Ministry in a new way, new location for First Presbyterian
It's never easy saying goodbye.
But the congregation of First Presbyterian Church has faith that selling the church's possessions before swapping buildings with Halvorson-Johnson Funeral Home will work out in the end.
"I think that's emotional for everybody here because there's just so many things that have memories connected to them ... things that the Ladies' Aid used to do—tea services and tea sets that the ladies used to use for their meetings," the Rev. Mark Ford said.
"And it has just been exhausting for one thing—just a ton of decisions to make, you know—move the copier, move the phone service, move the internet service and deciding what things go, what things stay, what things get space for in the new place."
The downtown church hosted its last worship service Nov. 4 at Oak and South Eighth streets and decommissioned the 1961 building before relocating to 7761 Excelsior Road in Baxter.
"The building is very classic—a lot of copper, a lot of windows, a lot of light in it—so it's just definitely a very beautiful sanctuary, and that's one of the hardest things about leaving it is it is a beautiful sanctuary," said Ford, pastor of the church.
"Not a lot had to be done (to the Baxter building) because they already had a chapel space, which will be our worship space. The big thing was moving the organ and the piano into that space and then figure out how we're going to set up for worship."
The congregation recently had a two-day moving sale to sell an estimated 50,000 items to downsize. Its ranks are dwindling while the funeral home could use more space.
"Unfortunately, churches are not worth what it costs to build them, because we had a replacement cost of about $2.5 million on this building (in Brainerd), but you can't sell it for that because they are single-use, single-purpose buildings," Ford said.
The church's building and acreage at 512 S. Eighth St. was appraised at about $650,000 based upon the use of the building, according to Ford.
"And if a new ministry were to start up, they couldn't afford to buy this big a building, so this was just one of the best ways that we could both get value out of the spaces that we're invested in," Ford said.
An electric typewriter, coffee mugs and pots, a sewing machine, a piano, religious texts, Christmas decorations and more were offered at the two-day moving sale that began Nov. 9.
"We're just basically getting rid of the things that have accumulated for 60 years ... things that have been pulled out of the kitchen, like huge potato mashers made of heavy steel and which probably have been here since the 1960s," Ford said.
"This particular building has been here since 1961. The Presbyterian Church has had three different buildings on this corner or these lots since 1889."
The congregation numbered almost 600 people in the '50s, '60s and '70s, according to Ford, but has decreased in size, so church officials looked for ways to reduce costs associated with the building—"a classic example of mid-century modern architecture."
"We had been looking at a number of ways that we could maintain ministry here with a shrinking attendance ... and we've just got to the point where we couldn't afford to maintain the building and maintain ministry," Ford said.
"Who would ever think of trading a church for a funeral home? But when I brought it up to our governing board, and they thought, 'Oh! Well, that might work. We've looked at other things and nothing has really panned out. This might be a good opportunity for us.'"
The predominantly older congregation enjoys singing traditional hymns, including occasional praise and gospel music. The congregation also enjoys the participation of—and fellowship with—those of all ages.
"We typically average about 50 to 60 people on Sunday morning and worship service. We have membership of about 80," Ford said.
"As congregations age, it's hard to maintain an enthusiasm for doing ministry, or, 'We've done it this way for so long that we don't know how to do it any other way,' and so it's a combination of different things."
First Presbyterian Church is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and of the Presbytery of Minnesota Valleys. The building's seven spires extend to the rooftop and includes biblical imagery; the sanctuary of the Brainerd building resembles an ark if viewed from upside down.
"If we want to be in ministry, we need to find a smaller space to do ministry, so that is why we looked at exchanging space with Halvorson-Johnson, which first started as a joke actually and as we thought about it a little bit more, we thought that might be a good option for us," Ford said.
"They have fewer and fewer people that have church homes to do funerals in and so they needed bigger space to do funerals of non-church people, and we needed less space because we didn't have the attendance on Sunday morning."
Halvorson-Johnson Funeral Home has served the Brainerd-Baxter area since 1935. Owner Tim Taylor and his wife Casey are funeral directors and facilitated the transaction.
"The space we're moving to in Baxter was actually a photo shop at one time, an office space at one time, and they had just converted it into a funeral chapel," Ford said.
"But we've probably had as many dead people in this church, obviously, by doing funerals as they have in a funeral home."
The 4,000-square-foot funeral chapel recently owned by Halvorson-Johnson has been at Excelsior Road and Golf Course Drive North in Baxter since 2012, near Super One Foods along Highway 210.
"We thought that distance break would be positive for us ... and partly when you have 50 people in a sanctuary that sits 350 people, you (if you're new) come in and go, 'Oh, it looks empty,' and so psychologically, people don't come back because it just looks empty," Ford said.
First Presbyterian Church's mission is "taking the love of Christ into the community, nation and world," by supporting organizations like Lakes Area Pregnancy Support Center, Birthright Inc., The Salvation Army, Timber Bay youth ministry, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and more.
"We had some groups that split off in the late 1990s, and a lot of the people that—at that time—were in their 40s left the church, and the people that stayed were in their 60s, and nothing really happened to get new people in and so now they are in their 80s," Ford said.
"One of the reasons that we are excited about the Baxter location is that it is close to people who are the age of our congregation. There's a lot of retirement living around us—the senior-living apartments just down the street on Excelsior."
The median age is about seven years older in Baxter than in Brainerd, according to Sperling's Best Places, which offers info regarding demographics, preferences and "Best Places" to live, work or retire. The church hosted its first service at the Baxter building on Sunday, Nov. 11.
"We needed a place for our crematory in 2012, and that building came available, so we put the crematory over there and then made it into a funeral home, and people now are wanting the venue of a church, but nobody goes to church," Tim Taylor said of the Baxter building.
"We can seat 450 people here in this (Brainerd) building, they tell me, and so we can accommodate any funeral with this building, so we needed this building for the same reasons First Presbyterian doesn't. ... People want a grand venue, and this building is a grand venue."
Hope Johnston is a member of the congregation who was married in the sanctuary in 1958. The 78-year-old helped out with the moving sale last week at the Brainerd building.
"It's sad, and I think the hardest thing was when they walked out with the Bible and things from the altar ... but we know we cannot afford to keep heating this building ... and we don't have the income to do expensive repairs," Johnston said with tears in her eyes.
Johnston recalled teaching Sunday school and attending Bible study as among her fondest memories made at the Brainerd building. Marilyn Maxa, the church librarian, also had fond memories. The 85-year-old has been a member of the church for more than two decades.
"I'm glad to see the things that we don't need being purchased. I'd hate to see some of that stuff go to the dump because we don't have somebody to purchase it and we don't have room in our new building," Maxa said.
Effie Elg is a church deacon and a congregation member since the 1970s. Her daughter was baptized at the Brainerd building, so the moving sale, which Elg and Annie Vanderbest were in charge of, was an "extremely emotional" experience, according to Elg.
"Annie and I have been working here on and off for probably two months—digging into closets I didn't know existed in this building until now, and it has helped me let go by being here so much," Elg said.
Elg was surprised antique wooden collection plates were already sold within the first few hours of the first day of the two-day sale at the Brainerd building.
"Someone said he bought it because it's part of Brainerd history ... and that makes me feel good because he's buying it for a reason, because it's our history," Elg said.
Taylor said it was his idea to swap buildings with the church. He said he brought up the idea, "out of the blue," with Ford in April.
"We're keeping our Brainerd location 100 percent operational, but the Baxter chapel, our crematory will stay there until we get the construction ready here in Brainerd, which will be starting next week (Nov. 18-24), so that we can move the crematory out in the next few months," Taylor said.
Halvorson-Johnson Funeral Home already has a chapel at 703 Oak St., Brainerd, open since 1935. It is located about 400 feet away from the church building that formerly housed First Presbyterian Church. Taylor said he plans to lease that Brainerd chapel to another church.
Taylor also said he plans to pay about $65,000 in road assessment fees related to the Baxter building, so First Presbyterian Church will not have to even though it now occupies the building.
"It was an even exchange as far as no money changed hands," Taylor said.
First Presbyterian Church shared its Brainerd building with Bright Beginnings, a child care center focused on disadvantaged families, and its congregation supports the Coats for Kids outerwear collection drive, soup kitchens and food shelves, and more, according to its website.
"I guess the biggest thing is that we're hopeful for the future that we might be able to do ministry in a new way in a new location, and that's really what our desire is," Ford said.