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Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U District congregations might move in together

Seattle Times staff reporter

At Tom Quigley's church in the University District, there are people who recall when many of its 1,700 members packed the pews each Sunday.

But over the past few decades, the pews at University Christian Church have become far emptier, as membership dwindled to around 200. That's led to a big challenge: how to pay for costly-to-maintain church buildings with so few parishioners to shoulder the burden.

Now, Quigley's church, along with about half a dozen other once-thriving churches in the U District, are discussing a bold idea: possibly selling some of their buildings — likely worth millions — and combining some functions and administrative work into one big facility. Worship services for the various denominations could be held separately by staggering the schedule.

The idea is still "in the dream stage," Quigley said. But the notion has been percolating for about a year and, as of last week, members of all the congregations involved have been told of it.

Although it's not unusual for congregations to merge or consolidate — even across denominational lines — it is unusual to have so many parishes talking about the possibility, said Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University sociology professor who specializes in religion. "Typically it's two or maybe three."

Across the country, many urban mainline Protestant churches have seen their congregations shrink since the late 1950s and early 1960s, when memberships were at their peak. Now they're faced with maintaining buildings erected to accommodate far larger congregations, while still carrying out their spiritual and social missions.

Faced with such challenges, some urban churches have closed or merged. In Seattle, First United Methodist Church downtown is negotiating to sell its property to a developer, and a few years ago, Seattle First Christian Church and Pilgrim Congregational Church on Capitol Hill merged.

The idea under consideration in the U District began in 2004, when members of the various congregations gathered for potlucks. Some talked of being in similar straits — gathering in "these dinosaur buildings. The buildings were killing us," said Peter Jabin, a member of University Temple United Methodist Church and a leader in the project.

He estimates his church spends a couple hundred thousand dollars a year on building maintenance, including utilities and custodial pay. "There was just a sense of trying to survive."

They also shared a changing demographic, their parishioners growing older and fewer university students attending than in decades past. But then the churches began to realize that, collectively, they were sitting on millions of dollars of real estate.

"That changed everything. That gave us hope," Jabin said. "We realized we [can] have enough capital resources to pretty much do any project we can conceive of. The question is not 'how do we survive,' but 'what are we called to do.' "

Other congregations involved in the discussions so far include: University Congregational United Church of Christ, University Lutheran Church, University Baptist Church, Christ Episcopal Church, and University Friends Meeting.

Some, such as Christ Episcopal Church, have said they are interested in more joint ministry but don't have an interest in moving from their present location.

In one possible scenario, the churches would sell their properties and share a single facility, with the congregations themselves remaining distinct.

Worship services would be conducted on a staggered schedule, though the congregations could share in some functions, such as baptism ceremonies.

The centralized structure could be a gathering place for the community at large, not just the congregations.

Overhead would be shared by the congregations. "When property is that valuable, having it that underdeveloped and underutilized prevents us from getting some of the resources we need to better do our mission," such as serving the poor, said the Rev. Jack Olive, senior minister at University Temple United Methodist Church.

No one knows exactly what the central facility would look like or where it would be. There's been talk of placing it at Olive's church, which has the most historically significant building, located across from the UW and a block from a planned light-rail stop.

But the model could be done in a variety of locations, proponents said.

Some see this as the latest evolution of the cooperation among U District churches, whose clergy have met regularly for about 25 years. The congregations have jointly developed programs to serve the homeless and the poor, and to establish campus ministries. And about two years ago, the churches began participating in potlucks, bringing their congregations together to see what more they could do collectively.

They realized they had more in common on issues such as world conflicts and racism than they had differences on other topics.

For now, no one has committed to selling property. The congregations are couching things in exploratory terms of "property stewardship" and "seeking ways that together we might use our resources more effectively."

Whatever the churches decide, they are still pursuing ways to cooperate more in worship and fellowship. But if a number of congregations do decide to pursue the consolidation plan, there will likely be "huge issues of grief that will have to be dealt with in each congregation," Quigley said. "People who've been there since the 1940s and '50s might shudder to think they're not going to go where they used to go."

The idea, of course, is still in its infancy. "Churches don't do things quickly," Jabin said. "Trying to get just one century-old congregation to make a decision like this is hard enough. To get four, five, six, seven congregations to give up their buildings, and to move toward a vision that we can't say exactly what it is yet, is miraculous, really."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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