Friday, August 03, 2007

Small church takes huge risk, goes buildingless

Congregation moves to retirement home, invests proceeds in mission

By Emily Enders Odom

LOUISVILLE — Just call it the little church that could. And did.

Faced with declining membership, dwindling revenues, and an aging, non-handicapped accessible building, the Buechel Presbyterian Church here joyfully embraced what it saw as its only viable option for survival.

Rather than close its doors to future generations, the congregation voted in August 2006 to sell its building and make its new home across the street at Westminster Terrace, a neighboring independent living home.

The congregation held its first service at the retirement facility in late September 2006, the same time that the church building was put up for sale.

“The timing and the process were nothing short of a miracle,” said the Rev. Judy Hockenberry, Buechel’s temporary supply pastor, reflecting on how quickly and easily the congregation was led to its decision.

Of the church’s 50 worshiping members, only about five people did not make the transition to Westminster Terrace. The rest have “adapted beautifully” to the new situation, according to Hockenberry.

“They are a living witness to what we say we believe it means to be church,” she said. “In taking this action, they have said ‘it is more important to us to be with these same people as to where we meet with these same people.’”

For its part, Westminster Terrace, a facility of Presbyterian Homes & Services of Kentucky, opened wide its doors of welcome. The Rev. Hattie Wagner, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister who was then serving Westminster Terrace as director for pastoral care, made it possible for the church to be fully integrated into the retirement home’s programmatic ministry.

Westminster’s administration further decided that since there would be no incremental costs associated with hosting the Buechel church, there would be no rent required.

“This was a Presbyterian situation,” an amazed Hockenberry mused. “It couldn’t be this easy!”

And yet, for this little band of God’s people, it grew ever easier.

When Mark A. Gray arrived at Presbyterian Homes & Services of Kentucky on June 4, 2007, as its new president and CEO, Hattie Wagner was promoted to vice president for mission advancement, and was directed to choose her successor. Wagner immediately asked Hockenberry if she would be interested in serving as Westminster Terrace’s chaplain, with responsibilities, of course, for the Buechel church.

Hockenberry, who is presently employed full time with the PC(USA) as an associate for curriculum development as well as serving Buechel as temporary supply pastor, accepted the offer. Her last day at the Presbyterian Center here will be Aug. 9.

“God’s hand is so obvious here,” Hockenberry said. “Of course God is always there, but sometimes you can literally see God’s hand at work. This is one of those times.”

When Buechel’s building sold in April 2007, conversations began in earnest about how the proceeds should be spent. The session of the Buechel church immediately thought of the Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts & Hands (MIJHH).

MIJHH is a five-year campaign of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to raise $40 million for new overseas missionaries and church growth in this country, particularly racial ethnic and immigrant congregations.

The Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky, to which the Buechel church belongs, is currently partnered with MIJHH in a $1 million fundraising effort to support four major presbytery initiatives, including the development of a ministry strategy for the presbytery’s growing Hispanic/Latino population, which has been a key focus in recent years for Buechel.

One of the church’s hopes to rebuild its declining membership was to develop a Hispanic ministry. For years, the congregation sponsored ESL and citizenship classes, and in its current location at Westminster Terrace, still provides bilingual worship and simultaneous translation of the sermon for three church members of Cuban descent.

When the congregation, which has a long history of tithing for mission, made the connection between its own growing edge and the presbytery’s, their decision became obvious. They voted to designate 10% of the sale of the church building to the Hispanic/Latino piece of the presbytery’s vision for Joining Hearts & Hands.

At the July 16, 2007, meeting of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, the Buechel church presented presbytery campaign co-chairs, the Rev. Phil Lloyd-Sidle and Elder Augusta Thomas, with a check in the amount of $41,301, the largest gift to date in the Mid-Kentucky campaign. The presbytery is now a third of the way toward its $1 million goal.

In her prayer of thanksgiving before the presbytery, Hockenberry expressed gratitude to God that her congregation was in a position to give. She also prayed that Buechel might serve as an inspiration to other churches.

“This was truly a God thing,” said the Rev. Betty L. Meadows, general presbyter for Mid-Kentucky. “Because Hispanic ministry is their heart and soul, the session of Buechel covenanted to make this amazing gift. It is simply awesome!

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