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Living Faith Presbyterian Church to close doors after more than 125 years

Helen Willoughby and Pastor Tom Masters at the living Faith Presbyterian Church, closing this month after more than 125 years in the community. - Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter
Helen Willoughby and Pastor Tom Masters at the living Faith Presbyterian Church, closing this month after more than 125 years in the community.
— image credit: Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter

On June 30, the first church ever established in Renton will hold its final service before closing forever.

First Presbyterian Church of Renton, started in 1885 and now called Living Faith Presbyterian Church, is closing, unable to build membership, fund  rising building costs and provide the amenities and experiences church staff want for their congregation.

“The reason we’re closing is not financial pressure, although, it gets to a point where it’s abusive to ask people to pour money into a building that is beyond their means to take care of,” said Rev. Tom Masters. “It’s more of the fact that for the health of the body of Christ, you want the adults to be able to meet new people that they can share their gifts with. And the new people can share with them and everybody can have a better fellowship and a more faithful expression in that body of Christ that way.”

Masters has been the pastor of the church for the last 20 months but was involved with the congregation many years prior.

2013 marks the church’s 128th year in Renton. The founding pastor was George Whitworth, a former University of Washington president and founder of Whitworth College in Spokane.

“It was started in December 1885 in the home of David Parker, but a church was built on the hill above the museum and dedicated in January 1886, “ said Elizabeth Stewart, Renton History Museum director. “The congregation stayed in the same church for 30 years, before George Custer built a brick church at 111 Main Ave. in 1924.”

The present church at 2640 Benson Road was built in 1960.

At one time the church was one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the greater Seattle area. In the 1960s membership grew to some 650 people and then shrank slightly in the 1980s. About 25 years ago, a split in ideology over the inclusion of women and gays in the ministry caused the congregation to fracture. About 400 of the 450 members left and started another church down the road.

With scant numbers of members ever since, it has been hard for the church to rebuild enough to attract and sustain new membership.

“At first, I was dead set against it,” said Helen Willoughby of the decision to close.

She has been a member for 29 years, raising both her children in the church.

“I was fighting tooth and nail,” she said, with a voice on the verge of tears. “I’m still sad, obviously, but I feel that this church has served its purpose and has prepared those of us here to go out now to other congregations, other places and share our gifts and the word.”

Willoughby still remembers when the congregation split and stayed because she felt strongly about women being allowed to hold office and lead worship. She called the pastor at the time very charismatic but also very traditional about the roles of men and women. Willoughby believes that God called women to minister just as much as men.

“So, I stayed here and it was really empty,” she said. “It’s a big sanctuary out there and when there’s only 28 people, you notice.”

Living Faith has been able to get new members here and there, about seven in recent years, but never climbed back to the numbers the church once had.

“When you go through change, change is hard,” said Masters. “Change is threatening. People react sometimes and given a few more years maybe they wouldn’t react the same. So, the church split; that’s old news. It’s not even sour grapes anymore because they’ve extended a hand of friendship and we have too. And both congregations are doing the best they can to meet the needs of their community.”

Living Faith has had success over the years, Willoughby and Masters said. The church has planted other churches, other Presbyterian churches have sprouted up around them, they supported a new pastor in Vietnam, local non-profit Vision House and just finished collecting funds to complete an orphanage in Tanzania. For many years the church has supported the Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse, and CROP Walk for the hungry.

Now deferred maintenance cost for the building have given members more motivation to move on.

“This building has completed its missional purpose,” said Masters. “It had a strong presence in this city from the time it was 300 members to now.”

Keeping the church now is not appropriate, he said.

“To hold on to this building, with changing demographics and a shrinking congregation, doesn’t honor the mission of the church,” Masters said. “It just makes an idol out of the building or an idol out of our small group.”

Now the members, who come from Renton and outside of the city, will find new church homes, presumably closer to home, Willoughby said.

All members new and old are invited back to Living Faith Presbyterian Church for the final service, which starts at 12:30 p.m., June 30. There will be a luncheon party until 2:30 p.m. At 2:45 p.m., Seattle Presbytery will have the final service to bless the space and close it down.

Currently a Latin American and Eastern European church also rent space in the building to hold services. The Presbytery has yet to decide what to do with the majority of space in the building, but the other congregation are expected to continue their use of the church.

For more information visit the church’s web site.

 

 

 

 

 

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