Seattle is famous for not going to church. According to one study, Seattle has the second highest rate of residents who once went to church, but don’t anymore.
But Seattle has a lot of historic churches. They cost a lot of money to keep up – money the churches don’t have. So some of them are closing down.
The University Christian Church in the University District is a big cathedral-like space. The main sanctuary opened in 1928. The church members at the time mortgaged their houses to pay for it. But the church is selling the building to a developer because its members can’t afford to maintain it anymore.
Bob Tanac has attended this church with his wife for more than 60 years. He’s been a greeter for 20.
Tanac said that the sanctuary is built to hold 1,200 congregants, plus more in the balcony. But in recent years, the church has struggled to attract 50 people to services.
“Sometimes it was 44,” Tanac said. Tanac would greet them cheerfully, he said, hoping that visitors would return again. They seldom did.
One chronic problem with older churches: They have a lot of maintenance costs, and it takes a lot of money to patch the roof and keep them heated or cooled.
“We had to make a choice between heating it in the winter times,” said Marsha Tolon, who’s been coming to the University Christian Church since 1984.
“Sometimes, it was just overburdened to heat the whole sanctuary so we’d move ourselves into a smaller room for worship where it doesn’t take as much to make the people who’ve gathered more comfortable,” Tolon said.
Then, there's the organ. The organist, David Barela, said that for many years the church's Casavant organ was the biggest organ in Seattle. Now, the instrument needs a major rebuild.
The church sanctuary is up for sale now. It held its last church service in June. Part of the money from the sale will fund an endowment to support the social service providers who used to rent discounted space in the church offices.
The church’s pastor helped his congregants process the loss. “Christ continues to be present in our lives,” former University Christian Church pastor Adam Harmon told them. “Even during a change like this, and the grief of moving on and leaving a location like this that we have been at for more than a century.”
Money from the church sale will help them move into the next chapter.
Another church in Lake City was facing similar issues, Tolon told KUOW. It had a newer building, but also had a small congregation that struggled with costs. That church had been searching for a partner that might be able to join forces.
“We (…) sort of dated for a while to understand whether we could work together and join into a new church,” Tolon said. The relationship seemed to work, and Tolon said the two churches plan to merge.
That gives Tolon and other congregants a sense of optimism about the future. Or, in Tolon’s words, that “you can be a part of a community where you still fit in.”