By Jeff Brumley
Challenged by financial and membership declines, some congregations choose merger and some become satellite campuses while others sell to developers or simply close the doors and turn off the lights.
Hillcrest Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., chose none of the above.
Instead, the once-thriving church on the city’s west side has voted to gift its 4 1/2 –acre campus to Volunteers of America Southeast in exchange for worshiping there for free and for as long as they choose.
And they’ll be worshiping in style after VOA pays off the mortgage, has the campus landscaped and performs about $100,000 in long-overdue renovations.
“We’re getting more than a fair shake on this,” said Edie Daugherty, a current and founding member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church.
‘No idea what to do’
But none of it has come easily, said Greg Shoemaker, the pastor at Hillcrest.
While the process that led to the VOA deal began just over a year ago, Hillcrests’ challenges began much before that — in fact not long after its first full-time pastor, George Mason, departed for Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas in 1989.
Membership reached around 300 at that time but then began to decline steadily as the church saw a series of full- and part-time pastors come and go. Two splits also took their toll, Shoemaker said.
As the years went by, Shoemaker said, the congregation began to realize it faced the dilemma of being in a building far bigger than its now 40-member congregation required.
“It’s teaching congregations to separate the church from the real estate — and that’s far easier said than done,” Shoemaker said.
Hillcrest did finally learn that tough lesson, he said.
“They’re a great Christian, God-loving people, but they just had no idea what to do,” he said.
It also took time.
“This has been a tough process — and it’s been tough on them,” he said.
‘A church needs to be there’
The process was also complex and fraught with uncertainty.
One idea the congregation considered was gifting Hillcrest to another church. “The problem was, there are only two CBF churches in Mobile,” Shoemaker said.
Then there were commercial interests in the roughly $1.5 million property. That included a funeral home.
“But that just didn’t seem right,” he said. “Everybody said, whatever we do, a church needs to be there.”
Because several small congregations were renting space from Hillcrest, some thought the church could become a ministry incubator.
“But the problem was we would need a property manager to use the space and do a lot of renovations,” he said. That wasn’t affordable.
Then VOA expressed interest and eventually offered the all-expenses-paid deal. For a congregation with about a $90,000 a year budget, saving $30,000 to $40,000 in building upkeep annually was a huge gain.
“Now the church can put those dollars into ministry,” Shoemaker said. “They’re excited.”
‘Another dimension of service’
VOA officials said they are excited, too.
The organization will spend the next year renovating the building and preparing the grounds to become its corporate offices for VOA Southeast, which covers Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
It will also move its current ministry center and eventually launch its first hands-on ministry center on the property.
VOA, which considers itself a church dedicated to helping other churches, provides services such as housing and senior care and other social services.
“I see it adding another dimension to the services we are currently providing,” said Wallace T. Davis, president and CEO of VOA Southeast.
The organization, which has no similar arrangements with any other churches, has helped just one developing church before. The center will be its first full-blown venture into that kind of ministry, Davis said.
It won’t be a simple rental arrangement when ministries are using the Hillcrest site. In addition to space, Davis said he envisions coaches and mentors helping congregations and ministers learn to provide community-based ministries.
The agency also expressed gratitude that Hillcrest’s congregation will remain on the site.
‘Key, shaping events’
George Mason said he’s also grateful for that.
“I think it sounds like good stewardship on their part,” he said. “I love those people, and I’m grateful” the congregation is remaining on the property.
Mason said he’s had a fondness for Hillcrest because the congregation stood bravely for progressive causes in a time and place when few Baptists did.
During his four years in the pulpit there Hillcrest began electing women deacons. It also took progressive, public stances on education and other issues in Mobile.
“We began to grow and reached a point of about 250 in attendance,” Mason said.
“Those were key, shaping events for me,” he added.
Shoemaker said he also learned much from his tenure at Hillcrest, which began in August 2013.
A bivocational pastor who had helped an aging Mississippi congregation gift its building to a younger church, he and Hillcrest members quickly saw their situation as unsustainable.
Hillcrest had only another year to pay off its mortgage and had money in reserves. But membership was dropping.
“It was revitalization or merger or the math would catch up with the congregation,” he said.
Shoemaker said he will not be staying on with the church after the deal with VOA closes sometime this month.
That’s so he can focus on his full-time job in health care administration.
While it was a challenging tenure, he said he’s glad the congregation is set up for the future.
“The mood around the church has improved since the uncertainty is gone,” he said.
Looking to the future
Dougherty said she’s been optimistic about the church’s future — even when she didn’t know what it was.
But she did know all along that any solution the church found would have to involve staying in their building.
“I don’t think our congregation could have withstood a transfer anywhere else,” she said.
Much of the relief at Hillcrest comes from acceptance of their situation, she added.
“We realized we were never going to be the great big church we once were,” Dougherty said. “And now we are looking at what we need to do.”