Rebirth amid 'anxiety and loss'
Written by Jeff Woodard
February - March 2007
March 1, 2007

Completely destroyed by fire in 2004, Redeemer UCC reclaims its 'alleluia'

Two-and-a-half years in the making, the first alleluias in a "season of dedication" were raised on Nov. 5 at Redeemer UCC in Sussex, Wis.

"It proved to be a real high for me," said the Rev. Robert Ullman, whose congregation weathered an extreme test of faith. The church was destroyed by fire on March 12, 2004 - just 11 days after Ullman and his wife began a planned three-month sabbatical in Hawaii.

"I think the idea of having a season of dedication rather than just a day has been important," said Ullman a week before the dedication. "With every event - worship, weddings, memorial services, concerts, anti-racism training, dances of universal peace - the building is absorbing more of the memories of our life together and thereby is being set apart and consecrated for things holy. I find that a profound blessing."

The cause of the fire is officially "of undetermined origin." Investigators suspect electrical malfunction, but never pinpointed the exact source. Demonstrating an enduring sense of humor, Ullman noted, "The good thing is, they didn't call it an act of God."

Upon learning of the fire, Ullman instinctively wanted to return home. Lay leaders, however, encouraged him to stay in Hawaii for a while, so he did. "The leadership of the church stepped up to the plate during the crisis and carried the thing when I wasn't there," said Ullman, pastor for more than 24 years.

"Right now I'd say we're exhausted but tenacious. I've just been astounded. The lay leaders are all volunteers. They don't have to do any of it, and they've done it with grace and dedication," he said.

'How can we help?'

In a seemingly surreal scenario, lay leaders had planned to meet on March 13, 2004, to discuss procedures during the pastor's absence. Instead, on March 13 - with smoke still rising from the ashes of the destroyed building - they met at the public library. A meeting initially expected to draw 20 to 25 people swelled to three times that size.

"There were other clergy from the community, the fire chief who led the fight against the fire, and the town chairman," said Ullman. "They were all asking, 'What can we do for you? How can we help?' Our leaders didn't realize the level of support they had until the crisis. An [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] church offered their space, and we received all this support from the wider church, from the community. We were really moved by that."

During the ensuing summer months, services and fellowship hours were held under a large canopy in the church parking lot. "We talked about the things our people really liked about the old building, and what could have been better," said Ullman. "We had a chance to start fresh. That proved helpful in terms of the architectural things that were important to us."

While Ullman and parishioners appreciated the ELCA church's hosting offer, such a setup would have entailed noontime services. Instead, Redeemer worked out an agreement to make Hamilton High School its temporary home. Worship was initially held in the school's theater, but later moved to the gymnasium and, finally, to the cafeteria.

"A theater is a place where the lights are dim, and gymnasiums are for people to jump up and down and scream," said Ullman. "Neither is conducive to leading a service. We had enough space in the cafeteria, although the chairs had to be set up near the makeshift altar up front, and tables were set up in the back. Kids would bring their coloring books, and it was sort of a free-for-all with people milling around."

A long, winding road

The psychological setback of Redeemer's immeasurable loss was compounded by unexpected economical fallout.

"We had roughly half the insurance coverage we needed," said Kim Olson, building committee chairman for the new church. "It put us in a real bad spot."

Olson said terms of the insurance policy called for the property owner - not the insurance company - to set the policy value. "Even though we had replacement insurance, we were blindsided by the fact that we didn't know our value," she said.

A portion of the policy cited "increased cost of instruction" - for example, stricter changes in code that weren't in place when the previous building had been constructed.

"The architect and general contractor had to gather facts and do extra work on the code changes, and the insurance company wouldn't pay out anything until the entire project was done," Olson said.

Insurance claims took more than two years to settle, and the church needed every bit of the $500,000 pledged by parishioners to rebuild the church.

"It forced us to take many leaps of faith - assuming that people would honor their pledges and assuming growth of membership," said Olson, "not just to meet current congregational needs, but big-picture needs as well."

Consensus amid crisis

A key in providing focus was Linda Graebner-Smith, who at the time of the fire served in the consensus-building role of congregation moderator at the time of the fire.

"We had nine teams in place to take care of outreach," said Graebner-Smith, alluding to initial disaster response. "We recruited leaders for each team and for the strategic board. I have a background in design, architecture and real estate. By the grace of God, we not only networked as a community without a building, we also had a wide, deep network of contract builders, architects and consultants available."

A crisis consultant was hired to help reorganize and prioritize. "We had to optimize the work of ministry teams to address our nomadic lifestyle," said Graebner-Smith. An ad hoc leadership team developed a list of architects and builders, and "Requests for Proposals" (RFPs) were sought. Additional teams were quickly formed: an executive building committee; "process people" to deal with the long-term responsibility of overseeing the RFP process and the building; a fund-raising team; and a construction plan and review committee.

At the same time, the effort to keep morale on solid ground proved as crucial as the physical foundation of the new church.

"This was all happening in the midst of intense anxiety and loss," said Graebner-Smith. "After the leaders met and established priorities, there was a spiraling down to low energy and anxiety. It was quite a challenge to make sure our leaders were taken care of so they could be walking ahead of everyone and those tasks - to pull those who experienced such loss and sadness along with us, even though some of them may not have agreed with the decisions being made."

Graebner-Smith singled out autumn 2004 as a particularly trying time, after architects and builders had been chosen.

"I felt that the church could have been torn apart at that time," Graebner-Smith said. "We lost some people then because they couldn't handle the process without having a sense of place. As soon as we opened the doors again, many of them came back."

Focused anew on outreach

At the time of the fire, Redeemer membership exceeded 400, with a weekly average attendance of about 200, said Ullman. During the lowest points in the rebuilding, attendance dipped to about 125. "Now we're back up to 175 or so at weekly services. Now we're not focused on a building, but on ministry and outreach."

Graebner-Smith likened church members' sense of emptiness to being in "that kind of desert place where you have the freedom to develop the most creative ideas. We'd been in the desert, and now instead of doing things the way we'd always done them, we have another way to look at it."

The new facility contains stone reclaimed from the old building, and the light-filled, 400-seat sanctuary is flanked on either side by classrooms and storage. A functional design allows for a prospective "phase 2" - an expansion that would provide a 600-seat sanctuary, additional classrooms and a commercial kitchen.

Throughout all the heartache and headaches, the Stillspeaking Initiative served as a reliable rock for Redeemer.

"When you experience this kind of disruption, you realize that God is still speaking, whether you have a roof over your head or not," said Ullman. "I preach from the lectionary almost always, and that whole year following the fire, the number of scriptures referring to fire was almost uncanny. People finally said to me, 'Could you stop talking about fire?' Talk about a Stillspeaking God!"

Jeff Woodard, a freelance writer and United Church News contributor, is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland. 

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Rev. J. Bennett Guess
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700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
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