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Published: Sunday, 7/27/2008

Unitarians move reflects plight of urban churches

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
The First Unitarian Church of Toledo is leaving its home on Collingwood Boulevard for smaller quarters on Glendale Avenue in South Toledo in an effort to cope with rising costs and a shrinking congregation. The First Unitarian Church of Toledo is leaving its home on Collingwood Boulevard for smaller quarters on Glendale Avenue in South Toledo in an effort to cope with rising costs and a shrinking congregation.
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Sometime before noon today, members of First Unitarian Church will bid farewell to their stately Old West End building in a service filled with sermons and songs, including "In My Life" by the Beatles, before they drive to their new home on Glendale Avenue.

The seven-mile trek will mark the end of a long journey in which the congregation studied, discussed, and debated - sometimes heatedly - the options for coping with a shrinking membership, soaring utility costs, and changing neighborhood demographics.

That combination of factors is putting a squeeze on other Old West End churches, along with many historic congregations in urban areas nationwide, experts said.

"Essentially what we're doing is downsizing," said the Rev. Rod Thompson, First Unitarian's interim minister. He will preach his final sermon at the church today and hand the keys to the new pastor, the Rev. Beth Marshall.

The liberal, socially conscious congregation, which professes no creed and sports a weather vane atop its steeple rather than a cross, is moving from a 33,275-square-foot structure built in 1922 to one that is less than half that size, 13,098 square feet, built 18 years ago. than a cross, is moving from a 33,275-square-foot structure built in 1922 to one that is less than half that size, 13,098 square feet, built 18 years ago.

The old sanctuary could sit 350 people while the new one has a capacity of 250.

"We are going to have a great change, but we will get used to it," said Louise Bankey, 85, who has been attending First Unitarian since she was 10.

"Unitarians tend to be practical people, not with their heads in the clouds. And we all have strong opinions," she said.

Indeed, it took countless meetings and lengthy discussions before the members voted to move out of the historic Old West End into a relatively bland stretch of South Toledo.

Ultimately, First Unitarian's decision to move was a matter of finances.

As Mrs. Bankey put it, "It was so economically difficult to stay."

Utility costs soared as high as $7,000 for a single winter month, and the church has had to tap into its endowment to pay the bills, Mr. Thompson said.

Moving into a smaller, more modern facility will save about $40,000 a year, according to Allan Brown, an architect and member of the church's relocation committee.

Meanwhile, First Unitarian's attendance has been in a steady decline, from a peak of more than 500 in the 1950s to about 140 today.

Longtime members have seen the crisis looming for well over a decade, said Bob Rudolph, head of the relocation committee.

"Years ago we had a group that was trying to devise a five-year plan instead of just going from one crisis to another, inch by inch and row by row," he said.

William Tenny-Brittian, a church consultant in Columbia, Mo., said fewer Americans are attending church in general, and churches in urban settings face added challenges.

"People are not going to church as much. We are, in fact, two generations away from the days when everybody went to church. That started to drop off in the 1960s, and it's been dropping off ever since. We are losing over a million members a year from the church in the United States," he said.

Mainline denominations have been losing ground in the cities, Mr. Tenny-Brittian said.

"Those that are quote 'thriving' tend to be few and far between. The churches that are thriving are mostly nondenominational, with conservative theology, and have high expectations of their members," he said.

Over the years, affluent members of urban churches have moved to the suburbs and commute to church. As people from lower socioeconomic levels move into the area, "the people in the neighborhood now have nothing in common with the people in the church," Mr. Tenny-Brittian said.

The buyer of First Unitarian's Collingwood building, which has agreed to make the $350,000 deal, is Greater Highway Deliverance Temple, a Pentecostal church based in New York City. Officials at the Manhattan headquarters declined requests to discuss their Toledo move.

Several members of First Unitarian said it was essential to them that the Collingwood facility remain a church, and they were pleased that the new owners apparently have the wherewithal to maintain the building.

"One of the big concerns was we can't just leave an empty building that's going to be boarded up with plywood," Mr. Brown said. "We don't want to do to that to Toledo. We're very fortunate to have found a congregation that can support it."

Just across Prescott Street from First Unitarian is the former Second Church of Christ.

The 16,000-square-foot building with massive stone columns was purchased in 1995 by the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Which He Purchased With His Own Blood Inc.

The local congregation was entangled in a legal dispute with national headquarters over property ownership last year, went through a membership split, and is trying to sell the building and downsize, according to Bishop Clifford L. Warren.

Leaders of other Old West End churches said last week that they are determined to stay in the Old West End and be a vital part of the community.

The Rev. Larry Vriezelaar, pastor of First Congregational Church, said, "We've ignited a little bit of a fire at First Church and it's somewhat contagious. God is doing some really neat things for us."

He said the church, well known for its spectacular array of Tiffany stained glass windows, has grown from 100 to more than 150 in the three years he has been there.

Mr. Vriezelaar said moving has been discussed - but ultimately has been ruled out.

"We believe in our heritage. If we all run from the Old West End, what does that say about the kingdom of God and ministry in the neighborhood?"

The Rev. Kelly O'Connell, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, said her congregation can relate to the pressures First Unitarian has experienced.

"I can understand some of the stresses and constraints that they're dealing with. We're dealing with the same things and I'm sure Collingwood Presbyterian is dealing with the same things," she said.

"Our churches were all built in the late 1800s and early 1900s and they're huge buildings, and we are faced with the maintenance costs and the utility costs." But over the last three years, she said, "St. Mark's has really committed itself to the neighborhood."

For example, she said, the church offers summer programs for children and free meals and a "free garage sale" every month.

Central United Methodist Church recently sold its building in the Old West End, on the corner of Central and Scottwood avenues, but found an innovative way to stay in the neighborhood. The church is renting a hall inside Collingwood Presbyterian.

"We wanted to stay connected to the neighborhood," said Dan Rutt, chair of Central's relocation study committee. "We had a big old church that was draining a lot of money. It was too expensive to maintain. We felt Collingwood Presbyterian was a perfect match."

At First Unitarian, a "memorial service" was held last Sunday to pay respects to the old building.

Emotions ran high and some members got choked up as they eulogized their longtime home.

"There was both sadness and joy," member Julia Field McGhee said. "Many Unitarians are grieving today because of the necessary, and, for some, painful journey."

But there are benefits to the move besides economics, Mr. Brown pointed out.

Unlike the Collingwood Boulevard building, the Glendale church is both air-conditioned and accessible to the disabled.

And after today's service, First Unitarian's members will hold a picnic in their large back yard, something they couldn't do on their postage-stamp property in the Old West End.

Like most things in life, however, there's a trade-off.

"It takes a fair amount of time to mow," Mr. Brown said. "I spent four hours on the tractor and another two hours with a push mower."

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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