Lutheran Churches Deal With Decline

WHEELING – Struggling to fill pews as the Ohio Valley’s population continues to dwindle, several of the Wheeling area’s eight Lutheran churches are exploring ways to share resources – and possibly even consolidate – to remain viable.

In November, five of those eight churches formed the “Wheeling Futures Task Force” to develop a strategy for the future, said Helen Harms, assistant to Bishop Ralph Dunkin of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Task force members will share their work and discuss possible recommendations during a town meeting from 2-4 p.m. Sunday at the Ohio County Public Library on 16th Street in Wheeling.

Congregations represented on the task force include Edgwood Lutheran Church in Woodsdale, First English Lutheran Church downtown, Trinity Lutheran Church in South Wheeling, Zion Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and St. Matthew Lutheran Church on Boggs Run Road in Benwood. St. James in downtown Wheeling, St. Mark in Elm Grove and Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mozart have chosen not to participate, Harms said.

Aging congregations and aging buildings are the Lutherans’ primary challenges in the Wheeling area, according to Harms.

“Both (Dunkin) and I have been hearing from people all over that we need to do something,” she said.

Consolidation could take one of three forms: combining into one or more more existing churches; building one or more new, combined churches on existing property; or purchasing other property, building new and selling off the existing sites. An alternative to consolidation would involve sharing pastors and staff among the existing churches.

Or, Harms noted, the task force could recommend maintaining the status quo if members can’t agree on a viable plan. She said the synod can’t force any changes on individual congregations.

“Our congregations decide what is going to happen,” she said. “A task force can only make recommendations.”

Harms said the task force plans to issue a recommendation by Sept. 15 and will decide by Oct. 1 whether to continue discussion. Individual congregations would vote on whatever plan the task force puts forth by January, with any substantive changes unlikely before March.

Harms said there has been discussion privately of which churches would remain in operation under any consolidation plan.

However, there is a wide gulf between attendance figures at two of the task force churches and the other three.

Attendance at Zion and Edgwood averages 50-70 per service, while First English, Trinity and St. Matthew average about 20 worshippers per service, Harms said.

“This isn’t just about survival. … In whatever we pull together, we will have a Lutheran presence in the valley that will be more in tune and responsive to younger generations of people,” she said.

The Aug. 18 town meeting is open to the public, Harms said.