delighted that its building was going to continue as a worship center,” said Eliason, who remembers the feeling when the church arrived at the camp. “It was an overwhelming feeling of this is right—this is something that will really bless people and be a feeling of God’s presence.”

Several other outdoor ministries across the country have received similar gifts. Lutheran Outdoor Ministry Center in Oregon, Ill., received money from the closings of Mayfair (Elgin, Ill.) and Good Shepherd (Oak Park, Ill.) Lutheran churches. Russ Senti, executive director, said the gifts were used for a kitchen upgrade and appliance purchase. The ministry also leveled unsafe buildings, upgraded administrative offices and offered scholarships.

Cross Trails Ministry in Texas received money from the closing of Zion and Peace Lutheran churches in San Antonio. The gifts, amounting to almost $500,000, have allowed the ministry to add a chapel and multipurpose center to one camp. When additional money is raised, it will build a chapel at another campsite. Another gift is expected from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in San Antonio, which closed this year, said Deanna Christensen, Cross Trails executive director.

While it’s meaningful to carry on ministries of closed churches, Layne Nelson, executive director of Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota, said moving a church building comes with significant costs.

Joy Ranch, one of Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota’s camps, has a relocated chapel that was the former home of Clara Lutheran Church in Irwin, S.D. The building was moved by a benefactor years before Nelson took his position. He said he’s been approached by other congregations to take their buildings, but the expense of a move has prevented him from accepting an offer.

“From my experience, I’m finding that congregations that are closing are looking for meaningful ways to continue their legacies,” Nelson said. “I’m also finding that the transition can be difficult because many churches don’t have the resources to make that possible. If someone gets a church building, there are costs with moving it, putting it on a new foundation, and it’s often in need of updates. Unless the church has members who are willing to come forward with dollars, or has an endowment, gifting of churches can be difficult.”

Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

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