Churches abandon shared space Baptists, Lutherans to build facilities of their own

October 31, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Twenty years ago, the concept of several congregations sharing a worship space worked well, saving land and money and promoting James W. Rouse's ideals for his planned city of Columbia. Now, two of the community's oldest congregations are leaving Wilde Lake Interfaith Center amid tensions among religious leaders.

In three to five years, St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church plans to build a 27,000-square-foot church on 45 acres at U.S. 40 and Marriottsville Road in Ellicott City. St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church is pursuing the purchase of 8 to 12 acres in Clarksville or Ellicott City to build its church.

The departures from the interfaith center begin Sunday -- St. John Baptist will meet at Atholton High School on Freetown Road in Columbia; St. John Lutheran will meet at Atholton Seventh-day Adventist Church on Martin Road in Columbia.

Though there clearly are tensions at the interfaith center over alleged promises by departing congregations to help pay for $1 million worth of renovations, the Rev. Richard H. Tillman of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church -- all adopted the name St. John as a show of unity 20 years ago -- denied rumors of pending lawsuits.

"That's nonsense," he said. "This is a family matter that we will discuss in-house, as a family."

Beyond that, leaders of the two congregations remaining at the center -- the Roman Catholics and the United Methodist/Presbyterians -- declined to comment yesterday on the departures.

The Rev. Robert A. F. Turner of St. John Baptist and the Rev.

Joel Morgan of St. John Lutheran said they hoped their departures would not end up in court.


"If there is [a lawsuit], that would be disappointing," said Morgan, who has been the pastor at St. John Lutheran for 10 years. "I think this is an opportunity for [Catholic and United Methodist/Presbyterian leaders] to talk about what interfaith centers have been and what they will become."

As part of the next 20-year lease -- the first one expires today -- each congregation was asked to contribute a portion of the estimated $1 million worth of renovations to the interfaith center. The Catholics were to pay 55 percent of the costs and the remaining congregations were to pay 15 percent each.

In board meetings, Turner said, tensions mounted when discussions arose about congregations leaving the center. "The more congregations there were to balance the costs, the more affordable the renovations were going to be. Now there will be fewer to pay for it," Turner said.

Different reasons

The reasons for leaving the Wilde Lake center -- one of four such centers in Columbia -- differ for the two congregations.

For the Baptists, rapid growth has more than doubled the size of their congregation in the past five years, creating a need for more worship and meeting space. For the Lutherans, stagnant growth in the congregation has made it difficult to make required tTC payments for the center's upkeep.

Both congregations' leaders agree they are tired of sharing space in the center, which has a 6,000-square-foot auditorium for Catholic Masses and a 4,300-square-foot area for Protestant services, plus 14 meeting rooms.

On any given Sunday, there is a regimented schedule of back-to-back services for each room and a crowded parking lot.

"There was always friction going on about who was using what space and when," Turner said. "The interfaith concept did not work as effectively as it could have. It did not reach its ideal potential."


Columbia's developer, Rouse, created four interfaith centers -- the largest collection in the country -- to save money and promote religious understanding.

The walls were to be bare of religious symbols to prevent offending those of other faiths. It was thought that congregations could save money by pooling office supplies and other resources.

As Columbia's congregations have grown and become more established and affluent, more of them are looking to build their own freestanding structures, religious leaders said.

"There's no doubt the interfaith center concept is not as powerful as it used to be 30 years ago," said retired Rabbi Martin Siegel. "The idea of sharing has been undermined. People are going back to traditional buildings that reflect themselves, so they can say, 'This is my building. I built it.' "

In Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, St. John Roman Catholic Church -- the largest congregation at the center -- pays about 55 percent of the costs for upkeep of the 31,400-square-foot facility, according to the expiring 20-year lease. The other three congregations pay about 15 percent a year.

The Lutheran congregation decided Sunday to leave the center -- reversing a 2-week-old decision to stay -- after the national Lutheran Church fund-raising arm refused to lend the congregation $100,000.

New members

By moving to faster-growing areas such as Clarksville or Ellicott City, congregational leaders hope to attract new members whose contributions would eventually pay for a new church.

"The portion we were paying for building costs was so much more than what we were bringing into the offering plate," said Conrad Sump of St. John Lutheran. "It was a heart-wrenching decision, but money is money."

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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