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Memphis church finds new life, ministries in storefront

 

Evergreen Presbyterian Church pastor: ‘I’m glad [members] were bold enough to take that leap’

July 14, 2024

Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, is writing a new chapter not only in a nontraditional place, but with new friends and missions. (Photo courtesy of Evergreen Presbyterian Church)

Membership had gone from 1,400 to about 160 over the decades. Maintaining a 10-acre campus, with a tall-steeple sanctuary built in 1950, drained money and energy. Church leaders struggled with the implications of closing or merging.

It’s not a new story.

However, Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, is writing a new chapter not only in a nontraditional place, but with new friends and missions.

Longtime member Susan Bransford, whose husband, Roger, served for years on the property and grounds committee, said the congregation made many efforts to lower operating costs.

The sanctuary, gym and education building proved too much to maintain. Discussions about selling the property to the neighboring, Presbyterian-affiliated Rhodes College went on for years.

“We were bleeding money,” Bransford said. “It was very obvious it needed to happen.”

Other members were not ready to let go. But one older member, the wife of an influential former pastor, urged the congregation to move on.

Evergreen in 2013 participated in the Presbyterian Foundation’s Project Regeneration. This program helps congregations deal with property and other transitions and discern God’s call in writing their next chapter.

Eleven years ago, Evergreen Presbyterian Church sold its former building to Rhodes College, which has since transformed it into a concert hall. (Contributed photo)

The congregation voted that year to sell its property to the college, which has since turned the gymnasium into a bookstore and the sanctuary into a concert hall.

Evergreen member Mark Hamilton, who led the committee in charge of the sale, said the property could likely have brought in more money on the commercial market. But Rhodes let Evergreen stay for 27 months, rent-free, while it looked for a new home. An afterschool program moved to a nearby public school; the preschool, to another church.

The congregation, then under the leadership of the Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb, tried out different worship spaces for a couple of years. It ultimately decided to use some of the proceeds from the property to purchase its current building in 2016.

“We ended up buying a storefront, which is what everybody absolutely agreed they did not want,” Bransford said.

Yet here Evergreen is in a modest single-story space that, from the street, looks like it could house anything from a dry cleaner to an independent bookshop.

Inside are rows of carefully arranged chairs, a multicolored banner with the word “joy,” and a metal sculpture hanging from the ceiling with delicate, flying birds. Abundant natural light flows in through what used to be store windows.

“It looks spiritual, but not like a church,” Bransford said.

The Rev. Patrick Harley

That less-churchy vibe turned out to be much more welcoming for those who have been turned off or even harmed by traditional churches, especially Millennials, Gen Z and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Taking “the church isn’t the building” further: “We’ve been known to close down and go somewhere else on a Sunday,” she added — another congregation or a park, for example. They brought Holy Communion to an area where many are unhoused.

“There was something maybe freeing about changing the physical space that none of us foresaw.”

The church rents out its space for meetings, concerts, art exhibits and other events. It has a long-term tenant in the same building, a counseling agency working primarily with those living with HIV/AIDS.

These rentals are an important source of income, said the Rev. Patrick Harley, Evergreen’s pastor since 2020. Relatively little is spent on the building.

Hamilton, the current church treasurer, said the congregation still faces the same challenges as other churches in the Presbytery of the Mid-South in generating enough pledge income to cover operating expenses.

The rental income and investment income from the remaining proceeds from the property sale cover the shortfall in Evergreen’s operating budget, he said. The goal is to increase membership and pledges to cover all operating expenses.

“I don’t think Evergreen is alone in facing that our Baby Boomer-aged members are funding a high percentage of our pledge income,” Hamilton said.

However, the congregation’s overall financial health is sound. “We continue to find ways to serve our greater community as an inclusive and affirming church.”

Nancy Crowe for the Presbyterian Foundation, Special to Presbyterian News Service

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Sunday, July 14, 2024, the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Today’s Focus: Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Memphis finds new life

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Troy Marables, Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources, Presbyterian Foundation 
Michael Marrone, Vice President, Strategic Planning & Execution, Board of Pensions

Let us pray

Heavenly Father, in all that we say and do, may we reflect Christ’s love for people everywhere. Help us all to look beyond our differences and concentrate on the commonalities we share as your children. Amen.


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