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Choose life

By selling its building and locating in a senior center, a church experiences resurrection

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Heritage Presbyterian Church in Muskego, Wis., discovered new life by taking its water service on the road to raise awareness and funds for a clean water project in Ribe, Kenya. (Photo by Michelle Henrichs)

LOUISVILLE — Heritage Presbyterian Church in Muskego, Wis. has a resurrection story to tell.

At the beginning it might sound familiar to many Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.  The membership was graying and in decline.  Of the 100 members on the rolls, between 30-40 came to worship.

In 2015, the Rev. Michelle Henrichs joined them, providing pulpit supply for five months.  Ordained, and trained as a new worshiping community leader, she began asking members of the congregation, “When were you were most energetic and excited about church?”

Their most common answer: “When we were raising our children.”

In particular, they talked about one of their last youth-led worship services.  In 2014, Heritage’s remaining youth and youth from another congregation set to merge with Heritage (the merger fell through) had raised money for a clean water mission project in Ribe, Kenya.

The congregation loved the creativity on display during the “water service” — and the opportunity to do good in the world through a partnership with the sponsor of the project, Carroll University, a Presbyterian-related school in Waukesha.

Now Heritage’s lament was, “We can’t do it anymore. All of our children are gone.”

Henrichs replied, “Why can’t we?”

While Heritage was trying to imagine what church might look like in new ways — which included how the church might use the water service in the future — congregants were also trying unsuccessfully to fix their water supply, which was unsafe to drink.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources gave Heritage one year to either hook up to city water, which was financially infeasible for the church, or lose its occupancy permit. After trying several fixes, including digging a new well, the church was running out of options.  Realizing their transformation would not happen in the building, members voted to sell all of the church’s real estate.

Before moving, Heritage did a final treatment on its well, making their water suitable again per DNR guidelines.

But heading into 2016, the question Heritage faced now was, “Where will we go?”

Henrichs, who by then had a part-time contract with Heritage, began holding monthly services around grief and loss.  As congregants spent time together letting go, they decided to experience life together, regardless of the uncertainty.

“Above all else, the members of this congregation loved each other,” Henrichs said. “Seeing the life and transformation — it is like a living miracle.”

Instead of demanding answers to their questions of “Why can’t we?” and “Where will we go?” Heritage decided to experiment.  One Sunday the church cancelled worship entirely. Ruling elders took groups to four different congregations who worship in non-traditional spaces.

And three times in 2016 and 2017, Heritage members began leading their water service worship at other churches, raising awareness and funds for the Ribe project in Kenya.  When Heritage’s final parcel of land sold in 2017, the church structured its service into a prayer and put it to music. All told, Heritage raised $5,500 for the water project, with $4,000 matched by another congregation.

The Rev. Michelle Henrichs leads Heritage Presbyterian Church’s first communion service at Tudor Oaks Senior Living Community on Pentecost in 2016. (Photo by Craig Howard)

One of the places where Heritage led its water service worship was the Tudor Oaks Senior Living Community. That’s where Heritage eventually relocated, renting a room for office space and the theater on Sundays and for special occasions. The first worship at Tudor was on Pentecost Sunday in 2016.

After the Ribe water project was completed, Heritage transitioned to a new mission partner in 2018. Ezekiel Hope trains and employs the unemployed and the underemployed, including people formerly incarcerated, to rehabilitate homes in Milwaukee, which are then sold to first- time home buyers.  Leading worship at seven churches last year with its “shelter service,” Heritage raised nearly $15,000, including $10,000 in matching gifts.

This year, Heritage is working with The Women’s Center of Waukesha, which provides safety, shelter and support to people impacted by domestic abuse, sexual violence and trafficking.

They’ve already been to four churches (counting Tudor Oaks) — including the largest and smallest congregations in the Presbytery of Milwaukee— and have raised $3,400.

The entire congregation goes out on these lay-led worship/mission services now, which are led by Heritage music director Connie Fellows. Friends who are invited by Heritage members often bring additional friends and youth who want to help. A liturgist and worship supply person stay back at Tudor Oaks to hold worship for the 20-25 seniors who come. Even though they’re not church members, Heritage considers the residents part of its worshiping community.

“We consistently have new residents moving in who join us,” Henrichs said. “Often they come with family members.”

Heritage just made a multiyear commitment to its worship service mission partners — increasing support from $20,000 to $35,000 in 2019 — followed by commitments of $40,000 in 2020 and $45,000 in 2021.

“We’ve got another good 10 years, so we keep asking, ‘How do we want to live?'” Henrichs said. “It will be sad when we close, but we’re living what we believe God is calling us to now. Instead of self-preservation, we are making a difference in our community, touching people through mission.”

In 2012, the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) declared a commitment to the churchwide movement to encourage the creation of 1001 worshiping communities over the next 10 years. At a grassroots level, nearly 500 diverse new worshiping communities have been formed.

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