I had an interesting experience this week with my associate Tom. We went “church shopping.” Now, when people use that expression, they are usually referring to the exercise of trying one church after another looking for a good fit. It really doesn’t bother me that people do that, in fact I think people should probably do that (rather than stay in a congregation where they’re not growing…and just for the record, Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York recently said the same thing).
That’s not what we were doing though. We were really church shopping. Literally. We sometimes like to visit available properties in the area to see what’s out there and stretch our imagination about our church growth.
So, a friend of ours, who is in real estate, took us through a church that is for sale. A congregation here in Timonium dwindled down to just 20 members who could no longer support or sustain the place. So they finally made the difficult decision to close their doors, and sell off their assets. The tour didn’t take very long (the place is way too small to ever be of any value to us).
A sanctuary space, built in the mid 50’s when the baby boomers were sprawling into the suburbs, sits along side an education building. The congregation had suspended its Sunday School more than 20 years ago. Since then they have leased some of the classroom space to outside groups, but most of it is just storage. For a little church they had a lot of storage.
Inside the church sanctuary we meet two parishioners, who were undertaking the Herculean task of sorting through at least some of the storage, which they planned to sell in a garage sale they have scheduled for the coming week, one of the final events in the life of the congregation. It looked like they were going to have the sale right there in the sanctuary. It was organized into sections: there was a book section, with stacks and stacks of old religion text books, hymnals and Bibles. There was a furniture section with chairs and tables and lamps and sofas and pictures. There was a church fixtures section with the church furniture and accessories on sale. There were pots and pans, Christmas trees and lights, children’s toys and games, office equipment and file cabinets and stationary.
We went on to tour the rest of the facility. To say it had a neglected feel doesn’t come close to the experience. It didn’t feel neglected, it felt abandoned, like nobody had been around in a long, long time. The announcements on the bulletins boards were old and faded. Some of the doors were difficult to open, because they hadn’t been opened for awhile. Several Christmas poinsettias sat on a table denuded of their leaves, only their still shiny red foil suggesting their once festive appearance.
Exiting through the parish office we ran across the church secretary, playing Solitaire. She seemed grateful for the interruption until she saw the real estate brochures in our hands and knew that we were only shopping. She turned away with what seemed to be…was it embarrassment or sorrow?
Out in front of the building I watched as cars whizzed by. This church was on a busy thoroughfare. The real estate agent explained that the church was not zoned “commercial.” He remarked “If this was a commercial property I could sell it at 7 times the current asking price. Anyone would want it. You could sell anything from this location.