Rev. Mart Salumäe. Photo: Peeter Põldre
Friday, 02 October 2020 19:00
Estonian Life No. 39 2020
On September 27, 2020 a plenary meeting of the EELC St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto was held, which was important for the future of our congregation. The situation in which we are currently living and trying to sustain the life of the church and our congregation, is critical.
The elected Board of Directors (Executive) fully shares the sadness felt by all members of our congregation, and certainly by many outside the congregation. With an unknown future, we share in the sorrow and anxiety of every person who has contributed to the creation of our church building and congregation, and who have many memories spanning over 60 years.
The unfortunate reality is that the most active sector of the church membership is getting older and shrinking. In the last ten years, 465 church members have passed away. Our current total membership is 1,466; of those, only 252 households made donations in 2019 and more than half of this donor group is in the 70+ age group.
To manage the church building, 400-500 households would need to be added as permanent donors and donating $300 per person to the congregation each year. For the past five years, we have been able to maintain our church building, largely thanks to the Salvation Army, which pays $96,000 in rent each year; however, as this is a one year renewable lease, there are no guarantees their ongoing commitment.
We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. No one does. The decisions that needed to be reached could not wait that long and we made the tough decision to hold the meeting when we did, taking every possible precaution into account. As the number of people attending the meeting was not allowed to exceed 50 people (current COVID-19 restrictions) it was also necessary to create an opportunity for all other members to participate virtually. A total of 93 members of the congregation took part in the meeting; 48 in person, 45 online. Given that we have 252 voting members, attendance was the highest in recent years. COVID safety restrictions (temperature check, masks, social distancing) were enforced by the Executive.
The Assembly adopted a new congregation statute that is consistent with the statutes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and the requirements for congregation statutes in Canada. The amendment to the Articles of Association received more than the required 2/3 of the votes in favor. Several questions and suggestions were presented at the meeting, for example, on the unification of the two Estonian-speaking Lutheran congregations operating in Toronto. The revision and approval of the statutes was an important step in creating a common legal and doctrinal opportunity to now pursue such discussions.
The rumour circulating that St. Peter's Church had already been sold is false.
The only sustainable way to currently continue the church congregation for more than 3-4 years is for the Assembly to authorize the Executive to look for a buyer for the church property. A vote took place, as a result of which 73% of the voting members supported the mandate of the Executive to prepare for this difficult but inevitable step. This was not a vote to sell the church. Moving forward, if there is a bidder whose terms of purchase are acceptable, the Executive will submit it to the Assembly for approval. Final decisions, including not selling, can only be made by the Assembly of voting members.
The question of the future of the church and congregation has been brought up at every Council and Assembly meeting for the past decade. Recommended donation levels have been put forward in order to try to mitigate the financial drain but donating to the Church has always been voluntary. Those who have been concerned about the future of the Church have donated often and generously. The finances have been reviewed constantly and mention has been made at each meeting of the path to the future we have been on. For this to be a surprise to many is not the fault of the Council, Executive or the pastors of the time. Those who have been disinterested, apathetic, inactive, or simply oblivious might be surprised by what is transpiring, but that is not the fault of the Church.
Just before and during the Assembly session, we have received offers of assistance from several competent individuals to discuss opportunities that could significantly improve the economic performance of the church without the sale of the church. We have seen how, in the run-up to this Assembly meeting, some people who were not among the donors for several years restored their supportive relationship with the church, and we encourage all to come forward with not only their suggestions, but in taking the lead to help us move forward on those ideas.
We are aware, that a group of people acted, without seeking to partner with either the Council or Executive, to get St. Peter's Church under heritage protection. We do not deny them this; however, applying to declare this building a heritage site will not save St. Peter's Church. Perhaps this will ensure that elements of the building are preserved but it will not create the required economic sustainability for the congregation to operate, maintain and repair an aging building. If anything, it will increase the costs, as the repair will need to be customized to meet specific standards. The result of such external intervention is that the congregation will be at the mercy of the City, which has no obligation to preserve the sacred function of the building or to have an interest in burying a foreign community on their property.
We are at a crossroads. If we choose to act on only emotions, our demise is just around the corner. If we act wisely, we can save our congregation and put ourselves on a path to recovery. It's entirely up to all of us.
EELC St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto