For many people, the decision to close a church brings sorrow and pain. But sometimes, members can use this ending as a chance to bring new life.
That is the case for Jeffersontown Presbyterian Church in Jeffersontown, Ky.
Organized in 1861, the church grew over the next century, adding a sanctuary, classrooms, nursery and kitchen. But in the 1990s, membership started to decline. By the time the Rev. Ellen Marie Kratch arrived in 2006, her main role was to help the remaining 20 or so members merge with another local church.
“I expected a short assignment as I helped them with this journey of transition into a new merged church, but it wasn’t,” said Kratch, who stayed with Jeffersontown for more than six years.
With the merger on the horizon, the members of Jeffersontown decided to stay put. They felt they were called to be in Jeffersontown, and a merger would have meant moving.
Although the congregation felt called to stay, members struggled to discern what they were called to do.
“‘We know we’re supposed to be here — we just don’t know why we’re supposed to be here because we’re not growing,’” Kratch heard again and again.
In 2011, the church again confronted its future.
“They (could) continue on as they are and last man turns out the lights, but they didn’t think that was very faithful to stewardship and the call to do ministry because all of the finances and human resources are being tied up in maintaining buildings,” Kratch said. “There was no energy or money left over after bills, maintenance, to do the Lord’s work in community, and the Lord clearly told them to stay in Jeffersontown and do ministry.”
The congregation finally decided to sell the property, with proceeds from the sale going to other ministries.
“It didn’t surprise me that they chose to give life to others in the midst of a very sad time,” said the Rev. Betty Meadows, general presbyter for Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. “This is a very faithful congregation. They had really started living Christ in so many ways and in their death they have brought tremendous life to others.”
Indeed, Jeffersontown has a history of benevolence. Even with limited membership, the church gave to all of the PC(USA) Special Offerings, supported local ministries and participated in activities like the Hunger Walk.
Because of their conscientious stewardship of the property, Jeffersontown was debt free when it was sold. The result was more than $376,000 that members divided among 18 groups.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was one of the benefitting ministries, receiving more than $16,000.
“Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is deeply honored that Jeffersontown Presbyterian Church considered us as they said farewell to the faith-home that held good and treasured memories for so many,” said Laurie Kraus, director of PDA. “I believe this gift shows Jeffersontown’s passion for mission, and their profound understanding of the church and its members as stewards of God’s gifts.”
Members of Jeffersontown are still grieving their loss, but have begun to worship at other area churches. And Kratch think she might see why the church had felt so called to stay.
The building was bought by the Korea Saehan Church of Louisville, a 20-year-old congregation that has been steadily growing.
“Every time (Jeffersontown) had one of those moments when they could have walked away from the situation, taken the easy way out and closed the doors and gone to another church, they stayed and worked through the problems,” Kratch said. “They’d listen to the Lord, and every one of those times coincided with the growth spurts or something significant happening in the Korean church that bought the property, so I think the Lord was preparing one congregation and keeping the Jeffersontown congregation maintaining the property because if they’d sold the property it would not have been ready for this other congregation that has grown.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.