Calling it a "death with dignity," parishioners and leaders at the First Baptist Church in Palo Alto are preparing to close one of the city's oldest churches and sell its steepled North California Avenue building.
The pending closure of First Baptist Church, which has been in existence for 126 years, follows decades of steady decline in the size of the congregation, according to Rev. Randle Mixon, the church's pastor. In its heyday, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the church had a congregation of 600 to 700 people, Mixon said. By the time Mixon joined the church 13 years ago, the average attendance for services was close to 60. Today, it's about 25.
"We just aged out," Mixon told the Weekly. "The congregation has continued to shrink to a relatively small number of people. Most of the people are older and we don't really have a strong leadership pool to draw from to lead the church in the future."
Mixon said the church has tried numerous initiatives to revitalize its operations. When he came to First Baptist, there was talk about a possible federation with another local church — a partnership in which the institutions would share resources — and even a potential merger. That plan failed to advance.
More recently, the church had ramped up its outreach to the broader community, sending people out to talk to residents "where they are," rather than inviting them to come to the church, Mixon said. While this program introduced the church to more people, the congregation didn't grow. (It didn't help that the outreach worker, Gregory Stevens, who resigned last year after sending out a series of vulgar tweets, some of which called Palo Alto "disgusting" and "elitist.")
Facing an existential challenge, the church hired a consultant a year ago to assess its prospects. After talking to dozens of community members and leaders of other churches, the consultant determined that while First Baptist could function for several more years, the church would not be sustainable — both in terms of people power and financial resources — in the long term, Mixon said.
The problem facing the congregation, he said, are not unique to First Baptist.
"I believe we're in an age and a place where fewer and fewer people are looking for a traditional church," Mixon said. "And while we may be one of the first of the mainstream churches in Palo Alto to fold our tent, I'd say other churches are wrestling with what we're wrestling with."
In mid-20th century, the church was where the community gathered, people came to network and children went for activities.
"We now live in an age and place where there are so many different things that in a sense we compete with — from soccer to music to all kinds of groups and activities — that the church generally is no longer seen as the community center. It's not the principle place where people gather like it used to be."
What comes next?
Now that the decision to close the church has been made, First Baptist leaders are exploring their options for selling church assets and giving away the proceeds from the sale. A church committee has been working on putting together a list of "legacy recipients" who would get contributions ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 each. Those on the higher end of the range include the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto, Kids in Need of Defense (which offers legal services to immigrant children) and Habitat for Humanity, according to the list compiled by the church committee.
Mixon said the church will try to give away as much funding as possible to organizations it has supported in the past. The remainder, he said, will be placed into a foundation and disbursed in the future according to the church's instructions.
First, however, the church needs to close the sale of the property. Mixon declined to discuss the potential selling price or possible buyers, citing the sensitive nature of pending negotiations. He said the church is looking at a "variety of proposals," all of which would preserve the building as a religious institution.
While Mixon declined to discuss the status of negotiations, minutes from church meetings obtained by the Weekly indicate that one interested prospect is Sympara, a North Carolina-based community with a mission of "healing the world." Under terms that church leaders considered over the summer, Sympara would rent the church from a foundation that would be set up by the buyer of the property. It would then work with neighbors to establish a "sacred/civic space ministering to the neighborhood."
In recent months, the church has been evaluating business proposals from Daniel Pryfogle, a Baptist minister and marketer who heads the North Carolina-based consulting firm Signal Hill and who founded Sympara. After submitting several business plans earlier this year, Pryfogle has reportedly been trying to negotiate a sale with the potential unnamed buyer. The church also allocated $90,000 to Sympara in July so that Sympara can develop its programming for the church, which would be its first physical location. Parishioners agreed to reassess Sympara's proposal in December, at which time they will consider providing an additional $410,000 (the minutes did not specify what those funds would be used for).
According to the church minutes, negotiations between Pryfogle and the potential buyer slowed down in September but were set to resume in early October. (Pryfogle declined to comment for this article, also citing pending negotiations.)
Mixon told the Weekly on Thursday that the church is seeking to ensure that the various nonprofits, therapists and community groups that currently rent space at First Baptist will be able to remain. The tenants include the girls chorus iSing, as well as therapists, counselors, dance groups and a Persian-language instructor.
"We're trying to figure out a way where current partners who love being in the building and make use of the space will be able to stay," Mixon said.
The topic of who can rent space at the church became a community flashpoint about two years ago, when the city was besieged by complaints from neighborhood residents concerned about the noise and traffic created by church activities. One prior tenant, the New Mozart School of Music, left the church after the city's code-enforcement staff deemed it to be in violation with local zoning law, which they argued does not allow music schools in residential neighborhoods. (The school moved to another location in Palo Alto, the College Terrace Centre.)
The conflict was largely resolved in May 2018, when the council approved a conditional-use permit that designates the church as a "community center." While the permit allows the church to continue to rent out its space for secular uses, it also established hours of operation (10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.) and created an occupancy limit of 70 people with exceptions for special events, up to six of which can be held annually.
Mixon called the restrictions "ill-conceived" and "unreasonable."
"It curtails what can happen at the church in ways that are just ridiculous," he said, citing a requirement that tenants be nonprofits (the permit does carve out an exception for up to five therapists).
But while the church's recent battle with the neighbors and the city over permitted uses was a factor in its decision to close, it was not a determinative factor, Mixon said.
"We had to face the writing on the wall," he said.
With the church's operation winding down, leaders of other congregations and parishioners expressed their sadness and gratitude in letters to the First Baptist. Cindy Sojourner, a former church member, wrote that she hopes the congregants find "new spiritual homes to nourish you up and lift you up," according to excerpts printed in the August edition of "The Spire," a First Baptist Church newsletter. Doug Donley, a pastor in Minneapolis, offered his thanks for the "impacts this great church has had in Palo Alto and across the world."
The process of closing has been "emotional," Mixon said.
"There's a whole range of feelings. We've had people for whom this congregation has been central to their lives for 60 years or more. To let that go is enormous," Mixon said.
Even so, people have accepted that closing the church is the rational thing to do, particularly in light of the report's conclusion. While the transition has inspired a wide range of feelings, including sadness and anger, there was also a wide sense of relief after the parish decided to start winding down the church's operations.
"People have been feeling the burden of trying to keep it going for some time," Mixon said.