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Church group balances ministries, buildings

 
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7:00 A.M. EST July 28, 2010

The Rev. Bill Shillady stands inside the crumbling sanctuary of South Third United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. UMNS photos by Jack Sommer.
The Rev. Bill Shillady stands inside the crumbling sanctuary of South Third United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. UMNS photos by Jack Sommer.

The basement of the Brooklyn church was becoming hotter by the minute as the small group of United Methodist congregants gathered to say goodbye on a sultry Sunday afternoon in July.

Behind them, a white and gold cross and a large painting of Jesus hung on the back wall, waiting to be removed.

Having merged the week before with another congregation, the church members were not saying goodbye to each other. They were saying farewell to the dilapidated building. The building was being sold by its owner, the United Methodist City Society. 

The society’s executive director, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a participant in the July18 deconsecration service, apologized for the previous lack of attention to South Third United Methodist Church as it fell into disrepair.

But he pledged to continue a partnership in mission and ministry.

“At times, we are overcome by death,” he told the 20 or so who had come to mark the occasion. “But we are people of Easter faith.”

Becoming better stewards

When Shillady took the helm at the City Society in 2008 — two weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the plunge of the financial markets — he soon realized there were tough economic choices to be made.

South Third church had fallen into disrepair.
South Third church had fallen into disrepair.

For some time, the society — an independent body that functions as the urban mission arm of the denomination’s New York Annual (regional) Conference — had been taking money out of its endowment “because everybody thought the market would always be up,” he explained. The need to “try to stop this constant deficit spending” quickly became apparent.

His goal was to move from an endowment mindset to a mission culture.

The former pastor of Manhattan’s Park Avenue United Methodist Church began by streamlining office operations, renegotiating property and casualty insurance, stemming losses and increasing fees at a society-owned cemetery in Queens and purchasing all the housing units on top of Grace United Methodist Church in Manhattan, raising its revenue stream.

Then it was time to take a hard look at the 11 church properties — such as South Third church — owned by the society.

Such scrutiny, he believes, would be beneficial to the denomination as a whole.

“We need to divest ourselves of some of these dinosaur properties and invest in people,” Shillady said.

It is a dilemma faced across the country by the mainline Protestant traditions as members decline, neighborhood demographics shift, maintenance costs soar and core missions change.

Shifting neighborhoods

The City Society inherited its properties as New York neighborhoods changed and the predominantly white leadership left. The small, ethnic minority congregations that remained could not afford upkeep or insurance, Shillady explained, so the society assumed ownership. Other properties were specific mission sites established by the City Society or its predecessors.

The Rev. Alfredo Cotto-Thorner, second from left, leads a prayer during worship.
The Rev. Alfredo Cotto-Thorner, second from left, leads a prayer during worship.

San Pablo United Methodist in Long Island City, Queens, is an example of a church affected by “white flight.” When the Italian-American congregation left the area, its trustees gave the property’s title to the City Society so a small Hispanic congregation could meet there.

Seven blocks away, another society-owned property, People’s Church, was literally sinking into the ground. So, about four years ago, the City Society took advantage of a hot real estate market and sold the property for $5.5 million. Two motels now occupy the site.

People’s small African-American congregation now worships at San Pablo, where $250,000 from the sale was used to fix a leaky steeple, upgrade the electrical system and install an accessibility lift. The society provides annual subsidies to both congregations.

Church of Our Savior — a building in Yonkers just north of the Bronx — was sold by the society for $760,000 in the fall of 2009, but it had not housed a United Methodist congregation for 15 years. The new owner, St. Gregorios Orthodox Church of India, is renovating the building, Shillady said.

Started as a mission

South Third United Methodist Church was founded as a mission by three English women and occupies a small city block in what is now known as the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Its Russian-American congregation eventually was succeeded by a Spanish one.

One of the congregation’s most influential pastors, the Rev. Alfredo Cotto-Thorner, served there for 40 years, retiring in the late 1980s. He started several ministries, including Anchor House, still successful today as a residential treatment program for 50 male and 28 female substance abusers.

A portrait of Jesus and a cross crafted by a church member were removed from South Third United Methodist Church.
A portrait of Jesus and a cross crafted by a church member were removed from South Third United Methodist Church.

“This was a good church,” said the former pastor, who led a prayer during the deconsecration service. During his time, he added, there were 150 to 200 members, but later “they disappeared.”

The building declined with the membership. The white-and-gold sanctuary has holes in the floor, peeling plaster and a rotted ceiling in one corner. The attached parsonage is uninhabitable.

Nancy Vasquez, a member for the past five years, remembered how water dripped down over the spot where her husband, Marco, played music during worship services. She has accepted the move, but acknowledged it has been hard for others. “Some of them have been here for so long,” she explained.

The Rev. Milagros Solózano has seen that pain. On July 1, she became pastor of New Jerusalem United Methodist Church, a merging of the congregations of South Third and Knickerbocker at the Knickerbocker location in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

“Even though they’re excited at New Jerusalem, they do have hurt feelings over the loss of their temple,” she said. “Right now, I’m asking them to let God heal that.”

Providing assistance

Shillady is trying to ease that pain by providing $2,500 a month for the pastor’s housing allowance. The society also will do work on New Jerusalem property and is investigating the possible purchase of a parsonage in the neighborhood.

Being able to provide such assistance is part of the point. “We’re property-rich and cash-poor,” he said about the denomination. “Shouldn’t we be investing in ministry?”

A stronger real estate market is helping to raise the funds. When the South Third property was put on the market this spring, listed at $1.35 million, it ended up in a bidding war. Once the $1.525 million sale, now in contract, is completed, it will provide seed money for the support of the New Jerusalem and strengthen the endowment that supports an annual mission and outreach budget of nearly $400,000, Shillady said.

Current projects benefiting from the mission budget include the remodeling of an old church for a Ghanaian United Methodist congregation and restoration of the historic St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, both in the Bronx. Half of the money from the Yonkers church sale is being held for future ministry there, he added.

Back in Brooklyn, Solózano reported, the 30-member New Jerusalem congregation is poised for success in a changing neighborhood with new businesses and residents, including a growing Chinese population. Old members are starting to drift back and weekday ministries, including Bible studies in both Spanish and English, have been established. “They are 100 percent assured this is God’s plan for them,” she added.

The week after the consecration service, she hung the cross from the old church in the entryway of the Bushwick building. The painting of Jesus will go up soon.

“When you walk in, you see the cross right there,” she said. “That makes them feel at home.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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