The congregation saw the beginning of the end two years ago when they hired a new pastor – as a part-time employee.
The Parkland United Methodist Church had faltered, not in its faith or community service, but in its numbers.
Gary Nicholson, who joined the church in 1973, remembers it having more than 200 members back then. The average attendance on Sundays was always 100 or more.
In the last year, that average has fallen to 30.
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“Two years ago, we sold the parsonage, so the pastor had nowhere to live,” Nicholson said. “We gave her a housing allowance. We were trying everything to stay afloat.”
Scrambling to pay bills month to month, the church held garage sales last summer to try to meet expenses.
“This was my first assignment,” said the Rev. Emily McNeill. “I came in not knowing if the church had the resources to turn this thing around.
“My focus was being honest, encouraging people to be OK with where we are. This church touched a lot of people over a long period of time. There’s been a lot of sadness, but a lot of satisfaction.”
McNeill splits her time between Parkland and the First United Methodist Church of Tacoma, a part timer with both churches. On Sunday, she will give her final sermon, and Parkland United Methodist Church will close its doors.
“I have not written what I’m going to say, other than ‘thank you,’” McNeill said. “This congregation has been very supportive, and I’ve been touched by their graciousness and hospitality.”
What happened? Other churches opened in the area. The congregation got older when its younger members went off to college and didn’t return to the church. As it aged, it began to lose members, sadly but naturally.
“We had a number of deaths, members who went to nursing homes,” McNeill said.
Last year, the board of trustees concluded the church could not survive another year, and told the Pacific Northwest Methodist Conference and its district superintendent, Sharon Moe.
Facing the end, church members decided the best option was to sell the property.
A buyer appeared almost immediately – the Franklin Pierce School District.
“We were looking for a place for our Head Start program, our early-morning and preschool programs,” District Superintendent Frank Hewins said. “We were looking for a building with classrooms, with grounds for play….”
The Parkland church has classrooms, a kitchen and 2 ½ acres of land.
“It had all the ingredients we were looking for,” Hewins said. “It needs work, but the church had served the community for 125 years – and we’d like to continue serving it for another 125 years.”
The district board remains in negotiations with church conference officials, with most every detail all but completed. The sale is pending for the property, located just off Military Road East in the shadow of a Home Depot store.
“Best-case scenario, we take over in August and get to work,” Hewins said. “We’d love to open in September 2015.”
Which may give pastor McNeill a theme come Sunday.
“I think it will be special to remind folks how many people were touched by Parkland United Methodist Church,” she said. “That impact is still resonating. When the children take over, our building will be full of life and serving people in the community.”
For her part, McNeill will leave the Northwest and return home to Albany, N.Y., and a new job – one outside traditional church ministry.
“I’ll be continuing my ministry in a different way – working with clergy and people of faith in taking action for workers rights and economic rights,” McNeill said.
And the last members of the congregation?
“A lot of people in the church will go to the Spanaway United Methodist church, which is about 30 blocks away,” Nicholson said. “In a five-mile radius from us, there are five Methodist churches and several of those having troubles.
“Once we close, we’ll be distributing our chairs and altar to other Methodist churches.”
The money earned from the sale? That will go to the conference. Moe said the assets will be used “to start new ministries in the district, revitalize existing ministries.”
Pastor McNeill will mention all that Sunday.
“More and more churches are in this situation,” she said. “In the next few years, a lot of old congregations will be closing, a lot of new congregations will be born.”