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Church closes building, finds rebirth

As the United Methodist denomination comes to terms with a new reality of declining attendance and aging buildings, one church in Richmond, Va., is embracing change wholeheartedly. Boulevard UMC sold their church building on March 13, 2018, after about four years of discernment.

Sarah Wilkinson, a church trustee, said the process began when the Rev. Rachel May, Boulevard UMC pastor, sought a group within the church who would be interested in talking about the future. These discussions weren't just about the property, but also about what the church's future could look like. Matt Hannay, trustee chair, said the discussion led the group to realize that the "real lives" component of their ministry couldn't be done with the numerous requirements for the upkeep of a large church facility.

"Simply having a building that opens its doors, simply existing is not being in ministry," he said.

May spent an inordinate amount of time working on facility maintenance— from learning about a 100-year-old boiler to working with a constantly flooded basement to a lack of central air and other maintenance issues.

"Are you really in ministry if the building is sapping all of your resources? Our answer was 'No we're not.' We want to be in ministry.

Once the church community decided to sell the property, the process began. The trustees realized the natural buyer would be another church. Remnant Church was the ultimate purchaser of the building.

"We were very mindful that anything we do is going to have an impact on the surrounding community, on our neighbors, on the neighborhood. We wanted it to be as much of a positive transition as possible," Wilkinson said.

The congregation began worshipping at William Fox Elementary School in November 2017, also moving from the traditional 11 a.m. hour to 4 p.m. Boulevard UMC's new home puts the congregation in the heart of the Fan District where people and families naturally gather. Even though it is a shared space, Fox Elementary has provided the congregation a chance to grow closer together. The old building seated hundreds, which left the congregation far apart from one another. The congregation averages 40 in worship.

May described the changes as a "rebirth" for Boulevard, with a new logo and signage to announce the church's presence.

"We're a pretty deep community. What we do is not surface level. Guests will say that. That's the feedback. I've never anticipated growth by leaps and bounds," May said.

The trustees do not foresee being at the elementary school indefinitely. Next steps include understanding the space needs and finding new property. The church is not looking to build. "It is important to us to stay in our neighborhood, to stay in our parish. That's something we committed ourselves to throughout this process," said Wilkinson.

The church embraces the opportunity to grow in their ministry with children and with the community.

Madeline Pillow, editor, Virginia Advocate.

One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the World Service Fund is the financial lifeline to a long list of Christian mission and ministry throughout the denomination. Through the Four Areas of Focus churches are creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations and seeking to invite people to follow Jesus Christ and grow together as disciples on a lifelong journey.

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