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Many congregations, one roof: Aging churches rent space to growing ones

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Traditional service at Cross of Glory Church.
An aging congregation lines the pews inside Cross of Glory Church in Brooklyn Center last week. As the church's attendance has declined, it has rented out space to startup immigrant congregations.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every Sunday, gray-haired, white Lutherans amble slowly into Cross of Glory Lutheran Church's sanctuary for its 9 a.m. service — a formal, hourlong liturgy.

Then, members of Faith Healing International Ministries, clad in colorful African garb, saunter in for their 11 a.m. services, the first of two Liberian congregations that will pray in the church that day.

The next congregation — Dominion Praise — gathers at 1 p.m. in the basement for feverish Pentecostal revivals spanning two hours.

The long day of Sunday worship at the Brooklyn Center church concludes after the 3 p.m. Spanish-language service of Restoration Church — a Pentecostal congregation.

Cross of Glory — once among the Twin Cities' largest Lutheran churches — now houses four congregations: Its own and the three separate immigrant groups that rent space to pray in its quarters.

Across the Twin Cities and across Christian denominations, such arrangements are becoming the norm: Kenyan Christian Outreach Fellowship worships at New Life Presbyterian Church in Roseville. Filipino American Christian Church is inside Sunrise United Methodist Church in Mounds View. Oakdale Wesleyan Church is home to the Eternal Life Hmong Baptist Church. Woodlake Lutheran is home to Richfield Adventistas. 

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America alone, 100 of its 262 Twin Cities churches house smaller congregations within the established ones, according to church officials. And those are the ones they know about.

Worship at Faith Healing church.
Deaconess Rita Bropleh leads worship at Faith Healing Church, a Liberian congregation that rents space from Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center. Though the services of the two congregations could not be more different, they share a symbiotic relationship, trading space for diversity and youthful energy.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Most of the established churches in St. Paul, at least in my tradition, are sharing their space with one to four ethnic immigrant churches," said the Rev. Paul Erickson, director of Agora, an ELCA Lutheran ministry that develops lay leaders in immigrant congregations.

The proliferation of immigrant churches — typically congregations with fewer than 50 members — and simultaneous decline of their mainline counterparts have made way for these unlikely partnerships that cross racial, cultural and religious lines. The demand for worship space has fueled the now-thriving business of church renting. Host churches now have rental policies and lease agreements on hand for new and prospective tenants.

  Startup congregations in the Twin Cities pay host churches as much as $2,000 a month to use their space.

"As the Cross of Glory congregation has gotten smaller, sharing the costs to run the building with other congregations becomes a more sustainable model for us, but also for these new churches who, in a lot of cases, couldn't possibly afford to have their own dedicated space," Rev. Doug Mork, the church's lead pastor, said.

Last year, Cross of Glory collected more than $30,000 from its tenant congregations. Mork said utilities, maintenance and office support cost the church about $180,000 a year.

Along with economic opportunities, church-sharing can foster interracial and interdenominational services. The arrangement can create incubators in which novice pastors with new congregations are nurtured and mentored by experienced ones. And sometimes, church officials said, these relationships are simply those of tenants and landlords.

Mork said "the church has a call," within the current racial climate, to bridge the racial divide through its relationships with its new congregations.

"For me, it's an awfully big issue at the moment, with everything going on in race relations, culture and white privilege," he said. "Wouldn't it be better to find a way to become a single community and diversify? We've talked about it at a council level, we've talked about it with our partner congregations of what something like that would look like."

Sunday service at Faith Healing church.
Pastor Mike Neufville leads worship during Faith Healing's Sunday Divine Worship service inside Cross of Glory Lutheran Church. The rental relationship gives Faith Healing a place that feels like home, the church's senior pastor, Rev. Esther Geegbae, said.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Small immigrant congregations — typically outgrowths of home-based bible study and prayer groups — are often led by volunteer ministers — and they're plentiful. 

"I don't know if anyone has been able to count the number of  immigrant churches in the Twin Cities, but it's easily in the thousands," Erickson said. 

At the same time, memberships at mainline and established churches continue to dwindle, leaving their stained-glass buildings out of scale with their congregations — and creating significant holes in their operating budgets. Cross of Glory's congregation peaked at 3,500 members in the early 1970s. This year, as the church celebrates its 60th anniversary, its congregation is at its leanest and oldest — down to 400 members. 

"It's been a pretty steady decline — a pattern of a lot of the urban and first-ring suburban churches that have been shrinking as the demographics of their neighborhood change," Mork said. Younger families moved north and to the outer suburbs; a congregation of mostly 80- and 90-year-olds remains.

"As a result, we do more pastoral care and we have more funerals than weddings," he said.

The church began renting its space 15 years ago, when leaders of immigrant congregations came looking for space. In recent years, more ministers, especially Liberians, continue to make requests. 

"There's a new Liberian church every week, it seems," said the Rev. Alexander Collins, executive director of the Liberian Ministers Association of Minnesota. The Twin Cities are home to more than 50 Liberian congregations, concentrated largely in the west metro area.  

"It's hard to find a church to rent in Brooklyn Park because there aren't enough churches to absorb the number of Liberian congregations," said Collins, whose congregation — Redeemed Life Church — rents from Church Upon the Rock in Mounds View.

Most new, immigrant congregations lack the financial wherewithal to afford their own sanctuaries, and become nomadic in their quest for space. "So you have congregations going to hotels, strip malls and event centers," he said.

For older churches with dwindling congregations — like Cross of Glory — the opposite is true.

Pastor Christian Vincent preaches.
The Rev. Christian V. Vincent, Sr. sheds his robes for Cross of Glory's Sunday contemporary service, designed to attract a younger congregation with musical worship and active sermons.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"We just have more facility than we know what to do with, and we have somebody coming in every week to ask for space," Mork said. "It simply became a space stewardship issue and a way to be welcoming to these new communities."

Faith Healing — Cross of Glory's largest and longest-running tenant — pays $1,600 a month for use of the church's original sanctuary, which seats 150. The Rev. Esther Geegbae, Faith Healing's senior pastor, also has an office at the church, along with another administrative office. She and other leaders have unlimited access to the  building.

"We are free to come and go as we please," she said. "It's a good setup, because that sanctuary is, for the most part, only used by us, so it's like having our own place."

The congregation is now 110 members strong — almost four times the size it was when it began renting space at Cross of Glory 12 years ago: A small multipurpose room for $250 a month.

Tenant congregations' worship services are often relegated to late morning or afternoon hours, because early Sunday morning is prime time for Christian churches. And sanctuary access is often limited.

But church renting is meant to be temporary — a way for these new congregations, which are often loosely structured, to build a foundation, said Collins. High rent could compound the inherent financial challenges of building a new congregation and create a cycle of long-term renting.

Some churches charge nothing or very little, like Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale, which collects $200 a month from three of its tenant congregations. But generally, a growing congregation doles out $800 to $1,000 a month.  

"It can be a lot of money for these small churches, and sometimes churches fall behind in their rent," said Collins. "A lot of these are congregations aren't taking in much money — less than $50,000 a year. So it's a challenge."

Congregations often harbor dreams of having their own sanctuaries. Of the more than 50 churches represented in the Liberian Ministers Association, fewer than 10 have their own building space. But this spring, Brooklyn Park's Ebenezer Community Church broke the trend. The largely Liberian congregation of 250 moved into a 33,000-square-foot complex it built after more than 15 years of moving and renting.  

Faith Healing's building fund is nearing its goal — and its leaders said they've secured a loan. The church is actively looking for its own sanctuary. Members want start youth and senior programs once they do.

Worship at Faith Healing Church.
Pastor Elder Rebecca Luke worships as Pastor Mike Neufville plays the keyboard during Faith Healing's divine worship service last Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"We can't rent forever. We have to get our own place," Geegbae said.

But tenant congregations also understand their host churches' financial obligations, Collins said. The newer congregations, as they grow, are beginning to occupy increasingly larger spaces within their host churches.

Mork described such arrangements as a part of the new economic model for churches as they scramble for viable alternatives to recoup losses from empty pews in order to keep their doors open.

"When we were first doing this, we were just seeing it as a ministry to try to provide spaces to churches that needed them," he said. "Then as it, frankly, became impossible to pay the bills, then we started to talk with these congregations about playing a more significant role in the building."

Host churches continue to grapple with creating singular congregations that reflect the makeup of the their changing surroundings. When immigrant congregations first walked into Cross of Glory, Mork said, some hoped they would join the church's congregation.

But there were differences — theological, liturgical and cultural. In the early years, those differences among the congregations were a challenge. But a lot of that has changed, with time, Mork said.

"People have become more open, aware and comfortable with diversity," Mork said.

In an attempt five years ago to better serve its changing community, Cross of Glory hired a Liberian pastor, the Rev. Christian V. Vincent, Sr. as its outreach minister and to run a busy youth program that mostly attracts Liberian children from the community. The church also revamped its 11 a.m. service with a more contemporary style to appeal to younger churchgoers and immigrants, although the efforts have resulted in less than a dozen new members.

"We have differences in music, traditions, theology and practice, but we can figure out ways to really acknowledge each other as partners in ministry and be intentional," Mork said.

"How else will we get to know our new neighbors? How will we learn about Liberian and Hispanic cultures — people who have different experiences than us?"