Churches continue to disband, merge

Springfield congregation to shut down short of 100th anniversary.

A local church will close its doors after a final worship service on Sept. 30, less than two years away from its 100th anniversary.

Oakland Presbyterian will join at least 28 other mainline protestant churches that have been disbanded or consolidated in Clark County since 1980, according to data from the Association of Religious Data Archives.

The loss of mainline protestant congregations in Clark County mirrors trends at the national level, where rolls dropped by more than 7 million members between 1980 and 2010.

Gloria Sesslar has been a member of the Oakland congregation since 1980. She said many current members have been with the church their entire lives and some remember when, according to Oakland Clerk of Session John Emerich, Oakland claimed a congregation of 1,400 members.

By the 1980s, that number had dropped to 800. Today, the church has 90 members and draws fewer than 35 congregants to most services.

“Because of the various things that have changed in society, we’ve seen the membership go down,” Sesslar said. “The few members that are left cannot sustain paying a full-time pastor.”

The church’s retired members are on fixed incomes, and many of the church’s few young families don’t have the resources to give heavily. Members are upset to see the church, a piece of Springfield history dating back to the Oakland missionary school in the 1870s, close.

“It’s hard for them to accept, but I think they understand,” Sesslar said. “It’s been a very giving congregation.”

Although increases in Evangelical churches, Latter-day Saints, and nondenominational and Catholic congregations overcome losses nationally, the new churches that have sprung up in Clark County have not seen the membership boosts to counter the almost 18,000 members lost from mainline protestant churches in the area between 1980 and 2010.

National surveys show a 34 percent increase in the overall number of church members in that period, but Clark County experienced a 30 percent reduction in membership. Over that time, the county saw an 8 percent drop in population.

Nondenominational churches are experiencing similar problems, said Jamie Noel, pastor of Crosspoint Community Church on South Limestone Street.

“Each year it seems like less and less people become interested in attending church,” Noel said. “I see more churches having to share space to stay open, I’ve seen more churches having to go to a less traditional time frame for worship and I see more pastors having to go to work over the next 10 years.”

Mainline protestant churches, especially Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as Catholic churches played an important role in the development of Springfield, said Kevin Rose, historian with the Turner Foundation. Their influence expanded with the city, leading to the founding of Wittenberg University and shaping the downtown skyline.

“Churches are always landmarks in a community,” Rose said. “Churches are what you come to recognize a community for; when you go to communities you look at their churches.”

While Oakland is only the second Presbyterian congregation lost in Clark County since 1980, other denominations have seen substantial reductions, including 12 United Methodist churches and 7 Evangelical Lutheran churches.

In 2009, three local Methodist churches combined into Faith United Methodist in downtown Springfield, which now serves the former congregations of Central, Story-Hypes and Lagonda United Methodist churches.

The move was motivated by dwindling memberships and financial troubles at the individual churches, said Jeff Mullinix, pastor for the combined church.

“They all had a desire to continue ministry, and they felt the best way to survive and to utilize their resources and gifts was to merge together and become one congregation,” he said. “They did not want to see those ministries die, and if that meant merging together to form a new church, they were willing to do whatever it took.”

Mullinix said that although the loss of the individual church identities was a challenge for the combined church, the move allowed the church to serve their current congregation of 375 members and to expand their ministries in the downtown area.

The former Lagonda United Methodist building is being used by another church, but the Story-Hypes building lies vacant a few blocks from where the Oakland Presbyterian building will soon sit empty.

Some of the area’s old unused churches have architectural significance, said Rose. The Oakland Presbyterian building was designed by local architect William K. Schilling, who was responsible for the Springfield post office and courthouse. While having those historical buildings stand empty is unfortunate, Rose said consolidating area churches could strengthen their impact.

“I think it has as much to say about how we worship today as it does about the state of the community,” he said. “Even if you say things are a little worse here in Springfield than they are in other places, I think in some ways merging churches will strengthen the community. Part of what churchgoing is about is that sense of community … and where we see a loss in one area we’ll see strength in another.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Rev. Gail Eastwood, pastor of First United Church of Christ on the corner of Belmont and High. She said they are successfully recruiting new members and have a congregation of about 350.

Eastwood said churches will find ways to stay viable.

“It’s a widespread problem in the county, what’s going on with mainline protestant churches in particular,” said Eastwood. “I think we’re going to see church that’s different than it’s been before, but I think people will still gather to find God.”

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