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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.’

by Nancy Crowe for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

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, weighed in.

“She stood up in a meeting and said, ‘I love this building a lot. I love the memories, but it’s time to move on.’ And she made all the difference in the world,” Bransford said.

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.

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.

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

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.

Still Evergreen

“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.

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.”

A new income stream

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.

The Rev. Patrick Harley

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.”

The Rev. Sandra Moon, the Foundation’s Ministry Relations Officer for the Cumberland Region, said Evergreen gives her hope.

“Just to see the joy on Rev. Harley’s face when he talks about his congregation, and how they’re utilizing their space as part of their ministry — it was the perfect solution to ‘what do we do with a large, aging church building that no longer suits our needs?’” she said.

Not all congregations will be able to do what Evergreen has done, Moon said. Though the process was lengthy, Evergreen had an ideal buyer in Rhodes College and a congregation willing to make a major change.

“But it does give hope for what can happen if a congregation is willing to put the time and energy into intentionally and faithfully discerning where God is calling them to go,” she said.

A progressive identity

Harley arrived in the early months of Covid. For a time, he led worship in the storefront sanctuary by himself via Zoom.

“It was several months before I realized most of the folks hadn’t been in the renovated space much at all,” he recalled. “It was June 2021 before we were actually inside.”

What Harley found in Evergreen was “a willingness to experiment with how we do church, how we worship, being more involved in mission and justice work and an identity that’s more openly progressive.”

The congregation participates in local Pride events and the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH).

That’s helped attract new, younger members — and not necessarily alienated more seasoned ones, noted Harley, a Millennial himself.

“There are folks in their 80s who were like, ‘No, I’m down for this new thing. Let’s go,’ which was really cool,” Harley said.

Behold, a new thing

The church in February hosted Guns to Gardens, an opportunity to safely and anonymously surrender firearms. Guns were dismantled on-site with a chop saw to be transformed into garden tools.

Artists from the Metal Museum, Moore Tech and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis also created art from the disassembled gun parts at the Metal Petals + Healing Roots event a month later. The creations were displayed at the church.

Making petals out of gun metal, like any transition, takes work.

Harley said it would have been very easy for Evergreen to merge with another congregation or just disperse. Members cared enough, and were stubborn enough, to put time and effort into creating something new.

“It’s something really incredible that we’re getting to do and be here,” he said. “I’m grateful [members]were bold enough to take that leap. A lot of mainline churches don’t like doing that.”

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