Christ Lutheran Church closes: Other uses of the building to continue for now  

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Final sermon: On May 5, Russell Craig gives his last sermon, telling congregants that God will be with them as they go out into the world, “hopefully together, in a new community of faith.” ​

GUILDERLAND — After almost 88 years, most of them in the church across from Stuyvesant Plaza, Christ Lutheran has closed. The problems, said retired pastor Russell Craig and church council President Joe Fahd, have been an aging congregation and the loss in recent years of some of the most active members who acted as leaders and provided financial support.

Craig was retiring in 2018, and the congregation found itself unable to “call,” or hire, another full-time pastor after his departure, Fahd said. “There aren’t really any part-time pastors,” he explained.

The council grappled with what to do before deciding that it would be better to set a date for closing, Fahd said, rather than just continue until the church ran out of money or became unable to find pastors to step in. “There was a lot of tears,” Fahd said.

Craig performed many of the services during the church’s last months leading up to the May 12 closing, and he was able to line up coverage for the other weeks.

The church is “autonomous in a way,” said Craig. It is part of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, but the bishop does not have full authority to close churches or apppoint people, he said. “It’s really the congregation who does it.”

The church’s bishop, Derek Lecakes, offered the last service, on May 12.

 

[Related: Micronesians continue worshiping at Christ Lutheran — for now]

 

Each Sunday afternoon, the church is used by an evangelical congregation from Micronesia (see related story). An after-school and summer program for school-age children that is currently housed in the church, run by TSL Adventures, will also continue for now.

Both of those organizations have used the church building for several years, Craig said, and will continue until further notice; the building is being transferred to the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which will decide its fate.

“Over the next 12 months or so, they’ll be assessing,” Craig said, “looking at the building and the needs in the community as well as resources available, to decide what to use the property for — either a new ministry to be planted there, or some other option, which could be the sale of the property, say, and then putting the money back into the church in this region.”

Reverend Mark Mueller of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Delmar, the Atlantic District’s regional vice president, said this week that no agreements have been signed at this point, and that the organization is currently involved in discussions about what to do.

Craig, who retired as of Nov. 1, estimated that Sunday services have drawn 20-some worshipers for the last six months or so. The final service that Craig led, on May 5, brought in almost 40, but he himself said, “A lot of those folks were people bringing their aging parents who haven’t been able to come in a while.”

Long-time member of the church Judy Zamurs said that the congregation had aged quite a lot by the time Craig arrived 12 years ago, and that Craig had done a lot to “expand the Word that we received,” including creating twice-weekly Bible-study sessions that drew in people from other churches.

It wasn’t until the last couple of years, Zamurs said, that the congregation began to have a lot more funerals than baptisms.

 

History

The first service of the Western Avenue Mission, as Christ Lutheran was then called, was held on July 26, 1931 in an apartment over the Grand Union market at the corner of Hillcrest and Western Avenue, according to a church history that was published in the bulletin for the closing service on May 12.

The church moved a few years later to another second-floor apartment, this time over a gas station, then to a private home, and then to a two-stall garage before land was purchased at Locust Street and Maplewood Avenue in 1938, and a chapel was built.

It was under Pastor Arthur Gerhardt, who was installed in 1944, that the church increased its outreach to the community, became a full-fledged member of the synod, and moved to Guilderland, building the church on Western Avenue across from Stuyvesant Plaza. The church building was dedicated in 1958.

One of Gerhardt’s six children, Lois Gerhardt, who is now 70, has been a congregant at Christ Lutheran to the end. She said her father was sent to Albany to close the church down because it was “just a little mission,” but that he “saw the need and did the opposite”: increasing the membership and eventually overseeing the congregation’s building of the large church on Western Avenue.

The property at 1500 Western Ave. was purchased in 1955 for $27,000, according to a church history, and a $60,000 building fund was quickly oversubscribed.

Lois Gerhardt recalled of her father, “We would leave him somewhere on a Saturday, and my mom would say, ‘When do you want us to come back?’ And he would go out and ring doorbells and invite people to church.” On Sunday nights, their dinner table would usually include strangers who were new visitors to the church, she said.

If congregants missed a couple of Sundays, Rev. Gerhardt would call on them to ask why, his daughter recalled.

Lois Gerhardt said the little chapel had a house, and that she grew up there until the church was built and the family moved to Guilderland.

She has not yet begun to look for a new church, she said. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around that this is happening,” she said. She is having a hard time dealing with it, she said, as are all the other members of the congregation.

“But,” she added, “there’s nothing else you can do — a sign of the times.”

 

Decline

Fahd said membership had declined over the past five or 10 years.

For a period of time, Fahd said, Christ Lutheran had an identity as a place for retirees. “There were a lot of retirees who wandered in and liked it, just a kind of low-key place where they didn’t ask you to do this or that,” Fahd said.

As the church lost people to death or moving away, it would continue to get new people, Fahd said.

Then a couple of years ago, he said, the congregation lost several of its most active members, some dying, others becoming shut-in due to old age or illness, and still others moving away.

“And to a congregation that’s smaller, if you lose two, three, four, five people, that’s a significant percentage of the people who were providing leadership and financial support,” Fahd said.

“Pew Research has done some wonderful studies,” said Craig, “and it’s across the board, particularly in the traditional churches — Catholic, Protestant — the post-World War II boom,” referring to struggles with declining attendance.

According to the Pew Research Center, there have been declines across a variety of Protestant denominations since 2007, with the most pronounced changes seen in mainline Protestant traditions.

The share of adults belonging to mainline churches dropped from 18.1 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent in 2014, according to Pew. Meanwhile, there has been less decline in membership in recent years in the evangelical or historically black Protestant traditions, according to Pew.

In the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 60 percent of those who report attending church at least once a week are over the age of 50, according to a Pew Research Center report.

People today take a different view of institutions, Craig said, adding, “When I was young, we went to church because that’s what we did.”  

Birth rates, demographics, and where people live are all shifting, he said. “This area, there’s still a little bit of neighborhood, but it’s becoming a business district.”

He believes people are “still thirsty” for faith, but that they need to have a better sense of a direct connection between themselves and the church.

The aging of the congregation is “a chicken-and-egg,” Craig said. “You need the people across the demographic scope, but as you begin to lose them, people come in and they don’t see anybody ‘like me.’”

He said, “Some churches are better able to engage with multigenerational programming.”

Some small churches have been able to survive, said Fahd, by sharing a pastor.

 

Future

The physical structure of the building is in pretty good shape, said Craig, musing, “Is there a ministry that could pop up?”

The retired pastor expressed hope that, if the building were sold, it would go to “some kind of community-service group — a day care, school, or adult-services program.”

The after-school and summer program for school-age children run by TSL Adventures, will also continue for the time being, Craig said.

Tom Styles, one of the co-owners of TSL Adventures, said that the company’s agreement has been extended for the coming year, and that he is hopeful that that will “ultimately lead to other options.” He said TSL Adventures is “just trying to take it step by step” but that it is excited that the church was “amenable to letting us stay and explore options.”

This week, Mueller said no agreements have been signed, and that the organization is involved in discussions about what to do.

When asked about agreements with the Micronesians or TSL Adventures, Mueller said, “Nothing is signed as of yet.” The Atlantic District is “under discussion with different groups,” he said.

The land is listed on Albany County tax rolls as having a value of $0, because it is tax-exempt, but town Assessor Karen Van Wagenen said land in that area is “going quite high” because there is not much available. The church is located on the town’s busiest thoroughfare, Route 20, not far from the Albany city line.

The church property totals 3.9 acres, she said. For the sake of comparison, she said the former 99 Restaurant at 1470 Western Avenue sold for $1.7 million in 2014, and that most of the building was torn down to create the new Black & Blue Steak & Crab. She said that the Black & Blue Steak & Crab property is about one-third of the size of the church property, at 1.4 acre.

The building is located in a Business Non-retail Professional zoning district. Potential uses of the land, with a special-use permit, include, according to Guilderland’s zoning code: animal hospital, office space, not-for-profit institution, day-care center, mixed-use building, or private school.

Some members of the now-closed Lutheran church had already moved on and become part of a different church congregation, Craig said, while others were “sticking it out to the end.”

He hopes many will join “a new church community, maybe together, but the reality is, we don’t know,” he said.

Craig told the congregants on May 5 that God has a plan and has prepared a place for them. “He will be with you in your home as you go about your day, and he will be with you in your new community of faith.”

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