Since it was built in 1924, Lyndale United Church of Christ has served as a spiritual home in south Minneapolis, but one that was becoming more difficult to care for.

While the church's lovely stained-glass windows and soaring sanctuary ceiling could inspire, its astronomical heating and maintenance bills had become a burden on the small congregation's modest budget. Three blocks away, the Salem English Lutheran Church had similar problems, as its back wall had bowed noticeably from the 1904 structure's foundation.

The pastors of both churches, Lyndale UCC's Don Portwood and Salem's Jen Nagel, began discussing their shared problem of maintaining aging and inefficient structures, the same sort of quandary many businesses face in a down economy. Eventually, Pastor Bob Brite, who presides over the barn-sized First Christian Church about a mile away, joined in the conversation.

Their solution, several years in the making, was novel, yet practical as well.

The churches worship in separate sanctuaries within one cost-effective and energy-efficient building, called the SpringHouse Ministry Center. Actually, it's the old Salem Lutheran church at W. 28th Street and Lyndale Avenue S., which underwent a $4.2 million renovation, thanks to an infusion of about $1.4 million from each congregation.

"It took a lot of holy imagination," Nagel said. "We didn't know where we were going or what would happen."

The churches' process embraced equal doses of faith and real estate savvy. The overall project resulted in 63 affordable apartments and retail shops in a lot just off Lyndale that was once part of the Salem complex. It was sold to help with the church renovation.

"It's interesting that these three congregations came together to rethink the way their individual congregations work," said Jeanne Halgren Kilde, a professor of religious studies at the University of Minnesota. "You can create stronger bonds through a close spatial partnership. ... There have always been congregations that would help each other out in times of crisis, but this seems much more permanent."

The story played out at a time when many aging urban churches across the country are facing similar challenges. It's a difficult trend to quantify. Some congregations merge as a result. Others shut down. In 2010, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced that it was closing 21 churches because of budgetary concerns, shifting demographics and a shortage of priests.

Even when churches are repurposed into condos, restaurants or developed in other ways, the process can prove painful. When a developer announced plans last year to tear down the University Lutheran Chapel in Dinkytown to make way for an apartment complex, the project provoked an emotional response.

The process wasn't easy, the three pastors acknowledge.

"My congregation had low expectations," Portwood recalled with a laugh. "They said, 'Oh, you're renovating an old Lutheran church.' But it came out so much better than anyone expected."

Location the key

The wiles of the local real estate market played a key role in the SpringHouse story, too.

As Salem's wall began sagging, its monthly heating bills at times reached $11,000 a month while its congregation dwindled to about 60 worshipers. The church moved into Lyndale UCC's space in 2006. In the meantime, the old Salem structure was boarded up.

Salem decided to sell a portion of its site to a developer for affordable living space and then use the proceeds to renovate the old Lutheran church for the two congregations, a project that included a common area, a fellowship hall, commercial kitchen, space for a Sunday school, offices and classrooms.

"We had no idea if any developer would be interested," Nagel said.

But Minneapolis-based Brighton Development, which is known for developing urban sites such as the North Star Lofts and Washburn Lofts along the Minneapolis waterfront, signed on to the project in 2007.

"There aren't a lot of projects out there like it," said Brighton's Mark Lucas.

Brighton was able to partner with U.S. Bancorp to finance the apartment project using low-income housing tax credits, a federal program that offers incentives to build affordable housing. Almost all of the Greenleaf apartments are now leased, and Lucas said he's close to renting the ground-floor retail and restaurant space.

The mixed-use complex along Lyndale Avenue is an increasingly desirable location in real estate terms since it's close to the Midtown bike greenway, restaurants, theaters and a proposed Trader Joe's grocery store.

"The key to this was location," Lucas said. "If [Salem] had been two blocks from here in either direction, it wouldn't have worked."

In early 2008, Lyndale UCC put its church at W. 31st Street and Aldrich Avenue S. on the market, with the idea of taking the proceeds from the sale and plying them into the Salem restoration. The New Wine Church, a Pentecostal congregation with many African immigrants, bought the building. But when the stock market collapsed, Lyndale UCC had to lend the St. Paul church $120,000 to cement the sale.

Social justice mission

By 2010, the two pastors began to talk seriously with Brite, of First Christian Church, at E. 22nd Street and 1st Avenue S., about a possible partnership.

Brite presided over a small congregation of perhaps about 70 that had sold its gargantuan Prairie-style church and 60-bed nursing home to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for about $4 million. (An MIA spokeswoman said the museum doesn't yet know what it will do with the FCC complex.)

"Our central hallway is a block and a half long," Brite said. "The expense was just killing our ministry."

Brite discovered that his congregation shared the same social justice mission with Salem and Lyndale UCC, and was delighted to join the SpringHouse Ministry Center partnership.

Today, each sanctuary in the new center is distinct, and their use will rotate among the churches. The space facing W. 28th Street features Salem's rehabbed stained-glass windows and chandeliers. In the back sanctuary, a cross from First Christian Church is suspended from the ceiling, and the feel is more intimate. A third area of worship is on the building's garden level.

The three churches held an open house recently, and several hundred members of their congregations, neighbors, and city officials stopped by to celebrate.

"It was quite emotional for all of us," Nagel said.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752