Sign of the times: 'For sale' outside local church

NORWOOD, OH (AP) - Now housed in a building larger than its dwindling congregation can afford, Norwood First United Methodist Church in suburban Cincinnati has a large "For sale" sign outside. It's a sign of the times for some older churches, amid demographic and population shifts.

"We have a lot of smaller churches that end up with buildings that are far too expensive to maintain," said Rev. Randy Stearns, superintendent of the Ohio River Valley District of the United Methodist Church, encompassing five counties in southwestern Ohio.

The 104-year-old Norwood church has been losing members as the surrounding community has seen its population decline since the closing of the local General Motors assembly plant in the late 1980s.

"When I started coming here in 1980, if you didn't get to the church service on time, you didn't get a seat," said Wilma Hensler, 83.

Now, however, the congregation numbers fewer than 40, down from more than 900 members recorded before World War II, said the pastor, Rev. Jeffrey Poynter.

Poynter and his flock want to move to an appropriately sized space, but first they must sell their huge church building while struggling to keep current on its bills. Toward that goal, an auction is scheduled for Tuesday to sell off church possessions including furniture, kitchen china and hand bells.

"It's kind of sad," said Hensler, the church trustee and treasurer. "We've done all we can to keep it going."

The Methodist district office would have to approve any sale of the church and its attached two-story annex, which includes a gym and small bowling alley. Within the last two years, two other Methodist churches in the southwest Ohio district - in South Lebanon and in Somerville - have closed because of low membership.

Pastor Poynter said he has faith that his congregation will find a new home where it can grow. And, Hensler is hopeful the magnificent church building will find new life, perhaps as a museum or arts center.

"That would be the answer to my prayers," she said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)