June 1, 2017

Standing tall: Working with MIF helps a Houston congregation build on an enduring foundation

Since holding its first service in June 1945 and moving into its own building four years later, Christ the King Lutheran Church has been a vibrant presence in southwest Houston, Texas. Sitting inside the city’s beltway, on the edge of the Rice University campus, Christ the King Church counts numerous members of the Rice faculty and staff among its congregation as well as many who work at the nearby Texas Medical Center.

But not all of the members come from the immediate vicinity. “We have members who commute 20 or 25 miles to church,” says Congregation Council President Carolyn Phillips, “and they’re regular members, singers in the choir and active in their ministries.”

The church is active on many fronts. As host church for the Houston Lutheran Campus Ministry, for example, Christ the King Church offers young people from Rice and the University of Houston an open, welcoming community and a supportive place to explore their faith. Interim Campus Pastor Janelle Hooper calls the congregation “an invaluable partner.” In short, for the people of southwest Houston and beyond, Christ the King Lutheran Church has stood tall.

The church building was another matter, however.

In recent years, Phillips said, cracks had begun to appear in the nave, which had been added to the original church building more than 30 years ago. “At first we thought it was a foundation issue,” Phillips says, “but it was really a wind-load issue.” Architects who had done previous work for Christ the King Church put the congregation in touch with engineers in the hope they could pinpoint the problem and offer a solution. What the engineers found was more problematic than anyone expected.

“We found there were construction deficits in the building,” Phillips says, “including concrete block walls that lacked any rebar or steel reinforcement. We had to try to figure out how we could make the church healthy again, in construction terms, without totally tearing it apart.”

Cost estimates far exceeded the church’s resources, yet the congregation didn’t want to wait to mount a capital campaign before beginning the work, fearing the cracks would worsen. When a group of church leaders met Mission Investment Fund Regional Manager Pam Dorman at a synodical conference, a plan began taking shape.

“We laid out the idea of a capital campaign for a future date, and MIF agreed to provide a loan up front,” Phillips says. “Then we started both the campaign and the reconstruction project.”

While repair of structural flaws was the centerpiece of the project, MIF’s loan enabled Christ the King Church to substantially rebuild the nave. Walls were skim-coated and reinforced with steel supports that matched the church’s magnificent wooden beams. New flooring was installed. A low archway at the back of the church was removed, dramatically opening up the interior space.

And then, one other pressing need was addressed.

“As an urban church, we were in desperate, desperate need of more parking,” Phillips says. “A few years back, we had managed to trade some property with Rice University, so we gained 40 or 50 feet of depth behind the church. When the whole construction project got going and we knew we’d have the engineers in, we decided to make it a more complete project and finish the parking lot.”

The parking lot construction posed challenges of its own, including an extended period of torrential rains as well as the discovery of several buried gas pipes that hadn’t appeared on any plans or surveys. “That slowed things down a bit,” Phillips says.

Having a first-rate contractor helped keep the congregation’s project moving in the right direction. Having the Mission Investment Fund in their corner helped as well.

“We had explored local banks for a prior loan,” Phillips says. “We knew what they were willing to offer and what their requirements were. MIF’s requirements were easier, the costs were a bit lower, and they certainly understood how to work with a church.

“MIF was very supportive all along the way.”

Even casual observers can spot the telltale sign that something special is happening at Christ the King Lutheran Church on the first Sunday of each November: The bicycle rack is full.

That’s because once a year, on the same Sunday morning, the congregation observes its annual Bike to Church/Alternative Transportation Day. “We don’t keep track of how everyone gets to church,” says Lisa Brenskelle, who heads both the congregation’s Creation Care team and the Lutherans Restoring Creation initiative for her synod, “but people do come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I took the bus to church this morning.’ Plus there’s the guy who comes in on his rollerblades.”

This church’s commitment to caring for God’s creation runs much deeper than sponsoring that one annual event, however. The synod, the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, was one of the initial synods selected to form a Lutherans Restoring Creation team when the ELCA kicked off the initiative in 2010.

“The idea was that the synod would serve as the resource to the congregations in their efforts to care for creation,” Brenskelle recalls. “I said, ‘Maybe I can start a team in my own church.’” In the spring of 2011, Christ the King Church’s Creation Care team held its first meeting.

The church’s calendar now includes a litany of green events with a heavy focus on education. Congregants have opportunities to plant plants in local parks, take part in group nature outings, and learn about stewardship of the natural world in general. And the Creation Care team is regularly looking at ways to positively in uence how Christ the King Church operates its building and grounds.

The church also achieved the distinction of becoming the first in Houston and one of the first two churches in all of Texas to pursue GreenFaith certification. GreenFaith is an interfaith program that certifies houses of worship that meet standards in areas such as worship, education, and public ministry and advocacy.

“Having to fulll the requirements for the certification really instilled good structure for us and good habits,” Brenskelle says. “Now we just carry those forward.”