Cheney church opts for 'holy closure'
Jake Rehm, as one of the newest members of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Cheney, became church council president in the summer of 2020 as the church began discernment about closing its doors.
"As the newest member, I had the least emotional attachment to the church, but it was still gut wrenching," he said. "For many members, it was their home—for some since 1947."
The building now sits empty of people, pews, organ, crucifix, robes, cross, art and everything that made it a church.
Because the MultiCare Clinic next door offered cash for the building, parsonage and parking lot, the church suddenly had a new ministry: to decide how to distribute $600,000 to church, nonprofit and community entities.
In 2018, members of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Cheney realized they were losing members. Many were 60 to 90 years old. Just 15 to 20 of the 40 members came regularly, said Jake. Most would not be there in 10 years.
Arianna Arends, the half-time pastor and half-time Lutheran campus minister at Eastern Washington University (EWU), resigned after four years.
"In 2020, we realized we were spending $3,000 to $7,000 more a month than we brought in and could no longer keep the doors open," Jake said, noting that attendance dropped in COVID.
"We spent six months discerning what the future held," he said. "No one wants to close a church that has been in the community for decades."
People in the community were aware they were in discernment. The director of the MultiCare Clinic next door asked to tour the grounds and made a cash offer.
"Realizing that the property could provide expansion of the health clinic and that we could give the money to churches and nonprofits made the decision easier," Jake said.
In June 2022, the church voted to dissolve. The closing service was New Year's Eve 2022. MultiCare Health purchased the property and buildings in January 2023 for $600,000.
The church spent two months deciding where the funds would go. They developed a list of beneficiaries, including the Cheney senior center and food bank, and local, regional and national levels of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Funds went to the Luther Seminary endowment, a Lutheran church they supported on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana, the Northwest Intermountain ELCA Synod's companion diocese in Tanzania, Lutheran World Relief, the national ELCA and Lutherhaven Ministries.
The City of Cheney and Eastern Washington University each received 20 percent, with EWU funds going for scholarships and a nursing school endowment. About $20,000 paid for startup equipment for an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) program in Cheney.
"We had a comprehensive plan for every dollar and for the tangible items," Jake said. "An oak cross—in addition to a mahogany crucifix that is now at Peace Lutheran in Otis Orchards—was given to a new Anglican church, St. Aidan, in the Perry District."
"Some members joined Medical Lake Lutheran. Some are going to other Cheney churches," said Jake, who grew up in a Charismatic-Pentecostal church in Omak and is now looking for a Lutheran church in Spokane.
Since earning a bachelor's degree in recreation management in 2006 and a master's in physical education in 2008 at EWU, he taught wellness and movement science for 10 years at EWU.
In 2022, he earned a master's degree in theology at Whitworth University.
"In studying church history, I gained perspective about saints, scandals, heresies and church movements," he said. "It gave me a new set of lenses to see faith."
Jake, impressed by German reformer Martin Luther, and Jake's wife, seeking a church that affirmed gay marriage, decided to attend Emmanuel Lutheran.
While the building now sits empty, Jake said there are no plans to demolish it. The Lutheran campus ministry it once housed will meet elsewhere.
Others who have been part of the decision-making, closing months and ongoing ministries shared about the church closing.
They are Phil Misner, assistant to the Northwest Intermountain Synod ELCA; Ladd Bjorneby, a former pastor who preached during closing months, and Christie McKee, advancement manager of Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW).
Phil came with Mary Morrow, also of the ELCA synod office, to a November 2021 church council meeting to help Emmanuel understand the synod process for discerning and steps for deciding to do "holy closure."
"They knew they were in a difficult financial situation and could not pay a half-time pastor," Phil said. "They considered sharing space with another church or selling the building.
"In January, they reviewed the options. They voted in June 2022 to move to holy closure," Phil said. "Once they decided that, the synod worked with leaders to assure they did it appropriately, following state and federal laws, and guidelines on legacy planning and distributing assets."
A nonprofit that closes must distribute assets to other nonprofits, must record their decision according to state laws and must inform the state where their records are archived.
"It's never easy to go through a closure process. There are emotions like those with a death," Phil said.
The synod invited Ladd and Linda Webster, a hospice chaplain who was a member when she discerned her call to ordained ministry, to be among those preaching during the last few months to help the congregation celebrate its life and process its grief.
"Our faith tells us death is not the end. There is resurrection. That is happening for organizations and ministries that received the proceeds," Phil said. "There is life after death. We urged them to find hope that God would bring something to life."
Phil said the Church at Ephesus ended as a worshiping community, but its ministry still has had impact on the world.
"Any congregation will have a legacy in the community beyond its lifespan," he said, mentioning one. "Meggan Manlove, the new synod bishop, was one of many interns the church helped shape in ministry over its years."
Phil, who served Trinity in Endicott and Peace in Colfax for eight years, joined the Synod staff in 2018 as Bethlehem was closing, and has overseen two other closures: Tree of Life Arbol de Vida, a Spanish-speaking congregation in Yakima, and St. Peter's in Spokane.
Part of Emmanuel's ministry continues in the Cheney Diakonia that has served LCSNW for decades, said Christie, who attends its monthly meetings with nearly 20 women for LCSNW.
"The Spokane Diakonia, with members from various churches, dissolved before COVID. The Cheney group continues to adopt families at Christmas, provide backpacks with school supplies, bake cookies for the Christmas gift pickup for foster children, raise about $500 in a June yard sale and help sponsor the fall fundraiser," said Christie.
Ladd, who served the church from 1989 to 1998, preached one Sunday a month in the church's final months.
"It was a vibrant, forward thinking, welcoming congregation," he said, mentioning several other legacies:
• Campus minister Sandra Kreis preached there before Lutheran women were ordained.
• Pastor Phil Maakestaad and members organized Lutheran Marriage Encounter. It became a national group.
• It supported EWU's Lutheran campus ministers. When one, George Cheney, suffered AIDS and came out as gay, members accepted him with love.
• It worked ecumenically with Cheney United Church of Christ and United Methodist, and St. Paul's Episcopal for outreach, campus ministry and a Good Friday service.
"The congregation, which did not want to be big, had an average of 99 attend worship," said Ladd.
"Members were good in the 20th century role of welcoming people who came through the door. After my first five years, half the congregation was new," said Ladd, who grew up in Kalispell, Mont., and studied biology at Pacific Lutheran University before entering Luther Seminary and serving four other churches.
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