Historic Lutheran churches feeling stress

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YORK, Pa. -- At 89, Helen Behler still drives into York from her West Manchester condo every Sunday to worship at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The oldest member of a dwindling congregation, Ms. Behler cut the cake a few weeks ago when Trinity completed its centennial celebration.

She is part of a fading community of churchgoers, staunchly Lutheran worshippers who trace their faith to German-born ancestors who flocked to Central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries. Christ Lutheran on South George Street is said to have been the first church built west of the Susquehanna River. It was followed by dozens of Lutheran churches in and around York.

Some of those city churches are struggling to counter alarming drops in membership, attendance and giving.

It is an urban issue not unique to York. As people moved from cities to suburbs over the past 40 years, city institutions felt the effect in different ways.

While long serving as centers of urban social and worship life, city churches are self-managed, independent of even denominational oversight in many cases. That lack of coordination and communication made adapting to the changing demographics of the city a more difficult transition.

"Ordinarily, people will come back to church when they have kids. In this day and age, people are delaying that," said the Rev. Maria Erling, professor of modern church history and global missions at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

As a result, she added, the churches are "saddled with costs that just outweigh the ministry that they're trying to do."

Ms. Behler joined Trinity Lutheran in 1955 or 1956 when she lived nearby. Ms. Behler's children were baptized in "The Little Green Church," as Trinity is known to York residents.

A recent lay-led service -- Trinity has been without a full-time pastor since July 2010 -- drew about 25 worshippers. The church can comfortably seat at least 150.

"The pews used to be filled up," said Ms. Behler, who taught Sunday school for about 30 years. "You'd have to get here early for the Christmas Eve service just to get a seat."

Trinity is one of nine Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations within walking distance of downtown York. An analysis of data gathered by the Lower Susquehanna Synod shows sharp membership declines at most of the churches over the past eight years.

Although a few churches report healthy membership and attendance data, three -- St. Mark's, Trinity and Grace Evangelical -- reported average Sunday attendance of fewer than 40 in 2012, the most recent year data is available. Three others report fewer than 100 worshippers, including the historic Union Lutheran Church on West Market Street.

Union welcomes about 80 people on Sundays, the Rev. Judith McKee said, down from average Sunday attendance of 131 in 2005. The stone church was the last church designed by famed local architect J.A. Dempwolf in 1929. It is an example of neo-gothic cruciform architecture, an architectural design that features the shape of a cross.

Rev. McKee isn't worried about Union's future -- yet. With a good endowment, the church has a stable financial future for a few years, she said.

"The problem is the core group of people needs to grow," she added. "We've welcomed a few new families, but not enough."

The city's Historical Architectural Review Board was instrumental in delaying the planned demolition of Trinity UMC while helping find alternative uses for the church.

Joan Burgasser, a member of HARB at the time, said officials are usually shut out of the decision-making process until congregations reach desperation points.

"We can only do so much talking, but if we're not members of the church congregations, there's not else much we can do," she said.

Bishop James Dunlop took the reins of the Lower Susquehanna Synod in September and inherited some major issues, such as an aging pastor population and a denomination still healing from a 2009 decision to allow gays in "lifelong, monogamous" relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders.

He acknowledged the synod has too many congregations in urban areas such as York. However, although the synod provides active oversight of congregations, it cannot order closures or consolidations.

With each congregation having control over its own church, officials say comprehensive planning is difficult. Consolidations are rare.

Attendance issues aside, the city Lutheran churches are aging buildings that can prove costly to operate and maintain. Many are making energy efficient upgrades to cut costs.

"Our greatest challenge is the rising costs of utilities," said the Rev. Beth Schlegel at St. Peter's Lutheran Church.

The drop in membership is pushing the churches to do more direct outreach. It starts in the surrounding streets, Rev. Schlegel said.

St. Peter's goes door-to-door and holds regular events for the community Most importantly, the church is calling on younger members to lead those efforts, Rev. Schlegel said.

Rev. Erling said the greater York community should take an active role in helping the Lutheran congregations sort out their future in York.

"The problems of these downtown churches are in such a state that they are not going to be able to solve them by themselves," she said. "I think the city needs to be engaged, too."

Meanwhile, at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, a small group of lay leaders is trying to keep the church going without a full-time pastor.

"It gets our members more involved," said Dave Brady, chairman of the church's centennial committee. "We do what we can with what we have."


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