LINCOLN — Even now, the portable rental marquee sign sitting in the snow outside the Christ Church Parish House reads, in part, “Christmas joy continues.”
“We haven't been able to change it because of the weather, the way it's been,” chuckled Rev. Scott Gunn, the Episcopal church's rector for over three years now.
Fact is, neither Gunn nor his parishioners have had much to celebrate lately. Due to serious financial hardships, he has asked his congregation to vote on Jan 30 to accept a merger with Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Cumberland Hill.
Such a move would result in — at worst — the demolition of this exquisite, stone, historic place of worship, which has stood on Lonsdale Avenue since 1884.
Rev. Don Parker, Emmanuel's interim pastor, will request his members — numbering approximately 120 — to do the same.
Gunn sent out a letter on Jan. 10, stating in part, “After much thought, prayer and listening, our vestry (or Board of Directors) has come to the conclusion that we can do the work
God has given us to do more effectively if we merge … It is very sad to think about leaving behind our beloved buildings. No one would say these are 'just buildings,' or that this is an easy choice.
“However, as Christians, we are people of hope, who proclaim a resurrection faith,” it continued. “We firmly believe that out of this sadness will eventually come joy and freedom in our new life as a congregation — (one that's) able to focus on mission and ministry, and not mere maintenance and survival.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Gunn maintained that Christ Church, 250 families strong, can no longer afford its annual budget of just under $400,000. By uniting with those at Emmanuel, which has greater parking availability and more acreage on which to construct additions for classrooms, both churches will endure.
“If we don't merge, I don't see how our church will survive even until the end of the year,” said Gunn, while sitting in his office, one he may not have 60 days from now. “I think Emmanuel has just been getting by as well. They — and we, like some churches around the country — are in 'survival mode.'
“Most churches nowadays are spending most of their energies just getting by, paying the salaries and the bills,” he continued. “If we merge with Emmanuel, we'll get beyond that 'survival mode' and into what I call 'mission mode.' That means we'll be able to spend our energy on doing the work that God wants us to do. I mean, Jesus doesn't talk about raising money to repair a roof.”
Most parish members, he readily admits, dislike the idea of having to attend a different church, or leaving the one they have behind. On any given Sunday, about 175 families attend services at either 8 or 10:30 a.m.
“In general, this parish has not had adequate income for as long as anyone can remember,” he noted. “When I got here in 2007, our budget deficit got to be about $67,000, and the parish was within months of having to close. But we received a bequest from a woman who had been married to a parishioner, and that allowed us to operate for another two-plus years.
“I've told our congregation that we just don't have any more piggy banks to empty. Jan. 1 through Dec. 31 is our fiscal year, and what we had to do in 2010 was to empty out the last of our piggy banks. In fact, we even borrowed a little bit of money from ourselves to get through the year. We just can't keep doing that.
“I always try to tell people that a church has two budgets: One for day-to-day expenditures and the other a capital budget for long-term repairs to the building, and, say, a boiler. Ours is about to die. We have the perfect storm here.”
He claimed the operating budget is down to just pennies, despite the fact tithes/offerings have risen $50,000 — from $185,000 to $235,000 — over the past two-three years. Those monies have gone to paying salaries and oil and electric bills.
He also said the church and parish house have a minimum of $200,000 in repairs that must be addressed immediately. They include the church roof, rotting wood around windows and structural damage to the tower above the church (which was built in 1884 after the original edifice, erected in 1834 for a small congregation of Episcopalians, burned to the ground the previous year).
“In addition to that, our buildings are across (John Street) from each other,” he explained. “For a child to move from the church to Sunday school at the parish house, they must cross the street, which is very dangerous. And we only have 16 parking spaces directly behind this parish house.
“We have to rely on neighboring businesses, or the school department, to allow our parishioners to park in their lots,” he added. “If they decided they didn't want us to do that anymore, our members would have serious problems.
“I knew there would be challenges like this when I got here, and we've done the best we can to restore these buildings. Since I got here, we've put over $150,000 into these buildings with fundraisers, so it's not for a lack of effort.
“It costs about $60,000 a year to operate these buildings — that is, just utilities and insurance. That's a lot of money … The operational costs (at Emmanuel) are lower, and the buildings will cost us two-thirds less to operate (under $20,000 per annum), it's handicapped-accessible and, again, it has expansion possibilities. We could build new classrooms and a bigger worship area.”
Gunn mentioned discussions began this past fall. The rector at Emmanuel — located at 120 Nate Whipple Hwy. — had left in August, leaving the church without a permanent reverend. Parker became the interim pastor.
“I believe we sent the first e-mail to them, one saying 'Would you be interested in a merger/partnership?'” Gunn said. “We got an e-mail back that said, 'We were thinking the same thing!'”
Discussions ensued between the vestries of both churches, where they got to know each other as individuals and worshipers. They also formed a “merger team” of clergy and lay people to assess the feasibility of a merger, and all figured it would be best to combine memberships.
Long before that, in March 2010, the vestry at Christ Church initiated a series of membership conversations at the Parish House.
“That's when they learned there was a possibility of a partnership,” Gunn offered. “There were some people, still are, who understandably were sad by the idea of leaving behind a familiar, historic place. However, some are excited because they understand the stress level (of making payments) would drop, and they could spend their energy doing God's work.
“Obviously, it's sad to think about leaving behind this church, but it would be even more sad if the love for our building kept us from doing the right thing,” he continued. “Rev. Parker (who will remain on as an associate rector with Christ Church Rev. Melody Shobe) is excited about this. His plan is to help in the transition until December 2011.
“It's the same thing I've been talking about. It's all about doing the fulfilling segments of the church ministry. It will be a majority vote, and I believe both congregations will support the merger, though we're still hearing, 'Don't close! Please!'
“One of our members, he's 80 years old, did tell me, 'Those of us who are getting a little older need to set aside our feelings and let the younger generations make these difficult decisions.' I thought that was beautiful.”
Gunn revealed financial pressure at both sites is considerable, for different but related reasons. If the merger is rejected, neither church could support a full-time priest (Gunn would be the “priest-in-charge”). Experience and mere numbers have shown that parishes with part-time clergy often fall into decline and close within a few years.
Should the two unite, the Christ Church Parish House will be sold, with the proceeds used to fund expansion on Emmanuel's property. Gunn stated that building's seating capacity is approximately 130 (with Christ Church about 350), so an addition would be necessary.
In the interim, Gunn's plan is to hold three Sunday morning services, those at 7:45, 9 and 11 o'clock, with the last slated for 5 p.m.
When asked if Christ Church would be demolished, he said only, “I'm not sure. Here's the issue with our church. Obviously, it's a beautiful, historic building which holds inside and out many memories, and behind it is the cemetery, which is as old as the (original) church. Next to the church (on the left) is our memorial garden, and that's where ashes (of those members who chose cremation) are interred.
“It's difficult to sell the church because of its proximity to the cemetery and garden, but — if we could find a person or organization that would have a use for it, we'd love to make an arrangement so it could remain standing.”
(For more information, the church phone number is (401) 725-1920).
Gunn also mentioned if the mini-cathedral was torn down, the cemetery could “re-open” for burials, and the church would continue to own the surrounding land.
“That would allow us to leave the cemetery and memorial garden undisturbed,” he noted. “We also could have outdoor services and other events on the property, and the land would remain holy.”
Gunn acknowledged he had mixed emotions about the entire process, adding that churches across the United States are facing similar choices, “whether to live in the past, or move into a hope-filled future.
“As difficult as all of these questions are, they're exactly the questions we need to be asking,” he said. “I'd say most of the active members of this church, their faith is growing deeper as we travel on this journey together. In other words, I think we're learning why church matters to us.
“I do think a merger would be good for the members at both sites. In life, we learn the most from experiencing difficult times, and the same is true for churches,” he added. “This is real, this is life. It's happened. We (as a merger team) believe we've come up with a pretty good solution.
“When we turn the page on this difficult chapter, I believe the next chapter will bring us a great future.”