St. Paul Lutheran Church to close and donate assets to other ministries.
By Jim Bucher
What is it about a beloved local restaurant, a summer swimming pool or a longtime business that closes its doors that makes you feel like losing a good friend.
That’s happened many times in my life, but as they say, “Time marches on.”
This time it’s St. Paul Lutheran Church on Wayne Avenue on the edge of the Oregon District. It’s a place where my grandparents and parents were married, where I attended church, Sunday school and Luther League. It’s also a place where I was baptized, confirmed and served as an acolyte, plus got in a little trouble sneaking up in the steeple a time or two—but this one really hurts.
The church elders have decided it’s no longer economically feasible to keep the doors open.
“Put together a group about a year ago because it’s been obvious for a number of years we were headed on a path we weren’t going to recover from,” says St. Paul’s pastor of 17 1/2 years Bob Miller. “And so, we looked at finances, we looked at membership, which every 10 years since 1969 has fallen by 50 percent. Part of that is when Dayton went through the riots in the late ’60s and the emptying of retail and business from the city. The other part is churches decided to be like gas stations and drug stores and built one on every corner and people migrated to the suburbs. So, what happened is the downtown churches lost members.”
Fewer parishioners means a barren offering plate.
“We’ve been lucky in the past when a lot of members died they left us in their wills and we accumulated a pretty good investment fund,” he says. “But for the last 30-plus years we’ve used investment money every year to balance our budget, which becomes greater and greater. And finally, when you get to a year when your worship starts to dip into the 30s you realize the writing is on the door.”
St. Paul’s roots stretch back 165 years when 60 mainly German immigrants decided to form and composed a charter. The church was completed in 1869 and parish hall in 1954.
The ranks swelled in the 1950s and ’60s to more than 1,500, but times changed and what an irony at the end.
“We started with a group of 60 people and when we voted this past June … 80 percent of them voted to close and pay it forward,” Miller says.
That’s the new mission.
“We are divesting now and using the movie Pay It Forward motif to take remaining assets and pay it forward to others who are doing ministry just like we’ve done for 165 years,” he says.
There is good news for the property; and no worries, it will not become a parking lot.
“Weyland Ventures purchased St. Paul and is very committed to taking a building for its historical value and refurbishing it without tearing it down,” says Miller. The Supply One building (across the street, which Weyland repurposed) is a prime example of that. They continue to own and operate their properties,” he says.
The future looks bright.
“More than likely what’s in the works, subject to change of course, is our parish hall will become apartments and entertainment, restaurant types of ideas for the sanctuary,” says Miller. “The vestibule will retain the history of the building, congregation and its people. They’ve asked me to put that together. The pipe organ, bells and tower they’ll take care of the maintenance. That’s all important to repurposing the building,” he says.
Sarah Shomper, a longtime member who raised five kids there, says it is a bittersweet time, with lots of great memories.
“St. Paul has had wonderful pastors who were always there for you and your family,” she says. “Their choir directors and organists were always outstanding musicians and could make the pipe organ resound like in a cathedral. I will very much miss the pipe organ in my worship elsewhere. I will also very much miss the contact with very special friends.”
Some of the church’s outreach programs will hopefully continue.
The future of Project Blessings, a nonprofit that has fed needy families and individuals at the church since 1978, is undetermined and Jeremiah’s Letter, which serves 18,000 people annually by providing direct services and educational opportunities, is also mulling its future.
“For me the past 17 1/2 years it’s been rewarding because I’ve stayed here for the outreach we do in the community,” says Miller. “It’s been challenging because no matter what I’ve tried to do we just can’t stave off the loss of members and loss of income. It is bittersweet the congregation will discontinue worship after Dec. 31 and also my role as pastor will stop as well. I’ll stay for the transition from a business perspective, which I have a background in, but my pastoral ministry concludes at the end of the year, too.”
For now, the focus is wrapping things up, getting affairs in order and preparing for the last worship service on Dec. 31.
“Our final service New Year’s Eve will obviously have some sadness to it,” says Miller. “Once we finalize the groups we’re paying forward to we would love to have their representatives here and lift up the mission of this church, which has been more than accomplished. For that you should be proud. Our members took a whale of a step, something that’s not normally done while you still have assets, to give it away. It’s a huge compliment for a congregation.”
For comfort in this difficult time Miller points to a verse in the good book.
“A Bible verse which comes to mind is 1 John chapter 4 verse 12, ‘No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another God’s image is seen through each of us and perfected through us.’ So, through the people here we have experienced God by what we’ve done for each other and the community.”