Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Salem is vacating its building but not its ministry

The south Minneapolis congregation is planning creatively for an uncertain future.

Editor’s note: Metro Lu-theran is following the progress of Salem Lutheran Church’s mission development, as members struggle with issues of re-visioning and downsizing.

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When rising water swamped the neighborhoods of New Orleans last year, residents were confronted with three painful choices: stay and try to rescue their damaged property; walk away from the home they’d known and loved for decades; start over and develop something brand new.

These are the same three choices facing members of Salem Lutheran Church, an aging south Minneapolis congregation located in the Whittier Neighborhood and affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Salem was one of those urban success stories whose members anticipated a glorious future by constructing, in 1904, a wonderful stone worship center, replacing a smaller, wood-frame building. The glory days arrived by midcentury, when many urban mainline congregations were thriving. By 1960, more than 2,000 baptized members swelled the rolls.

But then things changed. Just when the congregation completed construction of a highly-functional parish hall annex, the membership began to dip. Families were moving to the suburbs. The neighborhood was changing — and still is. Today the combined number of black and Hispanic residents in Whittier (7,100) matches the number of Caucasians.

By the turn of the century, Salem’s membership had plummeted to just a few hundred. Many of the faithful who remained were older, with limited financial resources.

In a church plant with 44,000 square feet and aging stone, plumbing and roof, and generating an energy bill beyond the ability of the now-much-smaller congregation to pay, what were the options?

Members of Salem watched in dismay as their surplus funds dwindled and the yearly financial deficit soared. The annual shortfall ran to $16,000 in 1996, $42,000 four years later and nearly $100,000 last year.

Reading those numbers, and projecting into the future (a $109,000 deficit was projected for 2006), members read the handwriting on the wall and confronted those three choices.

* Hang on and wait for the inevitable — dissolution.

* Walk away from a beautiful property, which includes some wonderful stained-glass windows, and don’t look back. (One option would include selling the property to another congregation or to a commercial entity — for redevelopment, perhaps, as upscale lofts.)

* Stay at 28th and Lyndale, but do a brand new thing with the property.

Members of Salem have committed themselves to following the third path. Even if they can clear all the hurdles currently facing them, the choice won’t be easy — nor without pain. Who wants, after all, to watch a cherished worship space dismantled? And, should that occur, what happens to all the treasures — including those windows — contributed over the years by the faithful, many now of blessed memory?

Early this year, members of Salem voted to adopt an ambitious and fairly complicated plan for their future. While there’s no assurance it will come to fruition — community and historic preservation leaders are not enthralled with the idea — here’s what Salem’s remaining core membership wants to do:

* Close the existing building on the last Sunday of this month.

* Enter into a ministry partnership with nearby Lyndale United Church of Christ (UCC), with whom Salem would share a worship space while both congregations maintain their separate identities.

* Create a new structure on Salem’s present property (a piece of real estate which is, incidentally, commercially valuable, and which the congregation doesn’t want to abandon). The facility would be a mixed-use development including market rate town homes, retail stores, a worship center for the two congregations and affordable rental housing.

Salem has entered into a coalition to build this vision as one of six partners — Lyndale UCC, the ELCA’s Outreach division, the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod, Common Bond Communities (a nonprofit provider of affordable housing) and Augustana Senior Development.

Jen Nagel, Salem’s pastoral minister, told Metro Lutheran the proposal is far from a slam dunk. “The neighbors didn’t like the idea,” she said. “They thought what we were proposing would create too much density.”

And that’s not all. “We applied for a permit for demolition with the City of Minneapolis. The individual who looks after historic preservation in the metro area recommended against it. He said it could be restored for $800,00.”

Aside from the fact that Salem doesn’t have that kind of money, Nagel says the congregation’s own research indicates it would take around $2 million to do the job. And even then the money hemorrhage would simply continue.

Members of the Minneapolis City Council could overrule the historic preservation objection, Nagel says, but it’s not clear that the votes are there. She told Metro Lutheran, “It could happen, but it would be a really close vote.”

So where does that leave Salem Church? The congregation will proceed with the building closing on Reformation Sunday. The building will be “mothballed,” to use Nagel’s term. The congregation will go into self-imposed exile, probably sharing worship space in the short term with Lyndale United Church of Christ — but not merging with the other parish.

“There is no plan on our part to dissolve, or to abandon our property. We intend to find a future in which to live out our mission,” Nagel said.

In the meantime, other options are being explored. The congregation is letting the roadblocked proposal “go dormant” and is inviting developers to make alternative proposals. And, perhaps Salem’s own idea may yet come to fruition.

For now, however, time is money — and Salem Church is running short of both.