Final days for Faith Lutheran Church in Prairie Village
My old church, Faith Lutheran in Prairie Village, has 34 pews needing a new home.
The pipe organ in the balcony soon will be disassembled and trucked to an Episcopal church in Ohio.
The city bought and will demolish the building, an angular showcase that rose in the 1960s above 67th Street and Roe Avenue. The property will become a three-acre park.
Final Sunday service will be Aug. 27.
In its slow death, Faith Lutheran succumbed to cultural forces contributing to the yearly closing of thousands of American churches. Millennials, if you haven’t heard, are not “joiners.” And their parents file into contemporary megachurches with large video screens, which Faith doesn’t have.
That’s what I’d hear, at least, at church council meetings. I know a little about Faith’s struggles in the face of its many extraordinary qualities, as I was a member for 22 years.
Until I quit, discouraged, in 2010. It guilts me to confess to being part of the problem.
Since exiting Faith I’ve learned how easy it is to be unchurched. So easy. And returning a few weeks ago, when 35 passionate members prayed in a sanctuary built for 350, I was reminded of how hard it is to keep a shrinking church vital.
All of us served on committees wanting to do good. But Faith had hefty utility bills, a leaky foundation and vast parking lots to clear of snow.
It stood amid the inner ring of suburbs sprouting after World War II, where communities built more and bigger churches than they would need generations later. Original members gained wealth and moved to newer neighborhoods. Or died.
Much of the task of shutting down fell to Bob Lindeblad, the church president. He joined in 1975, a fresh graduate of Kansas State University, because he liked his neighborhood and enjoyed singing and wanted to do good.
“We’re making sure our members get what they need spiritually” in dissolving the congregation, he told me. That means helping them find a good fit elsewhere. It means giving away pianos, mowers, choir robes and kitchen appliances to churches and agencies that could use them.
When Faith’s weekday tenant, the Astra Day School, decided in 2015 it must switch locations to serve a growing pupil population, the congregation knew that meant curtains for the church.
The school for preschoolers and older children with autism had provided more than than a third of Faith’s income since moving into the space, giving the church new life.
With Astra’s decision to move out, effective this month, the mission for Faith members was to fold their tent in purposeful ways.
And to leave a legacy.
From boom to decline
Faith’s first worship service took place in the fall of 1950 in a Mission funeral home, the year my house was built.
The charter membership numbered 154. The first Prairie Village chapel opened in 1953. By 1958, the congregation had swelled to 520 adults and 285 baptized children.
In 1966, with the dedication of a striking nave beneath vertical stained-glass panels, the church boasted 12 classrooms. Even with that space — 35,000 square feet — Faith had to schedule three sessions of Sunday school to serve all of those kids.
My wife, Susan, and I joined in the late 1980s, just before we became parents.
We would raise two boys, both paraded as infants down the center aisle after their baptisms by pastor Tom Housholder. So many young parents back then glowed as Tom introduced their babies to the congregation.
We stayed at the church so our sons could experience a community working to do good. And Faith members did a lot of that. To the needy they served not just simple sandwiches, but scrumptious meals.
We also raised $350,000 for a premium pipe organ. No church outdid Faith in music, and its charitable donations were stellar: Bethany College scholarships, overseas mission support, prison ministries and Christmas presents for the children of inmates.
But concerns grew as the 21st century neared.
New pastor concerns. Building concerns. Budget concerns.
Some older members relished memories of a bygone time, when the Rev. Verner E. Strand guided the church through a quarter-century of nonstop growth. Subsequent pastors came and went, being held in some cases to a standard that harkened to an age of expansion and confirmation classes bursting at the seams.
Now budding families would try out worship, look at the gray heads around them and not come back.
That has been the case for shrinking congregations all over.
“Younger people are trying to find authentic community in their daily lives and not so much tying that to a place,” said the Rev. Merle Brockhoff, pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in the Northland. For many under the age of 40, it could mean meeting at Starbucks with friends, and perhaps an ordained minister, to discuss ways to serve homeless veterans.
A decade ago, Brockhoff, as interim pastor at Faith, spent 18 months trying to right our ship.
When a spiritual community is burdened by property and payroll that it can’t sustain, “it’s unavoidable that we wind up in meetings arguing about things,” Brockhoff said. “Younger generations are asking, if you can’t live your faith authentically, then why do you even try?”
Then comes blame (usually hushed among Lutherans).
When one popular young pastor left Faith to lead a glistening new church on 119th Street, the congregation blamed regional administrators at the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. When calls for new pastors took too long to fill, we’d blame the synod.
I served on the council when Brockhoff arrived. He took one look at the books and knew the budget was unsustainable: We were spending $10,000 more a month than we were taking in.
And soon I had a hand in laying off friends, decided at three-hour meetings.
Anyone trying to help govern in a dwindling church can relate: So hard.
What Faith needed back in 2008 “was a little bit of truth-telling,” Brockhoff recently reminded me. “It didn’t pay to have a full-time youth director if we didn’t have youth.”
He said the church’s struggles mostly reflected the changing world around it, not the stuff we blamed.
My years on the council may have marked the lowest point ever in Faith’s fortunes and outlook. I wondered, am I helping or hurting? And is this what religion is about?
We took out a loan on the building — even though it was too big for us — and chopped back benevolence.
When I was Faith’s vice president, I came home from one late meeting cursing and downing whiskey. That’s when my teenaged son Max told me I should give up council duties.
“You need to quit that church,” Max said. He and brother Jack in the 2000s had been among the few youngsters at Faith. They had long been bored by the place.
It was the recession. There were staff reductions at work, staff reductions at church. I don’t need both, I told Pastor Brockhoff.
He shrugged: “Sounds to me like good reasons for a change.”
Joy, not grief
In the congregation’s decision to disband, some questions were urgent: What to do with the columbarium, for example?
“I had zero idea,” Lindeblad said.
The columbarium held the remains of 78 members. Where they would go was answered the morning Lindeblad on a lark pulled into the Johnson County Memorial Gardens while he was headed to work at the civil engineering firm BHC Rhodes just up Metcalf Avenue.
He began talks that would result in a permanent spot on the cemetery grounds for the interred members, 39 reserved niches for those still living, and 40 spaces available for the cemetery to sell.
“They gained inventory,” Lindeblad said, “and we gained a place for our people to rest.”
Faith Lutheran held a prayer ceremony and moved the columbarium in July. The new location will include a memorial featuring the cross that stood 60 years atop the church’s first chapel.
For longtime members such as Pam Pendergast, closing a church doesn’t need to be all grief.
Good will come from the public park. Good will come from putting proceeds from the sale of the building and other assets to charitable use — to Bethany College, Metro Lutheran Ministry and programs helping youth to become pastors.
Indeed, “this has been a real joyful endeavor these last six months or so,” Pendergast said.
Some members say the route to joy was made easier by the Rev. John Kreidler, named interim pastor early last year.
First step, he said: Stop viewing the church as property.
A church is people, and people often have good reasons to leave a place. Kreidler preached that it’s OK to search for new spiritual pathways, new missions, even if they’re not Lutheran ones.
“When maintaining the property becomes such an all-absorbing thing, people lose sight of their mission,” Kreidler said. “Yes, the building serves the mission. But the mission shouldn’t serve the building.”
After Prairie Village offered $1.1 million for the property and promised a park, the congregation’s decision to dissolve was unanimous.
“We were tired,” Lindeblad said.
Now he feels fulfilled.
After leaving, I never really missed going to church.
Sue and I will worship with our parents in Iowa when we visit. Otherwise, I’m content to flip through my study Bible on the nightstand.
I sort of felt like a church jinx when, not long after I left, Faith’s horizons brightened. The Kansas City Autism Training Center (aka Astra Day School) came knocking, and its $5,600-a-month rent payments lifted the church’s budget and belief in a purpose — a place to daily serve 50 children in special ways.
The council somehow cut its debt to nothing. I stayed away and cut my yard on Sundays.
I am very OK without those late-night meetings. But I do miss the people.
At a homecoming in June, the house was packed with present and past members.
Gone when I revisited were two recently deceased pillars: Dwight Reece and Blaine Englund.
Dwight swung hammers and climbed ladders for Habitat for Humanity projects into his 80s; Blaine steered a riding mower across the church lawn at 90.
They hung in. I quit.
So, of course, guilt accompanied me.
But these worshippers hugged me and told me to sign up for some furniture and artwork they’re giving away. They asked about my boys, now men.
At Communion I stayed back in the narthex until my friend Gloria Moore, her hair turning white since I left, encouraged me to partake.
“I wouldn't feel right,” I said.
“Take Communion with us,” Gloria gently insisted. “You’ll feel better.”
She was right. Thank you, Gloria Moore.
And thanks, Faith Lutheran. Your members will enrich any congregation they choose.