One of Kent’s oldest churches is closing, leaving behind a historic house of worship and questions about its future.
First Presbyterian Church of Kent, a part of the local faith community since 1889, performs its final service at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The decision to close was a difficult one for church leaders.
Rich in history and service, the church on East Hill and its aging congregation have arrived at a crossroads – a situation fraught by dwindling membership and financial hard times, according to Eyde Mabanglo, the church’s transitional pastor.
Membership is down to 57 members, many of whom having been with the church for 40 or 50 years and since retired, leaving only a few to financially carry the congregation.
Furthermore, the church, built in 1962, has aged to a point that it is outdated and too expensive to maintain.
“It’s been a difficult journey for them,” Mabanglo said of the close-knit congregation. “They were in a much more critical place than they had realized.
“Our final worship service many hope will be celebratory, and yet it’s hard for some members to not see it as a memorial,” she said.
First Presbyterian Church, 9425 S. 248th St., is not alone. Aging churches with small congregations have closed throughout the country, yielding to changing times and declining attendance.
According to a recent study by the Barna Group – an evangelical Christian polling firm – there has been an ongoing silent migration away from today’s churches. The majority of individuals who are leaving churches say they no longer feel connected, the report said. Today’s millennials also have very different preferences and perspectives of what churches should look like compared to their parents, the report added.
The Barna Group reports that the average size of a church congregation in America is just 89 adults. That means for each church door that closes, nearly 100 people are left without a spiritual home.
Mabanglo has encouraged members of the congregation to take some time before finding a new house of worship.
For Emil Drivdahl, 80, who has attended the First Presbyterian Church of Kent since the late ’70s and helps maintain the building and its grounds today, the decision to close the doors is a painful one.
Reluctant at first, Drivdahl and other members have gradually come to terms with the closure.
“We suddenly realized we are in financial trouble … that help has not come,” Drivdahl said. “Then I became convinced that if we allowed for things to go on, it would be more painful to try to delay than just to get it over with because the handwriting is on the wall, I guess.”
At one time, the church was one of Kent’s strongest in terms of fellowship with its many services and outreach. It’s a tradition, a role it has played – albeit on a smaller scale – in the community today. The church has long been a welcomed home to service groups and organizations.
The congregation has been dealing with a grieving process in wake of the looming closure. Remaining members regard fellow parishioners as family.
Drivdahl said some members were unwilling to let go of the church. Years of hard work and commitment have built a legacy at the church.
“It’s extremely rough for them,” he said. “It’s hard to deal with, and they keep asking, ‘Why didn’t we try harder? Did we explore all the alternatives? Did we explore a merger? … Did we explore returning to be a missional church, so that we can rebuild?’ Those are good questions. And a lot of the older folks feel that really wasn’t followed up on properly.”
But Mabanglo opened the books to discover the struggling church was in much worse shape financially than it realized.
Seattle Presbytery, the regional authority for the church and the property owner, will take a long and careful look at the future of the church and the 5-acre parcel it sits on. Seattle Presbytery executive Scott Lumsden said the church will do “what’s in the best interest” of the church as it moves forward. Theoretically, Seattle Presbytery could maintain ownership of the church, lease the space to another worship group, or sell.
Lumsden and Mabanglo said other church groups have expressed an interest in the building.
But, for now, Lumsden and church leaders are sensitive to the loss of the outgoing congregation.
“These are always difficult situations for congregations,” he said. “We’re concerned about the congregation, first and foremost, and the decision that they made to close is one we want to honor.”
New beginning for others
Groups that have a special interest in the church’s future are KentHOPE, a nonprofit group working to end homelessness in the community, and its partner, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM). The organizations have been working with city and Kent First Presbyterian leaders on plans to build a 24/7 resource center to shelter homeless women and children. The overnight center would sit on an undeveloped 1-acre parcel of the property, just east of the church.
Dave Mitchell, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission chief operating officer, said his group has been working with Seattle Presbytery to establish a long-term lease agreement, with the possibility of an option-to-buy arrangement.
Zoning for the proposed emergency housing facility has been approved and preliminary architectural drawings have been done, Mitchell said. The capital fundraising campaign goal is $2.5 million, KentHOPE and UGM leaders said.
The new center would double in occupancy, up to 60, from KentHOPE’s nearby existing day shelter for women and children at 9009 Canyon Dr. Day shelter operations and overnight shelter services that various churches now share would transfer to the new center.
“It’s a good legacy for the church. We expect it to move forward,” said Susan Sommerman, KentHOPE board chair.
Mabanglo and the closing congregation would like to see Seattle Presbytery support the project and see to its fruition.
“Even in the their closing, (there’s) something beginning,” Mabanglo said of ushering in the new shelter.
Lumsden said Seattle Presbytery plans to support the project.