About 900 people came to witness the final service Sunday at North Heights Lutheran in Arden Hills, a former megachurch with a 69-year history that once boasted more than 7,000 members.
There was no sermon at the hourlong service, only songs and hymns and Bible readings. There was no direct mention, either, that next week the doors will be locked and the vast parking lot will be empty. The only hint that it was the end came as associate pastor Steve Wiese led the congregation in a reading from Ecclesiastes 3:2:
"[There is] a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot … a time to tear and a time to mend."
There were, however, a lot of tears among people who filled the 1,350-seat sanctuary and an abundance of hugs for interim senior pastor Mindy Bak and Wiese after the service concluded.
North Heights Lutheran has been in a "downward death spiral" for more than a decade due to a bloated staff, overbuilding, exaggerated membership numbers and expenses far outweighing income, Bak said.
Bak, interim senior pastor the past two years, has worked for North Heights since 2007.
North Heights splintered into two factions in recent years, most dramatically so after Bak and the church council closed the Roseville location last summer and laid off half the staff.
The breakaway group, whose leaders call themselves bondservants and which claims more than 1,000 members, pulled their financial support after the Roseville closing.
There has been no shortage of hostility since. Some dissenters have posted allegations on a blog, calling Bak a "man-hater" and accusing church leaders of being deceptive and even "satanic."
Gene Glaeser, a bondservant, said the website is not run by the breakaway group.
"We know who it is, and we've asked them to cease and desist because we don't want to be involved in that," he said.
But Glaeser refused to discuss the church schism. "From the beginning, we have stated that we will not speak to anyone in the paper or on television about this, because we believe it is a spiritual matter and we believe it is an internal matter for the church to handle on its own," he said.
Bak said dissenters with bullhorns have interrupted past services, and there was talk on social media about marches around the church and dissension in the congregation on Sunday.
"A number of people reached out and told them to stand down," Bak said. "Their own inside circle sent out an e-mail quite late in the day [Saturday] saying the media would be there, so behave yourself. Civil behavior prevailed."
Jeff Taylor, principal of North Heights Christian Academy in Roseville, and school board chairman Tim Plath didn't want to talk about the church closing but did want to stress that the pre-K through 8 school and its preschool and day care will continue in the next school year.
"The school is hopeful the church can renew and regenerate," Plath said.
Bak said the Arden Hills campus — complete with basketball and racquetball courts and classrooms — was built in 1986 as part of the megachurch movement in hopes of growing membership, but instead the opposite occurred. Even then, she said, there were two churches, with different values and different ways to worship.
Prejudice, sexism and scapegoating all played a role in the church's downfall, Bak said. Members of the breakaway group didn't want a female leader, Bak said, particularly one that didn't shy away from issues that predecessors had refused to address. They didn't want to hear about the prejudices of North Heights or the truth about its finances, she said. Nor did they want to embrace her message that to love Christ you must love even those people who are challenging to love.
A sign in the church hall read, in part, "Throughout our history, many grew to be the followers of Jesus we were called to be. But our willingness to love one another, in spite of division, never came. For decades upon decades, selfishness and pride have brought us to this place of self-destruction. We are a cautionary tale of a dying church."
Brenda Lindner, who attended the final service, said she doesn't agree. "The people don't want to leave," she said, pointing to the line of people waiting to hug Bak and Wiese. "There is love here. It breaks my heart. It really does."