By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Glenn Gerber first joined Grace Lutheran Church in Niskayuna 50 years ago, the pews were full with 150 or more people each week. Now, the church is lucky to draw 25. Fewer members means financial gifts are infrequent, and the sizeable endowment fund that was once used only for charity is at risk.
“We’ve been using that lately now to pay our bills because we don’t have offerings to pay our expenses,” said Gerber, who manages the church’s finances. “That’s part of the reason we decided to close sooner rather than later.”
In the past decade, Grace Lutheran Church sponsored four Schenectady homes through Habitat for Humanity and gave grants worth tens of thousands of dollars to local service organizations. Its members have supported local charities such as the Salvation Army, Bethesda House, and the Schenectady Inner City Ministry. Jo Ann Koenig, a member of Grace Lutheran for 35 years, said a large factor in the closing is the church’s current inability to make financial contributions to the community.
“We don’t want to bring that endowment fund down to zero just so we can worship twenty people on a Sunday morning,” Koenig said. “We want to stop the bleeding and hopefully keep our endowment fund intact so we can continue to fund grants going forward.”
Pending a zoning change, Columbia Development will buy the church for $410,000 later this year. Profits from the sale of the church will be used to replenish the endowment fund. Beyond that, the group plans to donate any excess money in a lump sum to a local charity.
On Saturday, May 10, the church held its final service, which kept the focus on ministry: canned goods and donations were collected as usual. Grace Lutheran’s Pastor, Dan Hahn, said the gathering kept a positive tone. “It’s not a funeral, but a celebration,” he said. Over 150 individuals, including church leaders past and present, attended the four-hour gathering.
Many members have already embraced their new worship space, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Clifton Park. Koenig estimated close to 80 percent of Grace’s current members would make the move, and said many had already begun to do so.
Although the merger isn’t official yet, Prince of Peace pastor Jeff Silvernail said about 20 families switched churches three months ago, when the decision to close Grace was announced.
Silvernail said he’s looking forward to learning from the Grace community’s expertise in charity work. “Of course it’s always nice to see new people, but they really bring a passion for ministry to the community,” he said. “It’s something we’d like to do, but we’ve never been able to do it as effectively as we wanted to. In many ways, the small Grace community has connected better with the Schenectady community than we ever have.”
Koenig said she, like others at Grace, is embracing her new community. But she hopes even after the place where she worshipped for 35 years is replaced with something new, the congregation’s mission will live on in a special way. The endowment fund will be transferred, but will keep its name.
“It’ll say Grace Ministries, forever, hopefully, so they’ll always have a legacy of Grace at Prince of Peace,” said Koenig. “It was always about the outreach.”