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Minimalism and the Congregation

The growing trend toward minimalism and letting go of items, as popularized by such shows as "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo," has enticed many to downsize and de-clutter. Churches are not exempt from this change, and some are taking active measures to find new life in their own body that goes beyond the trappings of a building. Much like minimalism can remind individuals of what truly adds value to life, churches who are minimizing also assess what is truly valuable to their communities. 

Trinity United Methodist Church (Trinity UMC) is one of those congregations that recently moved from its facility that had been home for 90 years in the northwestern Seattle area. The leaders and members of Trinity UMC made the difficult decision to respond to their own congregation's strains and how they can better breathe new life into their surrounding community. Trinity temporarily operates out of an event center nearby until they find their next – and likely downsized home.

"To experience new life means you have to let go of some stuff, and that's hard, with tensions, anxieties, and uncertainties, to say goodbye to something that served us well," said Aaron Strietzel, pastor of Trinity UMC. "It has served us well, and it no longer serves us in the same way and might be holding us back in the next season. It's a nomadic season for us."

Strietzel, who began his pastoral leadership role at Trinity last July, has helped guide the congregation through the move. When Strietzel came to Seattle from a church in Arizona, Trinity had already decided to move. Trinity's previous 90-year-old building has many amenities: a sanctuary seating 400-plus, a gym, and three stories – all of which amounted to what would be $2 million in maintenance over the next 10 years.

The congregation, averaging 50-70 people each week, knew something had to be done. Members did not want to rest on the resources they have and deplete them for the sake of building upkeep. The work of minimizing began immediately, as the building sold remarkably quickly. This past January, Trinity sold items, gave others away, and took with them what they felt was necessary for the next phase.

Todd Shively, Trinity member and chair of the building committee, said it's one thing to talk about the need, and another to actually commit to such a big move. "Once somebody is standing over the trash with something, literally, and making the decision to keep it or dump it, and bless it on its way."

"Imagine three stories of stuff, 90 years of ministry," said Strietzel, who added Trinity held two sales in the gym and used eight "Got Junk" trucks to haul other items away. "Most of your time and energy is used on maintaining a building, and we just casted that weight off. We can meet on Sundays and not have that heaviness."

Strietzel noted that February was a month for rest, and March is a time for reflection on who Trinity wants to be in the community. "Our push for this idea is that churches everywhere are declining, and we have to do something different," he said. "We have a chunk of money and we have the freedom to be as nimble as we can, whereas for a lot of churches, if they think about selling, it's already too late."

Trinity's work has allowed the body to take its time to consider what's next. Members will start by dreaming together and listening deeply with the larger community to determine how a new space will be helpful for the community. The congregation's endeavor involves asking pertinent questions of identity and purpose.

"What called us, what carried us through this time to give countless hours and endure significant stress," said Shively, "and all of this effort for no compensation other than the joy of giving to community, motivated by the call to do the Spirit's work?"

Shively said he is not looking for quick and easy answers to those questions. He added Trinity is exploring options of how the worshiping space can also be used as a place for mission and other possibilities to build community relationships.

"Is church a place where we come to isolate ourselves, or can it be a base camp for us to use to go out and spend the time doing the true work of the church? We're going to explore that," said Shively. "What if we went out into the community and then come back on a Sunday to talk about what we did, the way we were impacted and the way we represented God in those times and places? That's accessible church."

Want to learn how churches are reaching outside of the box? Check out our innovative communities section. And stay up to date on new developments by signing up for our Compass enewsletter.

Scott Klepach, Jr. is a hospital chaplain and licensed local pastor in the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church, where he also serves as conference communications convener. He holds a Master of Arts (English) and a Master of Divinity degree and has taught English at several institutions of higher learning. He loves running, writing, studying, and spending time with his two children, Elise and Liam, and his partner in marriage, Mack.