“We can do that!”
Those were the words of Jeanne Schulz, an elder at Peace Presbyterian Church in Eugene, from a tour of Emerald Village five years ago. Jeanne was referring to a Presbyterian Women gathering that was organized around visiting the site where a 22-unit tiny house development was in process on 1.1 acres in Eugene. Jeanne said that the awareness that their congregation was aging coupled with nearly two acres of developable church property led her and her group to spontaneously blurt out, “We can do that!”
Five years later, what was an initial spontaneous fleeting and far flung idea is now becoming a reality.
Square One Villages, the non-profit organization responsible for Emerald Village in Eugene and Cottage Village in Cottage Grove (see “It Only Takes a Spark“), is set to develop Peace Village Co-op, a 72-unit affordable housing community for very low-income residents.
This past weekend I worshiped with Peace Presbyterian Church outside on a cool Sunday morning and talked to them about how they made the significant decision to sell their property to Square One Villages for this development. What I discovered is that the decision didn’t happen overnight and that it came as a result of being intentional about the church’s legacy.
While the idea to sell their property to develop it for affordable housing is a monumental step, it’s not outside the spiritual DNA of the church’s mission. Currently, in partnership with the city of Eugene they provide space for five Conestoga huts to transition people off the street. I talked with Hank who had lived in his car for six years. He expressed how grateful he was to have a place to settle for a few months while preparing to transition into an apartment next year.
The church remodeled one bathroom adding a shower and turned a former nursery into a small pantry and kitchen for the residents living on their property. Serving the vulnerable and low income is not new to Peace, but going from five Conestoga huts to 72 housing units is a monumental leap of faith.
I asked both the clerk of session and the pastor if they had a message for other churches and they repeated nearly the same advice. Tom Wyatt, Peace’s clerk of session said, “Think about your legacy.” Pastor Glenn Edwards then chimed in and said, “Yes, and I would add that you really need to take control of your legacy.” Both said the key was shifting from a focus on surviving to primarily focusing on their mission and the legacy the church would leave should they eventually dissolve as a congregation.
There was a definitely a theme to my visit. Jeanne Schulz said that the big decision first started from that spontaneous “aha” moment five years before when they visited the proposed site for Emerald Village. But there were dozens of conversations along the way including speaking with city officials, presbytery staff and trustees, and the ongoing Session and congregational discernment.
Pastor Edwards said that a big key to the success of this project was recognizing that a legacy of this magnitude can’t be done overnight or in order to avoid a looming crisis. It takes forethought, planning, time and a season of discernment and prayer. He added, reflecting on what the pandemic is teaching us, “You don’t want to get to the place of trying a vaccine when you are on the verge of dying.” I nodded in agreement. Legacy work takes time, but many churches wait until it’s too late.
In Pastor Edwards’ sermon on Sunday he said the congregation focused on three primary questions as they faced the uncertainty of their future. Their decision was the result of a long multi-year process of discernment on these three questions:
- Who are we?
- Why are we here?
- What is God calling us to do?
From the place where I sit Peace Presbyterian Church is a model of creative faithfulness. While the decision was painful, the church found a way to leave a deep and lasting legacy in their community AND continue as a congregation. The congregation is selling their full property to Square One Villages for less than market value in exchange for a $1/year 25-year lease to continue to use the church buildings.
Many of our churches are afraid of the potential of closing. Many others don’t like the language of legacy. But the lesson from Peace Presbyterian is that if you start early enough, think about and take control of your legacy, and listen for God’s leading it is possible to both continue as a congregation and invest in a mission that will have a deep impact on the community for decades to come.
Legacy is scary faithful work. But if done right and early enough the impact can be huge.
This is a great story of creative faithfulness.
The headline should read, “A Church of 40 Makes Room for a Village of 72!”
Five years ago, Jeanne Schulz and the women of Peace Church visited the Emerald Village site and said, “We can do that!”
That’s where it starts.
After that all you need is time and trust.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades