A Good Death: A Legacy of Hope and New Life

Ministry can continue after a church closes


The End is Near

The closing of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sandusky, Ohio, will soon be official.*  Its congregation council needs to provide for a disposition of remaining assets.  Then, congregational records will be submitted to the office of the Northwestern Ohio Synod.  And finally, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office in Columbus will be notified that St. Paul is ceasing operations.  St. Paul joins hundreds of Christian congregations across America that have done the same.  A Lifeway Research study shows that, in the year 2019, before the pandemic, some 3,000 Protestant congregations in America opened, but some 4,500 congregations closed.

But, is St. Paul dying a “good death”?  Have its leaders striven to give St. Paul “opportunity for new life,” if no longer as a congregation, perhaps in another way?  I think the answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!”  

A Matter of Responsible Stewardship

The “opportunity for new life” has certainly been a theme for some of the remnant of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, Sandusky, for many months now.  With dwindling operating funds, St. Paul sold its building in the fall of 2021, and its people held their last worship service there in October of that year.  Some of the St. Paul remnant have now joined another congregation in town, Zion Lutheran Church.  

Instead of spending its assets down to the last dollar, St. Paul is seeking to do something new for Christ Jesus, His Church, God’s Kingdom, and our local community by sharing the approximately $1 million remaining after the sale of the building. Since taking up Zion as a new home, some of the St. Paul remnant have welcomed Zion’s participation in looking at new ways of being church with a fresh focus on outreach.  The intent is to bring the Good News to people where they are, or, as one Christian innovation organization, Fresh Expressions, puts it, to be “church for people who don’t go to church.”  

Bringing Good News Churchwide 

A solid resource for this new work of bringing the Good News to people where they are has been the “Faithful Innovation” initiative of “Faith+Lead” at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Luther Seminary is helping set the pace for envisioning and building for the future our Lord’s Church. We are already benefiting locally from the work of “Faith+Lead,” and St. Paul’s council has made a legacy gift from its remaining assets to Luther Seminary for the furtherance of “Faith+Lead.” 

Out of the grief surrounding the end of more than a century of ministry at St. Paul, we look to the future with hope, trust, and a desire to seek new ways of spreading the gospel. It is Easter season, a time for hope of life beyond death. 

Bringing Good News Locally

Through our gift to Luther Seminary and what, by the Spirit’s guidance, we will be able to do locally with the remainder of what St. Paul will leave behind, the congregation will live on. It is likely that as early as November, the Lutheran Memorial Home in our community, which closed in 2017 and was reopened to provide additional beds during the pandemic, will be repurposed for a new adult day care program. Details are still forthcoming, but there’s the possibility that St. Paul’s legacy money could be used in some way to help reactivate a facility that St. Paul, Zion, and seven other area Lutheran congregations created more than four decades ago.  

The intent of St. Paul’s council is to make its remaining assets available for this and similar local projects in the coming months and years through legacy fund grants. An advisory group of former St. Paul members will receive grant requests for Christ-centered outreach in the greater Sandusky area. The council’s intent is to be faithful to the Lord and to the many people who, for some 130 years, called St. Paul “home.”  

Endings and new beginnings: We trust in the promise that God’s love is deep and wide enough to encompass them both. As Christians, we are living not just through a period of significant change, but one of death and resurrection. We give thanks for the Holy Spirit’s steadfast presence as we walk together into this new era.

*=This article was written as St. Paul prepared to close permanently in 2023.

  • Phil Gardner

    Phil Gardner is a retired pastor in Sandusky, Ohio, who has been serving as an advisor to the Congregation Council of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, Sandusky, home church of his wife, Janet. With St. Paul closing and some of its members transferring to Zion, Sandusky, Phil is working with the leadership and laity at Zion toward repurposing themselves for contemporary outreach. Zion is employing resources from both Faith+Lead (Faithful Innovation) and Fresh Expressions to move forward in mission as it enters the process to call a new pastor.

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