Helping ‘a beacon’ shine on

Several local people of faith the past few years have mentioned that North Christian Church’s soaring 192-foot needle-like spire helps their spirit soar as well when they look upon it.

But who will help the 51-year-old celebrated structure remain such a symbol of spiritual heights?

A Sacred Places Indiana three-year pilot project wants to be one of those helpers — and already has reached out a stabilizing hand to the church with attendance and financial support significantly less than in its 300-plus-members heyday. North Christian, designed by world-renown Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, is among 10 Indiana churches participating in Sacred Places’ New Dollars/New Partners initiative.

The program will train church leaders to address elements ranging from physical facilities upkeep to grant applications and capital campaigns.

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David Frederick, director of the Indianapolis-based Sacred Places Indiana, had his first meeting in November with a five-member North Christian leadership team. Three more meetings will unfold this year, giving the team wide-ranging expertise to nudge the church to greater health and firm future footing.

“We want to find ways to help struggling congregations be open-minded and innovative so they can stay in their historic building,” Frederick said.

The architectural leader frequently has pointed out that worshippers generally are no longer flocking to historic churches in the numbers that they once did, thereby creating a preservation problem.

Currently, the local church’s leadership is crafting a lengthy case statement. That will include its history, impact to the community and hope for future, Frederick said.

The recent first meeting covered that topic. Upcoming ones will address issues such as fundraising and reaching out to the community to use North Christian during the its weekday downtime for a range of purposes.

The Rev. Cheryl Cloar, new North Christian pastor installed in September, is optimistic that the process can strengthen the congregation — and correct inaccurate perceptions she occasionally hears.

“We’re certainly not as desperate or as destitute as some people in the community might have you believe,” said Terry Shaw, vice chairman of North Christian’s board. “We are alive and well.”

Leaders say they are working on ways to remain alive and grow stronger.

“One of the many things I’m excited about is that this program will better help us tell our story and finding new ways to engage the community,” Cloar said.

North Christian boasts a track record of engaging the community. It was among congregations that led the formation years ago of the Ecumenical Assembly of Bartholomew County Churches, which birthed Love Chapel outreach, now feeding 1,200 needy local families monthly. In the past decade or more, it also has hosted a variety of nationally touring speakers addressing topics ranging from apartheid to homosexuality.

Some of those presentations have attracted as many as 400 people, including attendees from a variety of other churches and those with no church affiliation.

Shaw has been a member for 35 years, and has found plenty to keep him involved.

“There’s always been an outlook and a feeling here of bringing people together,” Shaw said.

Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus, a new effort caring for and celebrating the city’s design heritage, sees North Christian “as a landmark that makes nearly every (architectural) textbook and one that clearly makes Columbus well known.”

He views the structure as greatly significant on a local, national and international level.

“Its value to the community is that it’s a kind a beacon for Columbus, signaling to the rest of the world that this place is very special,” McCoy said. “That signal relates to Columbus working with one of the world’s best architects in Eero Saarinen and one of the world’s best landscape architects in Dan Kiley and working with one of the world’s best interior designers in Alexander Girard while all were at the peak of their powers and career.”

McCoy worked with others during a cleanup day on North Christian’s 14-acre grounds last summer. Volunteers came to help “as part of being a good neighbor,” he said. “Religion wasn’t really a part of it.”

For example, McCoy pointed out that he is not a member of the church. So he hopes others will see the structure’s value far beyond its spiritual base that Saarinen designed it to serve.

“Neighborhoods and communities suffer when something like a church or school closes,” Frederick said.

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Part of Sacred Places Indiana’s expertise and assistance for North Christian Church includes the opportunity for church leaders to apply for a $5,000 planning grant and a $25,000 capital grant, according to David Frederick.

He’s director of Sacred Places Indiana.

“Those are meant to be leveraging gifts,” Frederick said. “We know that people give to success — not just mere need.”

One other avenue for more financial support: former members now living elsewhere. Terry Shaw, vice chairman of the church’s board, said he recently realized that the church has not thought to include former members, such as now-grown children shaped by North Christian, in recent capital campaigns.

“Many of them do still feel a strong allegiance to North Christian,” Shaw said, referring even to his own children living elsewhere. “That’s just one example of what we can do to reach out to people a little more broadly. Because lots of people no longer sitting with us on Sundays do still care very much about this place.”