Church closes building, prepares for new kind of ministry

Published April 27, 2018

By Madeline Pillow

As the United Methodist denomination comes to terms with a new reality of declining attendance and aging buildings, one church in Richmond, Va., is embracing change wholeheartedly.Boulevard UMC sold their church building on March 13, 2018, after about four years of discernment. 

Sarah Wilkinson, a church trustee, said the process began when the Rev. Rachel May, Boulevard UMC pastor, sought a group within the church who would be interested in talking about the future. This group began meeting at different homes for supper once a month. These discussions weren’t just about the property, but also about what the church’s future could look like.Matt Hannay, trustee chair, said the discussion led the group to realize that the “real lives” component of their ministry couldn’t be done with the numerous requirements for the upkeep of a large church facility.

“Simply having a building that opens its doors, simply existing is not being in ministry,” he said. 

May spent an inordinate amount of time working on facility maintenance— from learning about a 100-year-old boiler to working with a constantly flooded basement to a lack of central air and other maintenance issues.

“Are you really in ministry if the building is sapping all of your resources? Our answer was ‘No we’re not.’ We want to be in ministry. We’re called to be in ministry in this community. Boulevard is the United Methodist presence in the Fan and the Museum Districts,” Hannay said.

Once the church community decided to sell the property, the process began. It included targeting organizations the trustees thought might purchase the property. Then, they ventured into the commercial real estate market, which included wading through challenging issues such as rezoning, being on the national registry of historical buildings and lack of parking. The trustees realized the natural buyer would be another church. Remnant Church was the ultimate purchaser of the building.

“We were very mindful that anything we do is going to have an impact on the surrounding community, on our neighbors, on the neighborhood. We wanted it to be as much of a positive transition as possible,” Wilkinson said.

May, Wilkinson and Hannay said the season of discernment would have not worked without their transparent approach with the Boulevard congregation. “We were very open. There were no secrets. If people had questions we would happily talk about that,” said Hannay.

Through denomination required church and charge conferences, different aspects of this process were shared, Wilkinson said. The congregation overwhelmingly was positive but asked tough questions, which the trustees welcomed.

A different kind of ministry

The congregation began worshipping at William Fox Elementary School in November 2017, also moving from the traditional 11 a.m. hour to 4 p.m.  Boulevard UMC’s new home puts the congregation in the heart of the Fan District where people and families naturally gather. Even though it is a shared space, Fox Elementary has provided the congregation a chance to grow closer together. The old building seated hundreds, which left the congregation far apart from one another. The community averages 40 in worship.

  The Rev. Rachel May prepares to serve Communion on Easter Sunday.

“Passing the peace was really awkward some days,” Wilkinson said. “I’ve noticed since we’ve been at Fox just leaps and bounds more camaraderie and more fellowship, which translates to being more welcoming when new people come in.”

The elementary school space is also having an effect on the church community.

“The space we are now in surrounds us by evidence of children creating things,” Hannay said. “With two young kids, I feel like I belong here and it feels great and welcoming. It’s very different from what we had.”

With this change, that May has termed a step of “holy boldness,” has come opportunities as well as new challenges. Starting to worship at a new space while moving out of the old building was an intense undertaking.

“When a church is not a church plant and it hasn’t spent a year coming up with teams to do certain things, from a pastor’s perspective, there were things I had to do at the same time to get out of one place and into another that our community was not conditioned to think about,” May said.

May described the changes as a “rebirth” for Boulevard, with a new logo and signage to announce the church’s presence.

“Imagine having an old house where you’re always fixing things, always taking care of something.

You can’t focus on being a family,” Hannay said. “The attention of the congregation was on the space. The attention can’t be on the real life ministry piece. We’re free from that. We’re able to open ourselves to the community because of where we are now. We weren’t in a good place before to say, in good faith, ‘Come join us’ because we didn’t know our future.”

“We’re a pretty deep community. What we do is not surface level. Guests will say that. That’s the feedback. I’ve never anticipated growth by leaps and bounds,” May said.

The trustees do not foresee being at the elementary school indefinitely. Next steps include understanding the space needs and finding new property. The church is not looking to build.“It is important to us to stay in our neighborhood, to stay in our parish. That’s something we committed ourselves to throughout this process,” said Wilkinson.

The future looks bright

The Boulevard UMC community, having shed the building that at times felt like “an albatross to the golden goose,” as Hannay put it, now sees itself at a place from which to grow.“I grew up largely unchurched. The building, for me, was oh, that’s the church. I came to realize it’s the people. The people haven’t changed. We’re just in a different spot that makes us a warmer, more engaged community than we were,” said Hannay.

The church embraces the opportunity to grow in their ministry with children and with the community.

“One of the challenges is to rediscover our missional identity,” May said. “But at the same time part of what our community does is provide a gathering space for people who are already in mission or in service. So, the challenge is thinking about what is our missional identity, what are we going to be known for in outreach, but also celebrate that our people are already doing that good work and sometimes seek out Boulevard where they can get some theological framework, some clarity, for what they’re already doing that I would define as kingdom advancing.”

The trustees encourage church leaders looking to do something similar to be transparent with the congregation from the start. Overall the trustees are excited about the possibilities and the way they can continue to welcome others to their church.

“We’re in a dense area, in the middle of our target demographic which is the older millennials,” Hannay said. “We’ve had some new faces show up, and we continue to hope to have that happen.”

Boulevard UMC is a community, according to May, that does ministry together on a far deeper level than the surface and this change will only accentuate that fact. “Sometimes church looks like selling the building while holding on tight to the people,” said May.

–Madeline Pillow is the editor of the Virginia Advocate.



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