As members of Northlake Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Northlake, Ill., celebrated the 70th anniversary of their congregation, it was becoming obvious that things were changing.
“Our congregation was an aging congregation. We didn’t have any young people,” says Karl Kuester, Northlake’s congregation council president. “Our financial resources were dwindling, and it was difficult to meet our expenses.”
Northlake’s members started getting together to see what changes they could make. “We looked at cooperative ministries with some area churches,” Karl remembers. “We talked to two churches in the area, and we investigated for over a year and a half the potential of getting together and combining our ministries and our resources.”
The congregation also discussed downsizing and moving to another building — maybe even a storefront — but ultimately, everyone decided it was time to move on. Before they did so, however, they wanted to be sure that they could still make a difference.
Leaving a legacy
Julie Rowe, an ELCA pastor, was asked to come in and shepherd the congregation through the process of closing. Julie remembers the congregation really wanting to leave a legacy. “We decided to look at the tough questions and to look at the most faithful course of action.”
She says it became very important to the congregation to “let Northlake die a graceful death, so that other ministries might live and thrive.”
The members of Northlake decided that rather than just close their doors and go their separate ways, they wanted something positive to come out of their closing. They started looking for ways to share what they had with people who could use it most.
“We talked about the possibility of selling the building, and one of the councilmen had a neighbor who was an alderman in Northlake,” Karl says. “The city jumped on it right away. They said, ‘If you’re going to sell the building, talk to us first.’”
The city ended up paying the congregation $400,000 for the building, and the members of Northlake weren’t about to let that kind of money go to waste.
“We chose to go from local to global,” says Julie. “We gave some (of the money) to the local family township service, which we had worked with for a number of years. We gave $250,000 to the ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod for a renewed start between an African American and Anglo congregation, and then $60,000 to scholarships for seminary for mission developers and $60,000 to missionary sponsorship.” They’ll also make a large donation to ELCA World Hunger once they’ve finished paying other bills.
Karl says they made sure the congregation’s belongings went to good homes, as well. “We disposed of all of our possessions by giving them to other churches or other organizations that could use them,” he says. “We basically contacted other churches in the area and said come by and take a look and see what you could use.”
The city also plans to make Northlake’s building an asset to the community. They’ve already begun to open a day care in the congregation’s old facilities, and the sanctuary will eventually be used to house a community theater.
Spreading their gifts
Karl and Julie are both especially proud of the way Northlake turned such a difficult decision into a positive outcome. “A lot of times these kinds of things split the church, but there was none of this,” says Julie. “It was a hard process, but because of the way they responded and communicated with one another and addressed the tough questions, it was a privilege to be a part of.”
Karl agrees. He says that even though closing Northlake was a difficult process, there was “no opposition whatsoever. It was unanimous to use the funds as a legacy, to spread what we had received to organizations and agencies that could use the help.”
Of the core group of members who saw Northlake through the closing process, Karl says nearly all of them have found new church homes.
And the fruits of their gifts will certainly make an impact on generations to come.
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