Era of Exploration for First Presbyterian Church

A church with historic significance, a grant opportunity, and a group that could help figure out a better way to use 36,000 of underutilized square feet: the First Presbyterian Church at 7th and Capitol, known for its red front door, started off this year with a soul-searching process that could greatly benefit not only the downtown community but all of Springfield.

Flashback nine months ago: Pastor Susan Phillips was only into her new post for a few months and asking normal-new-job questions such as, “Why do we do this? What if we did that?”  Sarah Watson, a parishioner who is the Executive Director of Looking for Lincoln/ A. Lincoln National Heritage Area, read of a grant opportunity through National Heritage that was available for religious groups. The grant could bring in Partners for Sacred Places, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to the preservation and use of historic, religious sites. Phillips and Watson had a conversation.

Pastor Phillips leads a tour of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church.

Pastor Phillips says, “Members of the congregation were discussing our future – do we stay downtown and do some renovation, or move to another site? Our church is rooted in history; we cherish our tradition of social justice and have been an incubator of programs. We wanted, though, to look at how we could serve the community in new ways.”

Along with another parishioner, Mary Beth Stephens, the three realized the church was a “hidden gem in downtown,” as Stephens says.

They won the grant, which paid for Sacred Places to lead a community development process that helps identify assets, not only in the church but also in the surrounding community, called Asset Mapping.

Community leaders with a wide range of interests and positions were invited to attend a three-hour Convening session on January 19. The invitees were promised that the session wasn’t a fundraising pitch, but that they needed to bring their “energy and imagination,” Stephens says. “The program was meant to be a jumping off point for the congregation to reach back out to the community, like we used to do.”

The exterior of the oldest part of the church is shored up with beams.

The day of the Convening turned out to be one with inclement weather, but over 40 people showed up anyway. Watson says, “I was thrilled that the group showed up on a snowy, Saturday morning, all with an interest in Springfield and downtown.” The participants toured the church, many amazed at the large number of nooks and crannies–and potential. They then broke into groups to identify strengths and resources and list assets of the community, the church, and the neighborhood.

Phillips, Watson, and Stephens all share that the meeting led to wonderful discussion. People developed potential ideas how the church’s space could be used to address community needs and even started to collaborate on ideas beyond what might happen at the church itself. For example, the fact that the church’s sanctuary is 150 years old and the Lincoln family pew is on display in the lobby made attendees say that the church should include more about the Lincoln connection in Springfield tourism. (Fun fact: Only Eagle Scouts may sit on the pew.)

Ideas for space included renting out rooms for meetings, a hang-out for legislators,  space for artists-in-residence, tapping into the Homeless Outreach Team, offering counseling for homeless, and providing trainings or classes. “Whatever is decided,” Phillips says, “these activities need to help us partner in broader, deeper ways to better serve people and the community.”

To be fully utilized, the church needs renovation. There are many sections that are inaccessible and not up to ADA code. But, there are many rooms. Water availability in many rooms would make it possible to host art classes. There are offices and a library, a commons area connected to a kitchen and a kitchenette, a lounge, computer lab, even a movie theater room. Sacred Places will ultimately help the congregation figure out how the space could be upgraded and re-purposed for today’s community needs.

The next step is to present the asset mapping ideas and discussion to the congregation, receive input, review, reflect and then decide which direction(s) to take. Phillips calls this in-between period, “Rooted and Reaching.” By the end of the Sacred Places process, the congregation will have determined how to, once again, use its beautiful, historic home base to its fullest potential, reaching out to the community and partnering with other organizations.

Stephens adds, “We know it will take time, and we don’t want to lose momentum. This is a wonderful thing we’ve started.”

Cinda Ackerman Klickna is sharing her talents with the downtown community by contributing interesting stories to our blog. First Presbyterian Church is a non-profit member of DSI.

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