Low attendance numbers force Wakonda UCC to suspend services

WAKONDA — The United Church of Christ, Congregational Church in Wakonda will suspend regular Sunday services until further notice, church officials announced this week.

In a press release issued Monday, the Rev. Elaine Miller wrote, "The Wakonda United Church of Christ, Congregational, will gather for a final regular worship service on Sunday, July 25 at 9 a.m. We will honor the church's history and celebrate Holy Communion together. A fellowship time will follow worship."

But church officials are unsure of the official status of the UCC church in Wakonda.

"I don't know whether we're going to completely disappear or we're on vacation," said Jim Williams, one trustee of the church. "It's a very gray area."

"We kind of don't have any choice right now. We've either got to grow or quit to pay those bills. It's tough. It's really tough," he added.

For a regular Sunday service, the UCC church attracts only five to 10 members. The youngest members are in their 50s and 60s.

"That doesn't make for a Sunday school," Williams said.

"One person is gone and we just don't have anybody," he added. "We've got a town of 300 people with four Protestant churches and a Catholic church. I don't know the percentage of people who go to church nationally, but you put that in 300 and split it four ways. Wow."

Joann Ganschow, a member of the Wakonda UCC church since 1955, said the whole congregation knew the church's regular Sunday services would, one day, be suspended.

"It's very, very sad to have to do this," she said. "Our membership has remained in the elderly people and we're losing them. Some of them are moving to the nursing home and we just cannot keep going with such a few number of people."

The dwindling number of members and the growing financial difficulties have been about 20 years in the making.

"My family goes back to day one at the church 126 years ago, so it's a bitter pill for me to swallow," Williams said.

The decision to stop holding regular Sunday services came in combination with Miller ending her pastoral duties in Wakonda. Miller has served in Wakonda for five years, while also serving as the Vermillion UCC assistant pastor.

"There were four or five people in worship most of this last winter and spring," she said. "It's not possible for them to support a pastor, such as myself, or pay the bills."

Williams said, "Elaine drew the line as to when it was going to happen. Elaine's leaving put a spot on a calendar that says today, we will do it. It's been talk for some time."

While Miller will continue her assistant pastoral duties in Vermillion, she will serve Wakonda only in special circumstances such as funerals, she said. Her final day as pastor at the Wakonda UCC church is July 31.

"It's been coming on and we tried to grow with Elaine, and there's just no people around to draw from. The people who already go to church are already where they want to be," Williams said.

UCC trustee Charlie Stockland said lay ministers have offered help, and one trustee has talked to some young pastors just out of seminary.

"Just because the pastor is leaving doesn't mean the church is closing," he added.

Williams is unsure, however, where his family and other current Wakonda UCC members will go from here.

"We will attend church, probably, at the other Protestant churches," he said. "Some of those may come to Yankton, go to Vermillion. I don't know."

Phyllis Christiansen, a Yankton resident and 55-year member of the Wakonda church, said the congregation needs more time to make a decision.

"It's really a difficult thing to close your church," she said.

Christiansen, who was married in the Yankton United Church of Christ Church, started going to the Wakonda church when she moved to a farm with her husband west of town. One of their kids was confirmed there. She was the organist for the last 15 years.

Christiansen, and others with long ties to Wakonda's church, are trying to stay positive, despite many unanswered questions.

"Just hope for the best," she said.

While she intends on continuing her membership at the Wakonda church, Christiansen will probably go to the Yankton UCC church for the time being, she said.

Ganschow said she will also keep her membership with the Wakonda church.

"I like the United Church of Christ. There's a small one in Centerville and I'm thinking, while the weather holds, I might just drive to Centerville for now," Ganschow said. "There's another lady in town interested in going with me."

While this announcement has brought up several questions for the UCC church and the Wakonda community, some future plans have been set.

"We will continue to pay for the utilities and insurance from this point," Williams said. "There was some talk of taking (the church) down immediately, but that is definitely too fast."

"We will continue to contribute to the church even though we're not meeting regularly on Sunday. There's a few of us that are just going to have to step up," he added.

Utilities and insurance for both the church and the Parish Hall cost $400-$500 a month, Williams said.

A community Christian education program, which is held in the UCC Parish Hall, will continue meeting on Wednesday nights during the academic school year, at least through the next year.

Ruth Williams, one of the founding mothers of the "Kids Under Construction" school program said all five churches in Wakonda will continue their support to ensure the school keeps going, too.

"They send their children there and they (provide) support financially, and the church community provides meals for these kids every week," she said.

The school, which just finished its fifth year, runs from mid-September to mid-May and hosts between 20-40 kids. The school includes a light supper, music, crafts and Bible lessons.

Each church in Wakonda sponsors school meals on a rotating basis. Even though the UCC church will be in limbo for a year, Ruth thinks church members will still provide meals for their designated nights.

"I'm pretty sure I will continue to provide at least one meal a year, maybe two," she said. "I can't really speak for others, but I wouldn't be surprised if there might be another individual or two from our group who might continue to do a meal, too."

The Board of Trustees has also decided to keep the UCC church's artifacts, like a bell that was cast in the early 1900s and memorial windows, in the church at least for the next year.

"It's just going to stay the way it is," Williams said of the church and its belongings.

The church probably will be open for holidays and special events, too, church officials added.

While the Wakonda UCC church members still have many unanswered questions and options to explore for their future, the church's Board of Trustees plans to meet every three months for the next year. An all-congregation meeting is set for May 2011.

"We're talking of closing, but that's kind of a tough term. We may close, yes we may, but right now we're on vacation to evaluation our situation and see what happens," Williams said.

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