TREASURE ISLAND — In recent years, shifting migration patterns and changing demographics have forced some area churches to make difficult decisions. A few have closed, and others have merged, trying to adapt to changing neighborhoods and cultures.
For two small Lutheran congregations, Holy Comforter on Treasure Island and Garden of Peace of St. Petersburg, the solution has been to join forces. This summer, the two congregations will officially consolidate their membership and financial resources to become Paradise Lutheran Church.
"This is quite exciting,'' said the Rev. Rita Gardner Tweed of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "They're uniting in mission. These congregations have a lot in common.''
Members of the two churches have been worshiping at Holy Comforter's waterfront property, 10255 Paradise Blvd., since September and expect to make their union official in July.
Their solution to dwindling membership comes at a time when many congregations are scrambling for members, particularly the much-coveted young family.
A recent report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, states that one in four Americans ages 18-29 are not affiliated with any religion.
The survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life also states that with barely 51 percent of Americans reporting membership in Protestant denominations, the nation "is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country.''
Losses to the Catholic Church, the survey states, are being offset only by immigration.
Congregations are developing new approaches to cope with the reality, including changing music styles and reaching out to growing immigrant populations.
"We have been looking at doing ministries in different ways, '' Gardner Tweed said. "Congregations are needing to change to be relevant in culture.''
Leaders of Holy Comforter and Garden of Peace say they are optimistic.
"My hopes are that we will find new ways to praise and worship and serve God,'' said Sharon
Koelsch, who has belonged to Holy Comforter since 1969 and is a member of the congregations' joint leadership committee.
She said she is seeing results from the pending consolidation.
"Garden of Peace brought an adult choir, a bell choir, some younger families, including children, and they brought their social ministry projects,'' she said.
Holy Comforter had been in "survival mode'' for a long time and had little extra money for outreach projects, she said. It also didn't have a choir.
By all accounts, Holy Comforter, which has 40 active members and 16 associate members on its rolls, owes its survival over the past couple of years to a group of tenacious leaders who kept the church together without a permanent minister.
In its early years, the late 1950s and early 1960s, Holy Comforter had about 200 members, Koelsch said.
As the years went on, she said, "Our membership was stuck at about 120 and then it steadily decreased.''
Facing similar challenges, Garden of Peace sold its sprawling campus at 61st Street and 22nd Avenue N, near Tyrone Square Mall, to Central Christian Church.
"We had gone down in membership and we could no longer maintain the church and premises. We were down to less than 150,'' said Chris Lillich, who joined Garden of Peace 30 years ago and also is part of the joint leadership committee.
After selling its property for $2.4-million in 2006, Garden of Peace shared space with St. Vincent's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg.
The hope was that the arrangement would lead to a permanent partnership, similar to a groundbreaking Lutheran/Episcopal congregation formed in Fort Myers several years ago. That plan ended with the departure of both the Lutheran and Episcopal pastors. Garden of Peace approached Holy Comforter.
In September, 67 members of the Garden of Peace congregation moved to Holy Comforter. A dozen former members have joined them since, Lillich said.
"Our hopes are that we can build a larger congregation and continue with the work that we have already been doing,'' Lillich said. "We hope to build our choir up, and we want to start having youth programs here and generally evangelize and get more members."
Church members will rely heavily on the Rev. John R. Thompson, whom they recently hired. A pastor for 30 years, Thompson said the consolidation — church officials say it's not a "merger" — is the first such arrangement in which he has been involved.
"I have served two churches at one time. It wasn't two churches coming into the same place,'' he said. "It's very rewarding for me. Everybody started on an equal footing with me, so I think that maybe helps them as well.''
With a new constitution to write and documents to be filed with the state, the congregations hope to make a July 1 deadline for consolidation.
"I think we're on target,'' Thompson said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.