- Matt Sanctis Staff Writer
Two historic Springfield churches, each of which provided a haven for their congregations and neighborhoods for well over a century, have closed their doors for good this year.
Highlands United Church of Christ had offered a place of solace for its members for 133 years, while Fifth Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield closed its doors in July after a 129-year-history in Springfield. They joined close to 30 other congregations that have disbanded or consolidated in Clark County between 1980 and 2010.
It’s part of a trend in which many, but not all, local religious denominations have seen membership slide while struggling to attract new members, according to local experts.
Along with losing a place of worship for members, the closings also often leave historic buildings vacant and create voids in the neighborhoods they have served for decades, said Warren Copeland, Springfield’s mayor and a professor of religion at Wittenberg University.
“One of the difficulties for us as a community when that happens is that often these churches have been rallying points in their neighborhoods,” Copeland said. “Often the churches provide some services in the community. Sometimes they do programs for young people, especially in the summer time … It’s a loss not just to the membership of the church but to the community in which they’re located when they close.”
More than 40 percent of all Clark County residents identified as a member of a religious organization in 1980, according to information from the Association of Religious Data Archives. By 2010, the percent of residents who identified with a local church had slid to about 31 percent. About 50 percent of Ohioans claimed a religious affiliation in 1980, slipping to 44 percent in 2010.
Ron Green, who served as interim pastor at Fifth Lutheran Church when it held its final service, said it was the first time he had been involved with a church closing. But the Southern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which generally covers much of Ohio south of I-70, has closed seven parishes in the past five years.
“It’s a sign of our times,” said Jan Kushmaul, who’s attended Highlands for more than four decades. “It used to be that the church was a community center for most of the social activity. Churches would have all-day meetings. They would have food and spend time together. That doesn’t happen anymore. People find their socializing in other places and other ways.”
A gradual decline
The end of the 129-year history of Springfield’s Fifth Lutheran Church is fairly common, Green said. The church’s once thriving membership dripped away over a period of several decades. By the time it closed, the average Sunday attendance was only 15 to 20 members.
Despite good leadership for several years and a core of dedicated members, he said the church simply couldn’t continue due to a combination of a dwindling congregation and a historic building that needed expensive repairs.
“The median age of those attending was deep into the 60s if not in the 70s,” Green said. “There were no more than three people there younger than 50.”
The building, more than 100 years old, needed between $75,000 to $80,000 in deferred maintenance to fix a leaky roof, internal water leaks and other infrastructure problems. With membership at a low point, it became impossible to continue.
“Beginning in January, we began to lay the groundwork for a graceful concluding ministry of our congregation,” Green said.
Highlands United Church of Christ, which has served as a community hub for 133 years, saw a similar fate, Kushmaul said.
Like Fifth Lutheran, Highlands saw its membership slowly decline as families moved elsewhere, the congregation aged and fewer young families joined, she said.
“We just didn’t attract younger families and we reached a point where you just cannot continue,” she said.
Rev. Carol Gesalman said it was God’s calling to serve as pastor at Fifth Lutheran in Springfield, a role she held full-time from 2000 until she retired in 2016. A neighborhood’s church historically played a critical role in a community in past decades, she said, but that has changed for many families.
While it’s difficult for a congregation to see its church close, Gesalman said the neighborhood also loses the services that it used to provide. At Fifth Lutheran, members donated free baby food to Rocking Horse Health Center, a community clinic that provides services to about 1,700 children in the area regardless of their families’ ability to pay.
“Before the church closed, they provided a year’s worth of baby food because they knew no one else was doing that,” Gesalman said. “We had two women who three or four times a year would have 30 or 40 quilts made to send away to people who needed quilts around the world. That’s not there anymore.”
The church also supported a missionary in Mexico and operated a small food bank to aid local families in case of an emergency, services that will no longer be available.
At Highlands, the church was known for its Highlands Cafe, which served visitors at the Clark County Fair for more than six decades. But the church also made it a priority to support several local food pantries, as well as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, Kushmaul said. Congregation members also provided assistance to local organizations like Project Jericho, an art program that provides activities for at-risk youth.
“It does have an impact in our community,” Kushmaul said.
One bright spot, she said, is the church will donate any proceeds from the sale of its building at 1910 St. Paris Pike and any other financial assets to local charities. The building is on the market now, she said.
For individuals, Gesalman said it can also be disorienting when a church ends and members have to begin again somewhere else.
“That was your family,” Gesalman said. “That’s where you got married and where grandma was buried. You expect that you’re going to be buried from that church and now all of a sudden you have to go find another family.”
Communities across the U.S. face similar issues as demographics and how people worship changes, said Kevin Rose, a historian and director of revitalization with Springfield’s Turner Foundation. Some churches have either merged or been able to attract younger members, he said, but others will continue to slowly decline.
Finding new uses for decades-old churches is often a challenge, Rose said, Many require extensive maintenance and it can be difficult to find new uses for properties built specifically as places of worship.
“It’s expected, the question is how the community responds to this,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of adaptive reuse of churches for other purposes. But we really feel in Springfield there’s a great need to reuse these buildings not adaptively but for what they’re meant to be, which is religious structures.”
The Turner Foundation stepped in to buy Fifth Lutheran Church and will maintain it until a new user can be identified, Rose said, because of its location in the East High Street Historic District.
It’s possible a church that’s growing will need for a new facility, he said, and Fifth Lutheran might make sense.
“There’s great hope these buildings will find new life,” Rose said. “We’re also a community in transition. We’ve seen our worst days and we hope to be growing. What we want to make sure is that when Springfield fully rebounds, these buildings are still here to accept a new population that’s going to be living here.”
One of the challenges for churches is attracting younger members, Copeland said. Even at Wittenberg, which is affiliated with the Lutheran church, the number of students who no longer say they identify with a specific religious denomination has steadily increased over the past several years, he said.
That can be difficult, Copeland said, as younger families and older congregations might not always share the same views or want the same kinds of music and other services within a congregation. That’s an issue that also affects numerous other longtime community groups.
“That means churches that want to hold on to as many young people as possible need to probably find ways to change some of the things they do to appeal to young people,” Copeland said. “A lot of churches have tried to do that and some have been somewhat successful.”
Despite both churches closing their doors, their members said they’re proud of the work the congregations did in Springfield for more than a century.
Barbara Strawsburg attended Fifth Evangelical Lutheran since birth and said it will be strange celebrating Christmas in another building for the first time in her life this year.
But she said it was heartening to see the church’s remaining members take over a variety of duties to ensure the church could go on as long as possible with its mission.
“We did what we could so we have no regrets,” Strawsburg said.
At Highlands, Kushmaul said most of its members will continue to serve God in other ways or with other congregations.
“Religion or theology or whatever you want to call it is dynamic and growing as we learn more about what God wants us to do,” Kushmaul said. “We are open to that communication and that’s why we believe at this point and time in the life of the church this era has to come to a close. Somehow our service to God will continue on in the community and permit something else to begin to grow in its place.”