Southminster Presbyterian in Marietta, Woodlawn Presbyterian in Mableton and Calvary Presbyterian in Marietta will all diminish after Sunday, no longer to be recognized as churches. They will all be replaced by one larger church, not yet created, called Light of Hope Presbyterian.
All three existing church buildings are up for sale, according to the Rev. Peter Paulsen, pastor of the Southminster and Calvary churches.
“Each congregation has deep history in Cobb County, but our congregations are becoming smaller and older,” said Southminster member Beverly Pearce.
The churches have all been in Cobb County since the 1960s, and many of their members have, too.
As Paulsen and the Rev. John Spangler, pastor of Woodlawn, recognized their church members weren’t getting any younger, they began talking about joining forces. Both are at retirement age, so with the closing of the three churches, both pastors will step down and Edwin Gonzalez Gertz of Miami will minister to Light of Hope.
The congregations have seen declining membership rolls. They lack human resources, Paulsen said. They need youth and energy. The average age is 65, he said.
Paulsen said only one member of the three churches has declined to sign up as a member of the newly formed church.
“This could have been an opportunity for people to leave, but they haven’t done so,” said Paulsen, whose Southminster congregation is the largest of the three with 80 members. Calvary is home to 65 members and Woodlawn 60.
As the three churches dissolve and form Light of Hope, churchgoers will temporarily meet at Southminster, Paulsen said. The first official Light of Hope service will be on Easter, but the first meeting of all three groups will be next Sunday, which is Palm Sunday.
The Southminster church building will house the new Light of Hope congregation for no more than two years, Paulsen said. It will then move to a new location that’s not a traditional church building.
“Traditional church buildings aren’t built for ministries,” Paulsen said. “We need to add some elements to the program to make it more attractive to young families.”
The new elements will be more contemporary, but won’t stray from the “classic Presbyterian DNA,” as Paulsen put it.
Each church has promised that the site starting out at Light of Hope will only be temporary, and they intend to find a vacated building – possibly an old bookstore or Home Depot site – to draw a new crowd, Spangler said.
Gertz is aware of the change and is on board, Paulsen said. He also speaks fluent Spanish, which makes him more accessible to the Hispanic population in Cobb County.
“He has a lively personality and never meets a stranger,” Paulsen said.
Gertz has been in Cobb County since January visiting with all three congregations. He’s also been in contact with the Vision Team – a group of three members from each church who have been working together for the last three years as the voice of their churches.
Each congregation chose their own representatives for the Vision Team, Spangler said. The team discussed demographics of the area compared with that of the congregations, and found the church needed to cater to a younger age group.
“We started by learning about each other’s churches and about dissolving three churches and chartering a new church,” said Leslie Watkins, Vision Team member from Woodlawn.
The Vision Team divided into a legal business team and a mission team to tackle the social and financial aspects of the chartered church. They also brought back information to their fellow members and voiced concerns from their members to the rest of the team.
“It’s bittersweet for many, and very difficult for some,” Watkins said. “I’ve been a member at Woodlawn for more than 50 years. I got married here in April 1971, and my children were baptized here.”
People are adjusting to losing the church buildings and the pastors they’re comfortable with, but are also welcoming the new pastor and Light of Hope, she said.
“It’s emotional, but you realize it’s about more than the buildings,” Watkins said. “It’s more about God’s plan for this group of people.”
The goal is also to reach a new, younger group of people, and to reach out to the whole community, said Pat Alverson, Vision Team member from Calvary. Possible projects, with a larger, more energetic group, could include a soup kitchen, she said.
Alverson, a Calvary member since 1979, is almost all in. She said she’s 90 percent excited, but still 10 percent sad.
“This has been a small, intimate group, and that will go away,” she said. “And our minister will go away.”
But at all three churches, the members – for the most part – are ready for the change.
“The loss of your home congregation always tears at your heart a little bit, but this is a much better choice than watching the church get smaller and weaker,” Pearce said. “We’re going to emerge as a whole new beginning, and so much planning has gone in that we know this is what God really wants us to do.”